Should I say hello to people I know on campus when they are walking by with their heads buried in their phones?

A college campus has many people walking around while looking at their phones. This leads to a common dilemma: should I say hello to someone when they are so engrossed by their smartphone? Earlier this week, I chose not to and I realized this is my default setting.

Here is my reasoning: these people are signaling they are busy or occupied. Walking in particular ways alerts others that they are not to be disturbed. Such behaviors include: closely looking at a smartphone screen; using headphones; talking on the phone; talking to someone walking next to them. Indeed, it is hard to be holding a smartphone while walking and not be viewed as saying, “Don’t disturb me.” (The only exception I could quickly think of: the number of people willing to offer to take a picture for you. I have had several people do this recently and I found it strange. Are selfies out? Did I look like I needed help?) I am helping these phone-lookers out: by not disturbing them and breaking their concentration, I am helping them accomplish what they need to do.

I do not know how many of these people I know would consider it a distraction or inconvenience if I did say hello. The posture of avoiding social interaction may be unintentional. We have a fairly friendly campus and if I see faculty, staff, and students that I know, we generally exchange greetings. Our regional norms are for fairly friendly greetings in public. As our students note, we are not quite the South but we are also not the Northeast.

If I were walking around campus with my nose buried in my phone, the biggest issue I would have with being greeted would be this: it might take me a second or two to recognize who issued the greeting. Rather than having the long lead-up to greetings where you see the person from a distance and can mentally prepare their name and your words (plenty of time for impression management), I am stirred from my focus. This will likely lead to a more generic greeting from me.

Will all this lead to the downfall of sociability on our campus? Probably not. Will it lead to more accidents as people walk into other and things? This has already happened. If anything, we will probably see more of his as time goes on and campus norms may continue to adjust to changing sociability.

Social media reveals ongoing American tension between the individual and community life

A cultural historian who examined differences in loneliness between the 19th century and today comments on a larger tension in social interaction:

Sean Illing

In the book, you say that the “new American self” is torn between individualism and community, between selfishness and sociability. Can you explain what you mean?

Susan J. Matt…

While constantly uploading selfies could be understood as selfish, deep down what’s often motivating it is a longing for affirmation from one’s community. What you’re looking for when you post all this stuff is for your friends and family to like you. Right? And that’s a very sociable and communitarian instinct.

And lots of bloggers we interviewed said the same thing. It’s not just Facebook and Twitter, where we’re looking for the “Likes” or the thumbs-ups or the hearts. Bloggers told us they wanted to express themselves, but it only meant something to them if other people liked it.

So the tension between individualism and communitarianism is a longstanding one in American life. And it’s playing out anew in social media, as people try to get their individual voices out there while seeking the affirmation and approval of others.

Three quick thoughts:

1. Seeking affirmation is not necessarily a bad thing. In a face-to-face social interaction, isn’t each participant hoping that the other people respond favorably? This involves the concept of the “generalized other” and “impression management” in sociology: we act in certain ways because we anticipate how others will respond to us.

2. This tension plays out in numerous ways in American history. Two examples come to mind. First, the desire for small town life yet wanting the excitement and opportunities of cities (so meeting in the suburbs). Second, the desire to not be compelled to act in certain ways yet supporting local government and voluntary associations.

3. Another angle to take regarding this issue is whether smartphones and social media are separate phenomena with unique consequences or whether they follow in the line of other mass media technologies and exacerbate existing issues.

Ethnographic study explains how to get better tips without sacrificing dignity

While in graduate school, one sociology student collected data from his job as a delivery man on how to collect the best tips:

So in the year that Thompson worked for Jake’s—not the restaurant’s real name, but the moniker the sociologist gave the calzone spot in a paper he published in the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography last year—he found ways to bring in money without sacrificing his dignity. There was one semi-official rule, passed down from Jake’s laid-back manager: You can’t outright ask for tips. Everything else was left up to Thompson and his band of fellow delivery guys.

Here are a few of the tips (and there are nine total):

Look Like a Customer

One of the Jake’s drivers found that his tips were better when he was clean-shaven: A furry face, he found, usually netted him about $2.00, but a clean one landed $2.50, or sometimes even $3.00. Do calzone lovers hate beards? Probably not, the driver theorized—it’s just that the college students he delivered to thought he was younger without the beard. Customers, he found, were more likely to tip if they thought he was a student, too…

Love the Pets

“You know what really works?” one driver asked Thompson. “Dogs. You compliment their dogs.” The driver said that he got down on the floor and played with customers’ pooches. It worked. “They gave me a five!” he said.

The Receipt Trick

One of Thompson’s personal favorite tricks came at the very end of the delivery interaction, when a customer using a credit card had to sign the receipt. If she left the tip line conspicuously blank, Thompson would turn back to her and say, “Sorry, boss needs you to fill out the entire thing!” That forced the customer to either come out and admit that she was purposely stiffing him, or wilt under his passive aggression. Cha-ching!

The Change Trick(s)

There are a few ways to pull the change trick. The first, another one of Thompson’s favorites, was wide-eyed innocence. “Great, a five dollar tip!” he would exclaim if a customer had given him a nice round bill, possibly hoping for change. “Awesome!” Only the customers who really, really wanted to leave a bad tip—and were willing to go through a very uncomfortable social interaction to do so—would demand their change back.

Two quick thoughts:

1. Training in sociology, particularly in face-to-face interaction, could go a long ways here. A number of these tips involve manipulating the particular social situation to the delivery person’s advantage. Instead of feeling embarrassed to be chasing a tip, the onus can effectively be put on the purchaser to go out of their way to not give a tip. In other words, this is all about impression management.

2. There is some interesting work in sociology regarding jobs or situations where money is clearly involved but can’t be discussed. This is one; it is uncouth to openly ask for a people but people can be acceptably nudged. Or in the art world, artists can’t quite openly say that they are in it to become wealthy but they clearly need to sell art to survive (and to gain status). Or, certain items like life insurance have to become morally acceptable (a process traced by sociologist Viviana Zelizer) before people will purchase them. Even in our world where economics and money seem like pretty powerful forces, there are still social constraints.

Sad: creator of Diplomacy board game dies

I was not aware that the founder of the Diplomacy board game was a Chicago area resident but after his death last Monday, both Chicago newspapers ran interesting bits. Here is a little from the Chicago Tribune obituary about how the game came to be:

The final inspiration came when Mr. Calhamer was at Harvard and, in a class on 19th century Europe, taught by Sidney Bradshaw Fay, he read his professor’s book, “The Origins of the World War.”

“That brought everything together,” Mr. Calhamer told Chicago magazine in 2009. “I thought, ‘What a board game that would make!'”

After being rejected by several game companies, Mr. Calhamer in 1959 published on his own 500 copies of Diplomacy, and the game came to develop a relatively small but extremely devoted following…

Mr. Calhamer dropped out of law school after a year and a half, then took the foreign-service exam and spent three months on a temporary assignment in Africa. When he returned, he continued to work on perfecting the game and joined Sylvania’s Applied Research Laboratory in Waltham, Mass., where he did operations research, a scientific approach to military problem-solving.

“He was hired because of the game,” Richard Turyn, a mathematician who worked at Sylvania, told the Washington Post in a 2004 feature on Diplomacy.

And here is more from the Chicago Sun-Times:

With its shifting alliances, deception and backstabbing, Diplomacy resembled a Fortran-era version of TV’s “Survivor” — set in pre-World War I Europe. Reportedly, it was popular with President Kennedy, broadcaster Walter Cronkite, and Nixon-era Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. It’s in the Hall of Fame of both Games Magazine, and boardgamegeek.com, where fans worldwide are mourning his passing…

“In many ways, the hobby game industry as we know it owes its existence to Allan Calhamer,” Webb said. Diplomacy “moved away from pure strategy games like chess and from straightforward die rolls for conflict resolution, and introduced bluffing, lying and manipulation. . . . Diplomacy opened up entirely new dimensions to gaming, truly bringing a new level of social interaction into gaming, a legacy that can be seen today in hundreds of hobby games.”

“It sort of started a new genre of games, because you’re playing up to seven players, and making secret deals, and then coming back to the board and making your moves,” said Wayne Schmittberger, a game designer and editor in chief of Games Magazine, who used to stay up all night to play it at Yale University…

One fan, Jim Burgess, wrote about how he reconciled his religion and the game’s treachery in an article on diplomacy-archive.com: “Why I am a Christian” and a Diplomacy player.

My own thoughts:

1. Diplomacy is a fantastic game and superior to Risk because it relies on conversation and negotiation. Its biggest drawback is that it takes forever to play. There is something about the interaction that is unique; impression management means a lot.

2. I played a number of times in person during college and then multiple games by email (though not for some years now). Of course, the outcome was often not what I wanted. Inevitably, the game hinges on backstabbing moments where one player is able to gain an upper hand over another. This often requires just getting one center more than another player.

3. I still prefer playing as Russia, one of the seven powers at the start of the game, which to me still has the most risk and reward.

4. My favorite website for the game is diplomacy-archive.com.

5. This game has a sort of cult status. It is difficult to find in stores and is not a well-known board game. I think more people should learn how to play.

Applying microsociology to the face of the Mona Lisa

Sociologist Randall Collins uses microsociology and the concept of microexpressions to examine the Mona Lisa:

The purpose of micro-sociology is not to be an art critic. I only make the venture because so many popular interpretations of the Mona Lisa blunder into social psychology.  But reading the expressions on photos is good training for other pursuits. Paul Ekman holds that knowledge of the facial and bodily expressions of emotions is a practical skill in everyday life, giving some applications in his book Telling Lies. And it is not just a matter of looking for deceptions. We would be better at dealing with other people if we paid more attention to reading their emotional expressions—not to call them on it, but so that we can see better what they are feeling. Persons in abusive relationships—especially the abuser—could use training in recognizing how their own emotional expressions are affecting their victims; and greater such sensitivity could head off violent escalations.

Facial expressions, like all emotions, are not just individual psychology but micro-sociology, because these are signs people send to each other. The age we live in, when images from real-life situations are readily available in photos and videos, has opened a new research tool. I have used it (in Violence: A Micro-sociological Theory) to show that at the moment of face-to-face violence, expressions of anger on the part of the attacker turn into tension and fear; and this discovery leads to a new theory of what makes violence happen, or not.  On the positive side, micro-interactions that build mutual attunement among persons’ emotions are the key to group solidarity, and their lack is what produces indifference or antipathy. And we can read the emotions—a lot more plainly than the smile on Mona Lisa’s face.

Watching for microexpressions definitely makes social interaction more interesting. Ekman’s work suggests telltale signs on people’s faces reveal their true underlying emotions and also people tend to have very quick initial expressions before they put on their face or mask of what they are trying to express. Goffman’s ideas about impression management still apply, we generally are trying to save face and maintain our social status, but it is harder than simply saying the right things or acting in the right way as our facial expressions can still give us away.

Tom Wolfe and Max Weber’s ideas about status

In the wake of the release of his new book Back to BloodTom Wolfe talks about his “sociological approach to writing”:

On his sociological approach to writing

“This attention to status … started when I was in graduate school and I was in a program called American Studies, which was a mixture of different disciplines but one [in which] you were forced to take sociology. I had always looked down on sociology as this arriviste discipline that didn’t have the noble history of English and history as a subject. But once I had a little exposure to it, I said, ‘Hey, here’s the key. Here’s the key to understanding life and all its forms.’ And the great theorist or status theorist was a German named Max Weber. And from that time on, I said this obviously is the way to analyze people in all of their manifestations. I mean, my theory is that every moment — even when you’re by yourself in the bathroom, you are trying to live up to certain status requirements as if someone were watching … It’s only when your life is in danger that you drop all that.”

If you have read any of Wolfe’s novels, you know his characters are constantly worried about status: what do people think of me? In The Bonfire of the Vanities , Sherman McCoy starts at the top of the world as a bond trader but the story traces his path to the bottom as he loses his job, his family, and, most importantly, his previous status as “Master of the Universe.” On the other side, the title character in I Am Charlotte Simmons comes from a more humble background and has to learn how to negotiate within an elite university.

Weber built upon Marx’s ideas about the means and modes of production by adding the dimension of status. Marx argues social class was determined by economic factors; you either had access to and control of economic resources or not. But Weber suggested status, or prestige, was also tied up with economic resources. Thus, one might be high status but relatively lower on the economic ladder or vice versa. An example of this in today’s society would be a measure of occupational prestige where Americans are asked to rate different occupations on a prestige scale from 1-100. Here is one such table from Harris Interactive in 2009:

Firefighters don’t make the most money nor do nurses but both are considered more prestigious, probably because they involve caring for people. In contrast, look at the bottom of the list: occupations where the actors may be perceived as looking more for money or their own interests are considered less prestigious.

If you want to read more on the connection between Tom Wolfe, sociology, and the concept of status, Joel Best wrote an interesting 2001 piece titled “‘Status! Yes!’: Tom Wolfe as a Sociological Thinker. I also wonder if there isn’t a hint of Goffman in Wolfe’s work as well. What he describes above also could play out through the concept of impression management and the constant need to change our behavior to fit the changing social situations.

 

How powerful is the distrust of Facebook among its 900 million plus users?

A commentator who praises Facebook tries to get at why so many users are suspicious about Facebook and willing to believe rumors like the recent one that Facebook was revealing private messages on walls:

The problem is that when technologists talk about data and privacy, for many of us it is still in the abstract. For technologists and computer scientists, data is a thing that lives somewhere, it has a logic and can be parsed, made sense of, organized into databases. It can be searched and ultimately sold. But as Nathan Jurgenson, a social-media theorist, points out, for most people “data is this weird nebulous concept that somebody knows something about me, but I don’t know what they know.”…

A Democratic candidate for the Maine State Senate was attacked recently by her Republican opponent for her playing of the multiplayer online game “World of Warcraft.” According to her critics, the politician playing a “rogue orc assassin” was unbecoming. This collision of two seemingly different personalities — on the one hand, a social worker and moderate politician, and on the other, a violent assassin (online) who likes stabbing things — is what sociologists have called “role strain.”

“Identities that were cultivated in little tide pools, that were conceived to be separate, come clashing together,” says Marc A. Smith, a sociologist and social-media expert. “The issue now is that all of these other identities, the idea that we can perform them on separate stages and that they had separate audiences, that is collapsing and the sound of its collapse is the sound of people squealing.”

In his 1959 “Presentation of Self In Everyday Life,” the sociologist Erving Goffman wrote about the idea of “front stage” and “back stage.” In Goffman’s theory, when they’re “front stage,” people engage in “impression management,” choosing their clothing, speech, and adapting the way they present themselves to their audience. “Back stage” they can be more themselves, which might mean shedding their societal role. In the era of social media, Smith says that “we live in a culture where the back stage keeps disappearing.” We think the conversations we are having are in private, but, in fact, they are publicly accessible and data has a long half-life. When U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney spoke to a select audience about the “47 percent,” he was, in fact, speaking to everyone. What happens in “World of Warcraft” doesn’t always stay in “World of Warcraft.”…

Or perhaps front stage there is a deep sense of unease about Facebook, but back stage we are not half as worried as we seem.

The suggestion here is that the world of audience segregation and impression management, where we can and do craft our actions, words, and behaviors to a particular audience, is slowly fading away. By doing more things online, these different parts of life are coming together in new ways. And I tend to agree with this journalist: there are over 900 million Facebook users, many of whom have calculated that they are willing to at least put a little information out there in return for the benefits that Facebook like keeping in touch with friends, being able to access information about others that was previously unavailable, or even acquiring the status that comes with keeping up with everyone else. A good number of users express complaints or features of Facebook that make them uneasy but relatively few are willing to give it up all together.

Indeed, we might be in the middle of a very important era where slowly individuals are thinking about and practicing new ways to present themselves and see others through mediums like Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg has expressed the goal of Facebook being a more open society where even less information on Facebook would be private, hidden, or restricted to friends. We could also look at this from the other angle: isn’t it remarkable that millions of people around the world in a span of less than 10 years have voluntarily put out information about themselves? One key might be that Facebook doesn’t force them to reveal everything; users can still practice impression management by crafting a profile. However, these are not “fake” or “untrue” profiles; rather the information is an approximation of the user’s true self.