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Social Norm Violation: Subverting Conversational Norms

Social norms are prescribed behaviors in a given social group that serve to achieve and maintain the desired status quo. These rules inform group members about how they should initiate a certain situation, how to act or react to it, and how to feel about it (Reese et al., 2019). Since communication between people is one of the actions that group members engage in most frequently, it is only natural that many of such norms pertain to communication. In particular, social norms prescribe particular speech patterns for specific situations, such as making a polite request or greeting a person. One of the common normalized ways to greet a person in English is through the following exchange: “How are you?” “I am fine, thanks. How are you?” While there are possible modifications to this script, they do not detract from its purpose, which is simply saying “Hello” rather than actually inquiring about someone’s situation in life. I decided to violate this conversational social norm by answering “How are you?” with fictional and intentionally exaggerated statements about my life as if a person actually inquired about my circumstances.

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I violated this norm several times consecutively when different people greeted me. In most cases, the exchange followed roughly the same pattern. After hearing “How are you?” I answered with “My dog got hit by a car,” “I think I contracted coronavirus,” or any other exaggerated fictional statement that did not fit the pattern. As a rule, the people I conversed with remained calm while I told them and answered along the lines of “I am fine too, thanks.” These results illustrate McLeod’s (2008) statement that people expect each other “to behave in certain ways in particular situations,” and these expectations are based on social norms (para. 2). A second or so after the exchange, people registered the actual meaning of my words, which was when they asked me to repeat my statement, and then expressed disbelief, confusion, amusement, shock, or concern. On one occasion, the person did not follow the norm-prescribed pattern and immediately answered, “Wait, what? That is horrible!” However, in most cases, people followed the speech pattern outlined by the social norm and only stopped to consider the meaning of my response after they proceeded with it.

While I was violating this social norm, I felt excited and, on occasions, amused. My excitement stemmed from the fact that it was interesting to watch the people’s reactions to the dialogue unfolding the consistently with the established norms. Additionally, there were few if any risks involved, which is why I largely did not feel stressed. Reese et al. (2019) note that most social norms serve as evaluative standards, but their importance in this respect varies. My violation was not nearly as severe as, say, public indecency or obscene language, which is why I did not feel particularly stressed. As for the amusement, it was to be expected, since the people following the norm-prescribed pattern could result in legitimately funny situations. For example, on one occasion, a person replied, “I am very glad to hear it,” as she would to “I am fine, thanks,” even though I actually informed her of my uncle’s imaginary car accident. I provided no explanations for 24 hours, but many of my interlocutors eventually interpreted my statements as jokes, which has also contributed to my relatively light-hearted perception of the matter.


McLeod. S. (2008). Social roles. Simply Psychology. Web.

Reese, G., Rosenmann, A., & Cameron, J. E. (2019). The psychology of globalization: Identity, ideology, and action. Academic Press.

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