Social norms are specific unwritten rules that a society follows, sometimes not even being consciously aware of them. One of their purposes is to quickly determine who belongs to the group and who is an outsider. Every culture has its own social norms, cities may have unique social norms, friend groups develop them too. Obviously, they are a very important part of society. But what happens when you break on of them? To answer that question, I decided to try and violate one myself.
The one thing I noticed about Americans is that you ask “How are you?” as a greeting phrase and expect to only hear “fine”, “great”, “good” and other short, positive answers. This may be because you want to make the person feel special and give the impression that you care about their feelings, while not really taking on the responsibility of dealing with them.
So on an early Wednesday morning I decided to try and break this norm at a local Walgreens.
I waited until there were almost no other customers and went to the checkout to buy a bunch of things. The cashier greeted me with the usual “Hi, how are you today”. Instead of answering “great, thanks, what about you?” as I always do, I stated that I was feeling absolutely terribly. She was very surprised for a second but quickly put up the polite “oh no, I’m dealing with a weirdo” smile and asked why was that, to which I replied with my elaborate story about how school is extremely stressful, how much I miss my friends back home, how I think I caught a cold, how woefully unprepared I am for tomorrow’s presentation and how I fear I will never get a job as a psychology major because the economy is in ruins.
All the while she was stuck scanning my things and had to listen to this tirade (which I’m very sorry about but I had to do it for the sake of science). Of course, she nodded politely all the way through and said she knows how that feels and agrees with my statement about the economy. However, she seemed very tired and maybe even scared of this outburst and was clearly relieved when I took my bags away and wished her a good day.
I felt very entertained by the whole experience. Extremely embarrassed, too. I’m sure the cashier thought I was a random weirdo who had no one else to vent to and accepted that meeting people like this is a part of her job. However, judging on her expression, I doubt this experience was as entertaining for her as it was for me. Maybe if a different person, for example, a more open one was sitting at the register, my experience would have been different. Maybe we could have carried out a full-blown conversation. But that is up for debate. This social norm seems to be a thing almost exclusive to English-speaking countries. People in most European countries don’t ask you how you are doing unless they are your friends and genuinely want to find out how you feel. I definitely wouldn’t have had the same experience in another culture, such as, say, Lithuanian, simply because cashiers don’t make small talk, or, if they do, don’t ask you how your day is going. Since I’m not at all familiar with any Asian cultures, I cannot say if that would be true in their case. But it’s a known fact that Americans are one of the most open, social and friendly people in the world, so I believe if my action was too much for even them to handle, it would get an even worse reaction in more private cultures, for example, Japanese. To sum up, breaking this particular social norm was a very interesting and embarrassing experience. Since, in my opinion, it’s a very American norm, I don’t think I would be able to try it out in different setting or culture but will definitely try, if the opportunity comes up.