A couple of years ago, I was doing ethnographic research on the topic of beer drinking. Martin Weigel, my agency double, and I went to Cleveland to a neighborhood filled with bars called “the flats.”
The flats has one big advantage as a place to go drinking. It used to be an industrial area and now it’s just bars. So there is no residential population there to take umbrage when the young people of Cleveland indulge themselves with Dionysian abandon.
Martin is an Englishman and the young people of Ohio are…not. (Some anthropological assertions are incontrovertible.) There are many differences between Englishmen and Ohioans, but this story-time turns on one in particular: the young people of Ohio are pleased to make a spectacle of themselves in a way that Martin and I never would.
The English are raised never to make a spectacle of themselves.* (Canadians, too.) It’s a rule. Laughing too loudly. Sneezing more than once. Shouting, gesticulating, staggering around in public. Anything that suggests a failure of self control breaks the spectacle rule. The penalty is clear. Make a spectacle of yourself and you surrender your status credentials, and, of course, any self respect you may be harboring.
So putting an Englishman and a Canadian onto the flats was a very good idea. (Thank you, J. Walter Thompson.) Nothing we saw there was likely to escape our attention. We might as well have been on Mars. (Martin, my favorite Martian.)
This particular evening, a Thursday I think, all was quiet. Martin and I go into several bars and the tableau is always the same. The music is loud, the place is relatively crowded, the drinks are in place. Everything is there except the spectacle.
The bar is a big square room. Men and women stand around the perimeter. The women, many of them, are dancing in place, as if by themselves. They are standing beside men who are leaning against the bar. Occasionally, the girls beseech the guys to start dancing. The music was deafening. The DJ was exhorting people to dance. Nothing doing. Martin and I look on and wonder: What’s to be learned from a room like this?
We wander out into the street. Kids walk past wearing crazy paper hats with outrageously off-color remarks written on them. One of them reads, and I am not making this up, “sperm receptacle.” Evidently, there is a restaurant in the flats that makes these hats up and hands them out. Wonder of wonders, customers agree to wear them. Further wonder: they then wear them while walking in the flats. Talk about making a spectacle of yourself! Martin can’t believe his eyes. I feel a strong temptation to look the other way. It’s the only decent, Canadian, thoroughly tedious thing to do.
Martin and I wonder back into the bar. Whammo! All hell has broken lose. Everyone is dancing, including the guys. There are women now actually dancing on the bar. In the ten minutes that Martin and I spent on the street, the bar went off. In his dry English way, Martin said, “I guess they were waiting for us to leave.”
In a perfect world, we would have had Malcolm Gladwell with us. Clearly, some tipping point had just been passed. It would take a finer eye, or at least more research, to determine how the crowd negotiated this sudden transition, this phase change. (The trouble with this research is that there is never more than a couple of days to collect data.) No doubt, several signaling systems were used. Or maybe this is a simple hydraulic system. Combine enough patrons with enough drinks, music, DJ exhortation, and this always happens around the 44 minute mark.
What was especially interesting for Martin and I was that the tipping point here marked a transition from social restraint to spectacle. Something, some things, in the bar worked as a licensing system. All these people had found a way to give one another permission to go nuts. It was a kind of social contract that begins, “I will if you will.” No doubt, there are lots of early gambits. People take leads and no one follows. But eventually one lead brings out a couple of imitators and this provokes still more “adoption” until the whole thing scales up and over the tipping point.
But none of this reckons with the flats. This is apparently a liminal zone, a place that says you may leave your usual “spectacle constraints” at home. There is an inclination to suppose that liminal places are ones in which no rules apply. This is wrong. In fact, the behavior of young people in Cleveland is as highly coded, social formed, cultural codified and socially formed after the tipping point as before it. People who get really blind, stumbling, who-am-I, where-am-I, drunk wake up friendless, unless they have the designated “Jim Belushi” role to play. And ever here there are still rules that constraint what remains a performance of drunkenness.
It is one of those little miracles that happen in American life, governed as it so often is not by a ceremonial order, but something more emergent. We are a culture where things emerge out of an apparent muddling and the most subtle of signalling systems. Usually, it’s the market place that supplies the field for this convergence not consensus. Not in Cleveland. Here it’s that alluvial plane called the flats.
Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. Viking.
* I knew an English family, educated and intelligent, who insisted that no one should ever tell Sarah, a daughter in her early 30s, any sort of joke. Why? Because once someone told Sarah a joke and she couldn’t stop laughing.
(Filed from Dallas)