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story | Bryson Ng Pei Shen, Contributing Reporter
photo | Kalla Sy, Contributing Photographer
If you were at the National Gallery on Aug. 23, 2017, you would have encountered odd sights other than the quirky artworks of the Yayoi Kusama. If you were fortuitous enough, you would have seen Megha Joshi ’21 engaging in a one-sided conversation with a mannequin within the gallery. Even stranger was the self-consciousness she displayed while talking to her inanimate friend. Bizarre as it got, this was all part of an unofficial tradition for the freshpeople – an assignment for the College’s Common Curriculum module, Comparative Social Inquiry (CSI). For a day each year, the general public got the joy (or misfortune) of witnessing such displays of unusual behaviour.
Widely seen as one of the most memorable CSI assignments, the “Break-A-Norm” exercise allowed students to conduct their very own social experiments to experience norm-breaking and observe the reactions elicited from the public. While students took up the challenge with unparalleled creativity, a fascinating trend emerged – most ideas tended towards being generally disruptive to their surroundings. In other words, many made the bee-line towards breaking norms that could lead to possibly undesirable impacts on their immediate surroundings. Why was it rarer for students to identify norms to break which would have have positive impacts instead? In this case, does it imply that breaking social norms always results in negative consequences?
“Doing something that goes against conventional wisdom and established modes of behaviour, by default, tends to elicit a much more negative or surprising reaction from people around us because they are not used to this kind of disruption,” Chin-Hao Huang, Assistant Professor of Political Science said. He highlighted that regardless of intention, deviations from expected social behaviour often result in disturbances to the everyday lives of people.
He adds that while there is no hard rule on proper behaviour, norms exist for a purpose: to provide some form of order. “It would be chaotic if people decided not to follow the norm—for instance, in a dining hall, if we chose not to queue up and break the line instead,” said Mr. Huang.
An interesting example that highlights this point of disruption is Sidharth Chatterjee ’21, who handed out money outside Clementi Mall. Although Chatterjee intended his act as one that was more socially positive, he was surprised by the reactions he received. Some politely rejected him but the majority were either rude or simply ignored his existence. “I believe that they felt there was a reason to be suspicious about my act, that there was some catch to it,” said Chatterjee said. There seemed to be a perceived misunderstanding of his good intentions, simply because his act was out of the norm.
Nonetheless, breaking social norms is not always a bad thing, Mr. Huang said. Not all instances of norm-breaking produce negative impacts despite their tendency to be disruptive—some simply have no substantial consequences. For example, in Joshi’s attempt to converse with a mannequin, she said “I felt shy initially, but then oddly empowered as time went by. I observed that people generally could not care less about what you are doing, so long as you do not interfere with their personal space.”
Other acts of norm-breaking may be beneficial but these benefits may not be seen immediately. “Breaking norms can also be for the greater good, such as when artists are iconoclastic or when people defy bigoted policies, but only a subset of people will see the benefits in the moment (versus in hindsight),” Paul O’Keefe, Assistant Professor for Social Sciences (Psychology) said. For example, in 1955, Rosa Parks, an African-American woman, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, defying both social norms and state laws on racial segregation. Her bold and disruptive actions resulted in her eventual arrest, but sparked off the Montgomery bus boycott from 1955-6, and eventually helped to initiate the civil rights movement in the United States.
Whether or not defying social norms is good or bad for us, the “Break-A-Norm” exercise remains a highlight of the first semester for the freshpeople thus far. More than a mere personal experiment for the sake of “fun”, the lesson also shone light on the pervading social forces that exist undeniably around us, providing a timely reminder to stay true to ours personal quirks, values and opinions.
As best summarised by Mr. Huang, “being cognizant of that kind of [social] influence is important. If it goes against your ethical and moral judgement, then you ought to reflect and think twice, before conforming for the sake of conforming.” Just like how conforming to social norms isn’t always good, breaking social norms isn’t always bad either.
The views expressed here are the author’s own and is not fully representative of the Student Government. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org