This will be a series of blogs devoted to the “cultural rules” of everyday life.
It is named for Erving Goffman. Goffman was born in Alberta in 1922. He got his graduate training from the University of Chicago. He taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He died in Philadelphia on November 19, 1982. Those interested in his work will find “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (1959) a good place to start. Goffman was an inspired observer of “cultural rules.”
We are a postmodern culture, to be sure. But a surprising amount of social life is still constrained and scripted by cultural rules.
“Turn taking” is a good example. There is a rule in our culture that says that each person in a conversation may speak for only so long. He/she must then turn over the conversational lead to someone else.
You can test this rule in your next conversation. Hold your lead. Keep talking. Don’t let anyone in. It won’t be long before your friends begin to twitch their bodies and flash their impatience. Eventually, they will wrestle the turn away from you.
Watch for little (or large) expression of affrontery. Your conversational partners will be offended that you presumed to hold the conversational lead at their expense. You will have subtly challenged them. They will likely give you a couple of those “across the face” glances (where the looker looks not straight ahead, but across the face. This normally betokens resentment and or challenge and or scrutiny.) All you did was talk for a little too long. Ah, the very large implications that come from tiny little departures. Goffman understood this sort of thing right down to the ground.
Cultural rules have the interesting property of being active but, usually, invisible. We all obey the turn taking rule. But if you asked someone to describe a conversation, they would probably not ever make reference to the rule. If you asked them to describe why they were, in the case of your withholding the conversational turn, unhappy with you, almost certainly, they won’t be able to report that “you talked too long.” These rules remain invisible even when broken.
Moments of social change will sometimes encourage us to make these rules explicit. The feminism of the 1970s was a time in which we began to notice that there was one set of turn taking rules for men and another for women. But once the rules are reworked, they tend to slip once more below the surface of consciousness.
So why treat cultural rules here?
First, this is one of the things that anthropologists can bring to the party. Despite Goffman’s magnificent efforts, we don’t all know about the operation of these rules.
Second, cultural rules are a place to spot underlying shifts in what and who we are as a culture. This is a good observation platform.
As Virginia Postrel was saying today in her post, there is so much noise in social life, it is sometimes hard to tell what indicates a trend and what does not. But the contemplation of cultural rules can sometimes feel like a submarine world. It is, sometimes, stiller, quieter, and easier to read.