Social Breaching

This is a write-up for my Social Psychology class in which I attempted a social breaching exercise to violate a social norm.

Restroom Interaction

Action: Stand outside the men’s restroom. When a person comes out, make eye contact, smile, and say “Congratulations” to them for finishing. For those that are extra brave, it would be good to complement the action by walking up and giving the person a firm hand-shake as well.

Breached Norm: The implicit norm of using the restroom is to “enter quickly, do your business, and exit quickly”. It is generally understood that the restroom is not usually a space for extended interpersonal interactions, and one does not tend to want to be recognized or stopped when using the restroom. This implicit norm arises out of the fact that restroom using may be awkward and embarrassing due to the sounds and smells involved. Thus, it is a breach of social norms to greet a person front-on about their using the restroom after they just finished.

My Response: If a stranger greeted me after I finished using the restroom, I would be slightly intimidated (while feeling vulnerable) embarrassed, puzzled and confused. I would ask what I was being congratulated for, just to be sure. Because this is an etiquette norm, I probably wouldn’t try to get rid of him from standing there. I would probably then quickly leave and silently judge this person as I walked to my next class.

Breaching Exercise in Action: Restroom Interaction

At first, I wanted to lie about having done this assignment. It was simply too mentally stressful to imagine myself breaching a social norm and compromising my self-image in the process. Call me egocentric, but I couldn’t bear of the idea of being judged for doing something that “wasn’t me”. The cognitive dissonance was too strong, and I realized then just how much of “me” was in fact dictated by the boundaries of social norms.  It was at that instant that I knew I was going to complete this assignment no matter what.

Honestly, it was like reading the beginnings of “Crime and Punishment” all over again in my senior year of high school: Raskolnikov just decided he was going to kill the old pawn shop lady, and he was now moving towards the scene of the crime. I decided to attempt the “Restroom Interaction” breach, and my mind was blank as I made my way through upper Sproul plaza. Strong emotions roared through my head, drowning out my thoughts and traces of reason. I lost sensation in my body, and with each step closer and closer to the Dwinelle restrooms, I felt my limbs grow increasingly mechanical. “Don’t do it”, something muffled within. I ignored it. All I felt were my footsteps, moving determinately forward, one foot after another.

I arrived in front of the men’s restroom, faster than I anticipated. I had my little black journal in my hand, perhaps to reassure myself of my identity as an amateur social psychologist doing a social breaching assignment. I tightened my grip around the little book—it felt like the ax that Raskolnikov held moments before committing the crime.  Time seemed to drag out as I waited silently outside the hallway. I pretended to stare at the walls and tried hard to not look suspicious.

Then, I heard a flush. Footsteps—my first victim. I felt a rush of anxiety as I waited for the person to wash his hands and get some towels. My eyes focused on the door and my hearing sharpened. “This is it”, I thought to myself. An older looking, lanky white male emerged. “Congrats”, I blurted pathetically. I jumbled my words, and I couldn’t stare at him in the eye as I produced my cleaver statement, prepared specifically for some heavy-duty norm-breaching action. The man turned and left without so much a flinch.

“That was not bad”, I consoled myself, “For the next person, you be sure to give them the full treatment”. Just as I was strategizing my next move, the door creaked. A younger, happy Asian student came out. “Congratulations”, I said with a half smile. The student smiled back, “Dude, what’s this all about, man?” With the invitation to exonerate myself, I quickly explained how this was for a social psychology assignment. “Nice. You should maybe try saying ‘mission accomplished’ next time”.  And with that advice, he turned right and walked off.

“Congratulations, Mission Accomplished!” I said to the next white guy with the mountain climber’s backpack. “How come you are talking to me?” he demanded. Once again, I explained how that this was an assignment for class, how we were supposed to breach a social norm, and how I was in fact fulfilling the duties of a good student. “Okay, just making sure you’re not that weird”, he said.

I stood there for a couple more victims: “For what?” a middle-aged Japanese male asked.  “Haha”, a fuzzy-haired white male replied. I was also greeted by an awkward silence on several occasions. At one point, a person actually came to close the restroom door so as to avoid hearing my explanation with each person—he wanted to take his time in the restroom in peace.

Finally, after about another 10 minutes of standing outside the men’s restroom, I prepared the last utter of my statement to a fine middle-aged gentleman. When the door opened, I felt tension leave my body since I knew this would be the last person I would have to startle before going back to the normal life. As I heard the words leave my lips, I smiled because I knew they were in fact directed to myself: “Congratulations (Michael), Mission Accomplished”!

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