Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Breaking a Cultural Rule.

The great majority of the Western culture sits on a chair, at a table, when eating in a restaurant. Most restaurants pack as many tables and chairs in their available space, not leaving much extra room for floor seating. Consequently, there are no accommodations for those who opt to sitting on the floor to enjoy their dinner. I broke this rule of at-a-table-in-a-chair eating by sitting on the floor. I predicted that not all places would allow me to use the floor as my chair and dinner table. I figured I would get excuses, such as health hazard or fire hazard; I was correct. I thought that the more mainstream chain restaurants would be more hesitant than the local places; that proved to be not so true. Also, I predicted that the hosts wouldn't have had to deal with this type of situation before, so they would contact someone above them to handle the matter. This prediction was true in one case. I also predicted that none of the customers would actually interact with me, and I was right. However, I couldn't predict everything that would happen to me; there were some surprises.
On the first attempt a friend of mine tagged along. First, we went to Chili's. I asked the hostess if it would be alright if we sat on the floor to eat; I told her that I felt much more comfortable there. She hesitated and responded that personally, she didn't care, but she had to ask someone else. She had me explain to the other hostess what I wanted to do. Her response was no, because it's a fire hazard. I asked about sitting next to a wall, out of the way; her answer was still "no way".
My friend and I then went over to Ihop. They were much more receptive there. When asked to be seated on the floor, the hostess said we could sit wherever we wanted. Our waitress was extremely nice and accommodating, even crouching down to take our orders. Actually, she was probably the nicest waitress I'd ever experienced. Another waitress stopped next to us and asked what we were doing on the floor. I explained and she said, "…but it's dirty." I told her that it was okay, "I'm wearing pants." She left as she said "to each, his own..." The other customers pretended to look around, with obvious intentions to get a glance at what we were doing. When we made eye contact, they just smiled and looked away.
The decision to bring a friend for the first attempt wasn't necessarily because I was nervous or hesitant; however, it did make it a little easier, because he kept me company while we waited for our food as we sat on the floor. When I first told him of my plan, he told me that he wanted to tag along, and I thought it'd be a good idea to try it with and without a friend. I made sure that it was only the two of us and not a party larger, because I felt it would have seemed more like a joke to the people at the restaurant, rather than something I actually felt personal about. When I did it alone on the second day, I realized that it wasn't at all as awkward as I thought it would be. I thought it was more amusing than anything, and actually quite comfortable. This whole experience has inspired me to want to break more cultural rules; it feels good to stick out and to go against the current.
On the second day, the first place I went to was a local place called Soho. Since I was alone, the host offered to seat me at the bar right away. I explained to him that I'd like to sit on the floor. Without hesitation he denied me. Though, he added that he, personally, would have no problem with where I sat, but he still couldn't allow it. I offered to sit out of the way, but he did not relent. When I questioned him, he said "it probably has something to do with healthcare and Georgia or something."
Then I went across the street to Mellow Mushroom. Their policy is "seat yourself," so I went to stand next to a wall until someone came to take my order. When a waiter came, I told him that I was going to sit on the floor. He didn't believe me at first, but once I convinced him, he told me that he didn't have a problem with it, but was still unsure if he could allow it. He asked me what if someone wanted to use the large six person table that I would be stitting next to. He tried to look for an alternative place for me to sit, but finally I just sat down right where I was. The waitress was very nice. She didn't seem to act any different towards me. She did leaned forward more to take my order. No one paid much attention to me until I got my food. Then I started getting a few stares. With some of these stares, I got no smiles upon eye contact. Eventually a group of five guys came in looking for a table. I looked up at them and told them they could sit at the table I was next to. I told them I was more comfortable where I was and one of them mumbled "she likes to sit on the floor…" Even though they were nice, they didn't say anything else to me. Eventually I paid, and was on my way.
From these encounters I was able to extract many, kind of shocking, details about the Western culture. I realized that freedom of choice is not a total reality, that people do many things to avoid conflict, that they live curious, vicarious lives, and that not everyone is treated equally.
Society has put in place a variety of standards. These standards mold the choices of the people. The people choose certain things, whether consciously or unconsciously, in order to form and protect their identity, but never usually going outside the standards. Because these standards have been so ingrained in the people, some don't ever think that there is any other option or way of doing things, such as sitting on the floor at a restaurant rather than in a chair at a table. It's ironic, because people make up the society; therefore, they have put in place these standards which act more as barriers to the many choices they could have, and with these barriers, the people have thus taken away some of their own freedom.
Nonetheless, most people follow these standards, or patterns, in order to avoid conflict or attention and because these barriers provide comfort. A conflict infers that the pattern has been disrupted. Things are disrupted by the unexpected, and most people shy away from being involved in the unexpected, because it means that the comfort in the predictability of the pattern is gone. If that comfort is gone, they are left open and vulnerable to anything, such as denial and criticism. To most, this is a horrible thing, but it shouldn't be feared. Being in this place of vulnerability brings forth unlimited possibilities and actual freedom, and it does not contain only the negative. When a person chooses to step out of the pattern of conformity and into the realm of vulnerability and the unexpected, they become exposed to new possibilities, knowledge, and inspiration, rather than the forgettable monotony of the standard every day.
The hosts, in the places where I was denied a seat on the floor, made up excuses to put the blame on someone or something else. At Chili's I was referred to a different hostess and then denied by the excuse of fire hazard. At Soho, the host obviously pulled the health hazard excuse out of his back pocket, by showing his uncertainty "or something." So why was I allowed to sit on the floor at the Ihop, which is right across the street from the Chili's, and at Mellow Mushroom, which is right across the street from Soho, if it was a fire hazard and unhealthy? Why were these excuses presented to me? Is it because the hosts' choosing for me to be seated on the floor could compromise their job and they weren't willing to take that risk, or because it would link them to my unconventional decision. Is it because it may have led to more of the unexpected that they might not have known how to handle, or because it may have caused a disturbance with those who were following the social standard of sitting in chairs? Making up excuses and putting the blame on something is a way that most people avoid conflict and alleviates them of blame and responsibility.
The people in charge of seating and serving me at these restaurants all admitted that they, personally, would not have a problem with where I sat to eat my food, yet two of them did not allow me and one was very hesitant. Why did they feel compelled to mention their approval even if it was "out of their hands?" People like to be liked and accepted. Being accepted makes a person feel good and at ease. On the other hand, being disliked or having negative reactions to what one chooses makes some feel uncomfortable. Also, approving or agreeing with the situation at hand (even if the person does not truly agree) grants acceptance and eliminates the possibility of conflict.
Most of the customers gave me curious stares. But, none of them were compelled to actually interact with me, ask me why, let alone join me on the floor in my unconventional activity. People are drawn to the unexpected. Curiosity gets the best of them, so they stare, but they always make sure to keep their distance, and rarely do they get personally involved. Instead, they opt to live vicariously through those who are willing to be vulnerable by only watching and staring.
At Ihop I was able to sit wherever I wanted and treated with amazing service. The waitress never hesitated; she asked if we were comfortable and even knelt down to take our order. Maybe she is always this accommodating, or maybe the unexpected, opposed to the monotony, lifted her mood, or maybe she was so accommodating and pleasant for the same reason a person would be more so to an elderly man or a cute little five year old. People's mannerisms change when dealing with different types of people and in different situations. Everyone is not necessarily treated equally.
I find it interesting that these very subtle instances pointed out such major eye-openers in our culture. In a broad sense, there is no way to claim that everyone in Western culture conforms to society, because they don’t. Though, in many ways on a minute level, many attributes do pertain to the vast majority. We eat with utensils, we brush our teeth with toothbrushes, our soap bars are a size that’s easily holdable, we use keys to unlock doors, we write on paper, and we sit in chairs at tables to eat. It's interesting to wonder about these basic things; why, and where do they come from? Why do we sit in a chair and at a table to eat? Isn't it sort of a waste of wood and metal? But, on a more serious level, why do we set so many standards and patterns and barriers for ourselves? Why are we so afraid of the things we don't know and can't predict? Why do we avoid conflict by making excuses and agreeing on things we may either disagree with or are indifferent towards? If we are so curious, why don't we ask the questions or even participate? What makes us automatically switch modes when dealing with different people or handling certain situations? These are all major questions derived from the breaking of a cultural rule so minute and silly; sitting on the floor rather than in a chair, at a table when eating at a restaurant.


  1. Awesome experiment Jamie.
    Very inspiring. I'm reading this in class & had the urge to cough insanely... realizing that would probably be more obnoxious than experimentally curious. or just awakening my quitted self from feeling this anxiety of laying low.

    ANyways, veryy aweesome post. love it. social experimentation to its finest.
    i see what you mean too, the other day in class i remained silent through questions & comments. for the reason of the lecture class, not discussion. it usually remains this way where our teacher chatters on, whereso sometimes his words & morals seem to shape & determine the interpretation of his lessons.
    dadadhh. the point is we all just listen & let it absorb into our brains, leaving us very little time to react or to counter-argue/learn/question.

    i'm blabbing. comment more later.
    ps. :O


  3. yeah exactly. The whole concept of time is really interesting. (obviously) This experiment and paper was for my Anthropology class (sorry if that makes it less cool) but I overheard my professor talking to this guy about the rule he broke and they were talking about assignments. They ended up coming to the point of how professors (this is based on an art schools homework mostly) professors urge all of the students to be open and EXPERIMENT and do this and that and extra and research. But...THERE IS NO TIME to do that. We only really have time to GET IT DONE. There's no time to be risky. And the whole idea of having sketchbooks/notebook. I LOVE them...but here... for class...they are not what they should be. They have rules and barriers (even when they say they dont) there's no time to really work in them-find inspiration-make inspirations.
    But then again...this is not me complaining about the work load at all. I think it's great that we are pushed to do so much. still holds true that there is just no time to experiment.

    okay. sorry for that rant.

  4. Awesome! I wish my Anthro prof told us to do a project and experiment by getting out of our comfort zone. I enjoyed reading it a lot! It was refreshing!