Story Time 7: effervescing on the flats


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)


4 thoughts on “Story Time 7: effervescing on the flats

  1. James Jennings

    Having experienced (often!) such bar scenes, my observational tipping point for the ‘drinking, dancing spectacle’ usually comes from a personal space vs. dancing space ratio. Once the average personal space of a majority of patrons is ‘intruded’ upon, they naturally start to occupy the dancing space. Since (I think) most humans are a bit agrophobic and like to diminish large spaces to a more intimate level (and since there’s plenty of booze/music to blur normal social phobias), dancing and mayhem result (with your typical monkey behaviors–“look at me” type stuff–happening in the (relatively) more intimate spaces that then develop).

    I’m curious what effect (if any) club architecture has on the ‘time to mayhem’ tipping point. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a simple mathematical relationship among these factors.

  2. Lance Knobel

    Your observation on the retiring English character is a bit out of date, or at least is confined to the minority of English who come from the comfortable middle class. See, for example, this current story about English behavior (behaviour) in Greece (headline: Extradite Britons who have sex in bars and on beaches):,7445,1556839,00.html

    Having just moved to the US (Berkeley, but geographically it’s still the US) after 27 years in England, I can certainly attest that even in the rowdiest college town the US has nothing to compare with the spectacle in every English city when the pubs let out. One of the curiosities about this phenomenon is that the women are often worse than men. Prime minister Tony Blair and the Labour government have made a point of trying to develop policies that might lessen the problem of female binge drinking.

  3. Peter

    As an expatriate living in Britain, I have similar views to those of Lance about current English behaviour. However, I don’t think English rowdiness among the middle classes is a long-standing phenomenon. When I first came to England in 1991, I was struck how quiet all the restaurants were — if they talked at all, people in restaurants merely whispered; they certainly didn’t laugh or sing; and usually there was no background music. Now, any restaurant except the most expensive is awash with noise all the time, and most have music.

    Perhaps the social tipping point was the death of Princess Diana in 1997 — the massive public outpouring of grief which followed seems to have given the English middle classes social permission to express their feelings in public.

    One only has to visit the High Street (aka Main Street) of any British town or city after 5 pm on a Friday or Saturday evening to see public behaviour familiar to denizens of Cleveland. The speciality of the North of England, where I live, is for people on a night on the town to wear the skimpiest possible clothes, regardless of the temperature or weather, to show “toughness”. So t-shirts and mini-skirts amidst arctic winds and snow drifts are common. The North of England, of course, was once ruled by the Vikings, so perhaps some character traits remain!

    To James, who writes of ‘drinking, dancing spectacle’: There is a bar in Manchester, UK, with a large external sign advertising its activities as: “Eating, Drinking, and Cavorting”.

  4. brian

    I was in a bar in the warehouse district of Cleveland where I saw a group of young women dancing in public with vibrators and dildos. They were giddy and blissful. I asked a stranger about it “…Whats that all about?…” and was told “… I dunno, maybe its a bachelorette party…”. Later, I stumbled into the rest room and saw a woman performing fellatio on her male partner, and not at all concerned that I would catch them en flagrante. “This is Cleveland?” I thought to myself. Who would have thought so….

    Grant, There is an article in the Wall Street Journal that ties into your blog article on style differences in behavior…


    Two Kinds of Oddity
    Americans make better exhibitionists; Britons, better eccentrics.

    Friday, August 12, 2005 12:01 a.m. EDT

    The word eccentric was much abused in obituaries earlier this week on the departure from our midst of one Abe Hirschfeld. He was a very rich New Yorker who, before he acquired a dollop of notoriety as the geezer who offered Paula Jones $1 million to drop her sexual harassment suit against Bill Clinton, was best known for acquiring control of a bankrupt New York Post for two weeks in 1993. In the course of that eventful fortnight, he sacked the editor, Pete Hamill, only to reinstate him (with a very public Big Wet Kiss) just days after mutinous staffers ran a story about Mr. Hirschfeld, titled “Who Is This Nut?”

    These shenanigans aside, there were numerous other things that Mr. Hirschfeld did in his lifetime that caught the eye–things he did, in fact, to catch the eye. Hence my objection to the use of the word “eccentric” (for which mot not-quite-juste the New York Daily News, the New York Times and many others opted). The man was no such thing: He was, instead, an attention-grabber, an exhibitionist, which is a quite different species altogether. Proper eccentrics are more likely to shrink from the limelight than to slaver at its prospect, as Mr. Hirschfeld did.

    That said, and with readers’ permission, I will progress to a broad but defensible generalization. Americans (and though born in prewar Poland, Mr. Hirschfeld was thoroughly American) tend to make very good exhibitionists. By contrast, and famously, the British make much the better eccentrics. Americans, in fact, are not very good at eccentricity, just as Brits are clumsy at exhibitionism. (This is not to suggest that no Britons attempt public display. Some–mainly professional soccer players–do, but they seldom manage to pull it off with style.)
    What is the wellspring of American exhibitionism? Life in this country–large and competitive–is largely about calling attention to oneself, it matters not in how vulgar (and noisy) a way. Ours is a loud culture: This is perhaps because, at the subsistence or immigrant level (or at the level of folk memory), most start in crowded rooms and one has to shout to be heard, or to get fed. In a society of immigrants, “outsiders” find that they can become “insiders” by extra oomph. The struggle for integration is an especially American drama and the immigrant knows that he may need braggadocio. (This may, in part, explain Mr. Hirschfeld.)

    America also has exhibitionists because the culture of showbiz and TV is learned so early, so that even the very young are adept at theatrical gestures–they roll their eyes, for instance, at 4. (I can attest, from parental experience, to this precocious dismissiveness.) But the truest reason that Americans are exhibitionist is that the U.S. has always been a democracy or has, at any rate, purported to be classless. That was how it was founded. Jack is just as good as his employer and so has no need for inhibition. Britain, by contrast, has had until recently an almost insuperable class system: the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. Everybody knew his place and didn’t need to show off about it.

    At the same time, the long and bloody history of Britain, not to mention the climate, encouraged the citizenry to cultivate their own eccentric gardens (literally and metaphorically). The Brits invented hobbies, and only the Brits go in for such muffled pastimes as trainspotting and collecting beer mats. Americans need to get noticed if they are to stand out from the throng. For the Briton, standing out has always been anathema.

    The British enjoy eccentricity. Americans do not, because it is a quieter state, and to be quiet is to set oneself on the road to anonymity–arguably the condition from which Americans shrink most sharply. A good place to note this difference is in literature. I can think of no memorable eccentric character in American literature; yet from Ahab to Huck Finn, from the Cat in the Hat to Tom Wolfe’s Rev. Bacon, there is no dearth of exhibitionists.
    Think of the long line of eccentrics in British literature. The Canterbury pilgrims are nearly all so. Shakespeare is full of memorable eccentrics: Their captain is Falstaff, Shakespeare’s favorite character. The most memorable characters in Dickens tend to be eccentrics–Miss Havisham, Miss Flite (in “Bleak House”), Mr. Dick (in “David Copperfield”), Mr. Pickwick and his friends. And then there’s Wodehouse, whose dramatis personae are eccentricity unbound.

    In Britain it is a compliment to be considered an eccentric. It is not so in America. But a theory holds that Brits follow in the footsteps of Americans 10 years behind. So they, too, shall all be exhibitionists soon. And Abe Hirschfeld will chuckle about it when the time comes, wherever he may be.

    Mr. Varadarajan is editorial features editor of The Wall Street Journal.

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