In some cultures, greeting complete strangers with a hug and a kiss on each cheek is not only normal, but also expected. Other cultures find it completely normal to stand very close to someone you don’t know while talking to them. If either of these things happened to us in America would be shocked and probably very uncomfortable. In America, personal space is a social norm that will definitely receive negative sanctions if violated. Our “bubble” is shaped something like an egg with us in the center facing the wide end of the egg. When someone is facing us, they must be a certain distance away or we begin to feel uncomfortable. At the same time, if they stand too far away we also feel uncomfortable and begin to wonder what is wrong with us. We aren’t bothered if people are standing a little closer than normal as long as they are behind us.
When I set out to break a social norm I decided to violate people’s personal space and see what kind of negative sanctions I received. I devised a fake survey that consisted of three questions: are you from Utah, how many kids are in your family, and where do you fall among your siblings? These questions just gave me a good reason to go up and talk to people. The first person I asked was sitting on the half wall outside the library. From a normal distance I told her that I was doing a survey for one of my classes and asked if I could ask her a few questions. When she agreed I moved very close to her and asked the questions. I did the same with the next person. The third person was standing and I moved progressively closer with each question.
When I violated people’s personal space, I received quite a few negative sanctions. First, people would look down to see how close I was to them. Then their expression would become uncomfortable. Then they would start to move around or step back. They would give me judgmental looks. This all happened in a short amount of time, so people became uncomfortable very quickly. Needless to say, I was quite embarrassed during the whole process. I did not like being so close to complete strangers. I was awkward in my speech and my body language. I phrased the questions as succinctly as possible so that I wouldn’t have to stay long. I didn’t interview as many people as I would have liked to because I would get nervous to be in such an awkward situation. This experience made me realize how much our behavior is governed by social norms.