There are many public locations where thousands of people pass by or go in every day. I always pass by these places, such as parks, restaurants, subways, and sidewalks, however, I never stopped to observe how people interact with each other or with the public space. This assignment interests me because it allows me to look at something so normal to me, in a new perspective. I decided to observe the subway, because I take it almost every week, and never payed attention to the social norms that are present. As you know, there are many people in the subway in New York, at any time of the day. Therefore, it made it a little difficult to focus on one specific person, but rather I focused on different people and how they acted and presented themselves.
In the subway, there are many social norms that are not legally listed, but people are aware of them. For example, when walking into the subway, you should always wait for people to get out before you go in. On the stops before going into the city, I observed that people did this, and it worked out well. However, on the stops in the city, people began to get more chaotic. They all rushed in at the same time, and did not care if people had to get out. I believe this is due to the difference in environments and population. In the stops before the city, there were not as many people, and the environment was more calm and organized. In the city stops, there were ten times more people, and many were rushing to get home from work, so they did not consider anyone else besides themselves. I found this interesting because it is a social norm that is supposed to be followed by everyone, but apparently depends on the location.
Furthermore, another social norm that was created in the subway system is to only take up one seat on the benches. This is not legally required, but everyone does it out of respect. I observed many people walking in, and when the benches were empty they would spread their legs out and often take up two seats. However, once they see the train start to get packed, they move over and allow more people to sit down. This is a kind gesture made by many, because I know that many people can not be squished between two people. However, in such a crowded city, there is only so much room for everyone in the subway, so we sometimes have to make sacrifices.
Another social norm that has been around for a while is giving up your seat for either a pregnant woman or an elder. While many people negotiate this social norm, there are others who completely ignore it. I observed many younger students, probably from ages 16-23, get up for elderly people and pregnant woman. However, I also saw a couple of people, ages 30-45, pretend that they are not paying attention and ignore the elder or pregnant woman. I find this very disrespectful, and although it is not a law to give up your seat, people do it out of respect and kindness.
I take the subway very often in my life, and have never noticed how some people negotiate to these social norms, while others reject them. It was very interesting to observe a place so familiar to me in a new way, focusing on the people and their actions rather than thinking about the place I need to get to. This assignment made me realize that there are many social norms that are not written down anywhere, but have just been created over time. It is interesting to see how the people who follow these norms assimilate to the environment and are viewed as “normal” and “kind”, while those who contest them are viewed as “weird” and “disrespectful”.