Even the simplest and most taken-for-granted material objects of our everyday lives carry enormous cultural weight. Take, for example, the common chair. We spend a huge chunk of our lives sitting in chairs—in dining rooms, living rooms, classrooms, offices, cars, movie theaters, restaurants, and so on. You’re probably sitting in one at this very moment.
Chairs supposedly make our lives comfortable. To be able to relax, kick off your shoes, and plop down on the old La-Z-Boy after a hard day’s work is one of life’s great pleasures. But such comfort has a steep cost. Ironically, lower back pain, often caused by bad sitting posture or poorly designed chairs, is second only to the common cold as the leading cause of absenteeism from work (Cranz, 1998). Our sedentary lifestyle has created a nation of people who are woefully out of shape.
Like all pieces of material culture, chairs are human creations. But once they’re built, they start to shape us. The type of chair you use when you’re in your sociology class immediately places you in the role of student. And whether these chairs are arranged in rows or in a circle determines the degree of interaction expected of you in class. Children’s first institutional lessons in controlling their bodies typically involve the chairs they are told to “sit still” in. Sitting quietly in rows of hard, straight chairs is not a natural state of being for young children. As one design expert put it, “The chair…originated in the industrial ordering of education. It is maintained by…unimaginative administrators who see no other possible arrangement of the body, or bodies, or any possible downside to the lower back from six hours of enforced sitting” (quoted in Baker, 2013, p. A1, A3). But it certainly helps teachers maintain authority and contain disruptive behaviors.
Chairs often take on important cultural significance beyond their functionality. For instance, the chair a person sits in may define that person’s social status. In antiquity, only the most powerful and prestigious members of a society had access to chairs; the throne is one of the most enduring symbols of royalty worldwide. When the Pope issues an authoritative decree to Catholics around the world, he is said to be speaking ex cathedra, which literally means “from the chair.” In some families, children know the consequences of sitting in or otherwise sullying “Dad’s chair.” The “chair” of an academic department can wield a great deal of power. On the other end of the spectrum, the “electric chair” is reserved for the lowest and most despicable of citizens, whose heinous crimes have led society to pronounce them unfit to live.
The right-angled posture required to sit in a chair, which we assume to be the universally proper way to sit, is used by only a third to half of people worldwide (Cranz, 1998). In many parts of the world people sit on floors, mats, carpets, or platforms. A Chinese man will likely squat when waiting for a bus, a Japanese woman kneels when eating, and an Arab might sit cross-legged on the floor when reading.
Regardless of whether we use a chair or what sort of chair we use, one thing is clear: This habit was created, modified, nurtured, and reformed in response to cultural—and not anatomical—forces. Our subjective experiences of comfort are socially constructed, and our bodies respond accordingly. For the American, it really is more comfortable to sit in a chair, and for the rural Arab it really is more comfortable to sit on the floor. That these choices are experienced subjectively as personally pleasant shows that culture is at work here.
Can You Hear Me Now?
The most popular technological device in the world today is the cell phone. Cell phones were first mass-marketed to the public in 1984. Ten years later there were 24 million U.S. cell phone subscribers. Today, that figure is around 336 million—more than the number of people living in the United States (see Exhibit 4.1). Forty-one percent of American households have no landline telephone service, only wireless. In 2013, people talked for 2.62 trillion minutes and sent 3.23 trillion text messages on their cell phones (CTIA-The Wireless Association, 2014). What was once the sole province of the well to do is now a mass-market item that virtually everyone can obtain. And the U.S. isn’t even near the top worldwide when it comes to cell phone usage. According to the World Economic Forum, Americans rank below 71 other countries in the degree to which cell phones have come to dominate contemporary communication (cited in Giridharadas, 2010b). Many developing countries in Africa and Asia have gone from very low percentages of traditional telephone ownership a decade ago to very high percentages of cell phone ownership today, completely leapfrogging past the landline technology stage of growth.
Moreover, phones aren’t simply phones anymore. In fact, the amount of time people actually spend talking on their phones hasn’t increased much over the past several years, even though cell phone ownership has grown (see Exhibit 4.1). Americans ages 18-29 send and receive an average of about 88 text messages a day, compared to 17 phone calls (cited in Kluger, 2012). Indeed, “talking” on a phone has almost become passé. As one iPhone user put it, “I probably only talk to someone verbally on it once a week” (quoted in Wortham, 2010, p. A1).
Instead, people spend the bulk of their time using all the extras on today’s smart phones: GPS navigation systems; Web browsers; video cameras; e-mail; social media like, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter, Snapchat; transportation systems like Uber, wireless payment systems, and text messaging. Clearly cell phones have completely revolutionized the way we communicate, work, find information, entertain ourselves, travel, and form relationships.
In the pre–cell phone days, people took great pains to keep conversations private. And they were by necessity stationary: Phones were either in people’s own homes or their workplaces, tethered to a wall or desk. When people had to use a phone away from home or work, they turned to public telephone booths—relics of material culture that have gone the way of the dinosaur. In these enclosed boxes, people could deposit a dime or a quarter and shut out the rest of the world while talking privately on the phone.
Cell phones changed all that. For one thing, these devices have completely altered our sense of place. When phones were anchored in a particular location, you knew when you called someone where that person was. Today area codes are pretty much useless as markers of location. Hence the first question people typically ask when calling someone’s cell phone is not “How are you?” but “Where are you?” The other day I called a friend’s cell phone. There was no answer, and the voicemail greeting started out with the common “I’m not here right now.” I had to laugh. What does “here” actually mean when someone’s phone is, by design, not here (or anywhere in particular, for that matter)?
It’s important to realize that cellular technology did not develop in response to millions of people clamoring for constant access. It was the other way around. People’s “need” to constantly talk to (or text) others as they go about their daily lives grew as a result of access to wireless technology that makes communication possible anywhere and anytime. My students know to turn off their ringers before coming to class. But it’s rare these days to get through a class period without hearing the telltale buzzing sound of a phone on “vibrate.” And it’s common on campuses all across the country to see scores of students spilling from rooms into the hallway at the end of class already texting on their phones (and I doubt it’s to share the scintillating sociological insight they’ve just attained!). People talking or texting while riding stationary bikes in fitness centers, using toilets in public restrooms, or, of course, driving has become ubiquitous.
This last tendency has become, in many states, a major focus of legislative action designed to outlaw drivers’ use of cell phones. Currently, 14 states and the District of Columbia ban the use of handheld cell phones by all drivers, 38 states ban all cell phone use (including hands-free phones) among drivers under 18, and 44 states ban texting while driving (Governors Highway Safety Association, 2015). The New York State legislature once considered a bill that would ban pedestrians’ use of cell phones (and other electronic devices) while crossing streets (Saulny & Richtel, 2011). And the National Transportation Safety Board has called for a ban on all cellphone use by all drivers, saying the recommendation is based on a decade of research into distraction-related accidents (Richtel, 2011).
Some airlines now allow passengers to use their phones until the plane pushes back from the gate and again the instant the plane touches down. But that’s not good enough for some people, and so the Federal Aviation Administration in 2013 announced a new federal policy that allows “gate-to-gate” use of portable electronic devices, though for now it still prohibits airborne calls using cell phones. The European Union approved a policy allowing cell phone use in flights over European airspace some years ago. Such conversational urgency was unknown a mere ten years ago.
In public places, huffs of disgust and resentful rolled eyes continue to await the person whose “Call Me Maybe” ringtone goes off while in line at the supermarket. The sound of someone chatting loudly on a cellphone is clearly part of “the soundtrack of daily life” (Wingfield, 2011, p. B1). And people quickly lose patience with those who decide to take a call in the middle of a face-to-face conversation:
I’m fine with people stepping aside to check something, but when I’m standing in front of someone and in the middle of my conversation they whip out their phone, I’ll just stop talking to them and walk away. If they’re going to be rude, I’ll be rude right back. (quoted in Carr, 2011, p. 12)
The rapid diffusion of such a visible technology initially caught us by surprise. As one author put it a decade ago, “We should recognize that we’re on a technological roller coaster and things are changing fast and there are levels of rudeness that we are just discovering” (quoted in Belson, 2004, p. 14). Soon a cultural backlash had imposed limits on people’s behavior. At company business meetings all across the country, the tapping sound of people using smartphones to text and check e-mail has become routine. But such usage is so annoying and distracting to some that many companies have imposed bans on smartphones in meeting rooms (A. Williams, 2009). In fact, we’ve become so obsessed with staring at our smart phones that a new industry of distraction-reducing products has developed to help us disengage from them. Some apps will silence email, text, or Facebook notifications while allowing crucial alerts to get through. Another limits owners’ access to apps they overuse. And one company recently concluded a crowdfunding campaign for a “revolutionary” product called “Light Phone,” a credit-card sized phone that does nothing but place and receive phone calls! (Dougherty, 2015).
As with other forms of technology, people will eventually come to some normative agreement about proper smart phone etiquette in different social situations. Until then, we’ll simply have to find ways to cope with this ubiquitous technological distraction.
I’ve Got a Feeling
We all experience emotions as physical, sometimes instantaneous responses to life events. Thus, we’re inclined to see emotions as natural and universal. Yet emotional display comes under the strict control of cultural norms. In rural areas of Greece, widows traditionally are expected to mourn over the loss of their husbands—most notably by wearing black—for the rest of their lives. That would be seen as excessive in the United States, where more than two straight months of grieving might be considered an indicator of major depression (Horwitz, 2002).
Every society has unwritten rules about which emotions are appropriate to feel, which are appropriate to display, and how intense the emotional display should be under specific circumstances. For instance, in our culture, we’re supposed to be sad at funerals, happy at weddings, and angry when we are insulted. We’re supposed to feel joy when we receive good news but not show too much of it if our good fortune is at someone else’s expense. In extreme cases, the violation of emotional display norms can lead to grave sanctions, such as a diagnosis of mental illness (Pugliesi, 1987; Thoits, 1985).
When people hide or alter their emotions to fit the situation, they are playing a significant role in maintaining social order within broader social institutions. Take the popular TV show American Idol, for example. In the season finale, when the field is finally reduced to the last two contestants, the camera zooms in on both of them. They stand on stage holding hands in shaky anticipation of the final verdict. The lights are dimmed. When the winner is announced, the runner-up is the picture of grace and charm, all smiles and congratulations. But we know better. This person has just lost the contest of her or his life on national television and has got to be sad, angry, or at the very least disappointed. To add insult to injury, she or he is then gently escorted offstage so the winner can have the spotlight. Why does the runner-up suppress the urge to show true emotions? Part of the reason is that he or she understands that there’s more at stake than personal feelings. Imagine what would happen to the American Idol phenomenon if the runners-up started displaying their bitterness onstage—screaming at the host, threatening the judges, shunning the winners, or demanding a recount.
Norms about expressing emotions are often linked to institutional concerns and needs. In her book The Managed Heart, Arlie Russell Hochschild (1983) describes the feeling rules required by occupations in which employees have a great deal of contact with the public. Flight attendants, for example, must constantly be good natured and calm under dangerous conditions. They must make their work appear effortless and handle other people’s feelings as deftly as their own. This ability is not just a matter of living up to social expectations—it is part of their job description. A “smile” becomes an economic asset and a public relations tool.
Likewise, doctors and nurses are trained to show compassionate concern for their patients, not disgust or alarm. Furthermore, they cannot become too emotionally involved with patients, because they see pain, suffering, and death every day. It is difficult not to become attached to patients, but such emotional outlay would inevitably lead to burnout, making effective job performance impossible. We want our health care providers to show that they like us, but doctors and nurses are most successful in their jobs when they can keep their emotions under control.
Some companies include explicit instructions on emotional control and display as part of their training programs for new employees. This is especially true in service-sector jobs where contact with customers occurs over the phone. The telephone performance guidelines for one insurance company included the following directives:
Remember, smiling can be heard as well as seen. . . . Have a smile in your voice and avoid sounding abrupt. . . . Try to make the caller feel you are there for them . . . [avoid] a disinterested, monotonous tone to voice. . . . Use language which conveys understanding of and empathy for the caller’s individual situation, e.g., “are you OK?” “was anyone hurt?” “that must have been very distressing for you.” (D. Cameron, 2000, pp. 334–335)
The ability to enact convincing performances has become even more important given the rise of management techniques that use customer or client input as a means of assessing employees. Many service sector companies survey customers, monitor phone calls, and use undercover “secret shoppers” or other forms of surveillance to gather information on workers, making appropriate emotional display even more important. Hochschild (1983) warns that this kind of “emotional labor” eventually takes a heavy psychological toll on the workers, who are required to adopt a display of emotions that reflects corporate needs and not their own. These people become increasingly estranged from their true feelings.
Although it is not surprising that organizations would have an interest in emotional displays by members, it is perhaps less obvious that particular emotions are linked to larger societal concerns such as politics and economics, often as a method of social control (Kearl & Gordon, 1992). For instance, the conflict perspective points out that some regimes may use fear to quell dissent and enforce obedience. In the early 20th century, in response to the increasing political and economic strength of African Americans, many white Southerners used fear to control blacks through the threat of lynching and other forms of violence. Similarly, religious leaders often use the fear of eternal damnation to make sure their followers cooperate.
The effectiveness of invoking emotions such as guilt, anxiety, and shame waxes and wanes as social climates change. In the past, when communities were smaller and more interdependent, social behavior could be easily regulated by the threat of shame. If people broke a law or violated some norm of morality, they would bring humiliation on themselves, their families, and the community at large. But as societies became more complex, such close ties began to disappear. Today, the political control of behavior through emotion is more likely to be directed inward, in the form of guilt and anxiety. For instance, if working mothers are implicated by politicians as contributing to the “breakdown” of the traditional family by leaving the raising of their children to others, more and more mothers will experience guilt when they seek employment outside the home (Berg, 1992).
Norms governing the expression of emotions give us a way to communicate and maintain social order. They perpetuate institutions by creating powerful cultural expectations that are difficult to violate.