On Carrying a Red Fuzzy Purse

I wrote this during the second semester of my junior year at Johns Hopkins University for Social Psychology with Dr. Stephen Drigotas.

Carlos Macasaet
Dr. Stephen Drigotas
200.133 – Norm Violation Paper
3 March 2004

On Carrying a Red Fuzzy Purse

Introduction

Social norms are a thing that we seem to overlook, yet something that plays a rather significant role in our lives. I imagine that many norms or conventions arise out of practicality, for example, facing a certain direction in the elevator. After that, I suspect that they become conventions out of a combination of social comparison and social learning. When we do not know how we are supposed to behave in certain situations, we look to others for cues on what to do. Also, once we have seen how others behave, we are more likely to imitate them if there were no adverse social consequences. It is probably also important to note whose conventions we follow. It is probably the case that we are more likely to follow conventions of people that are similar to us or people that we look up to.

I think the reason we follow so many social conventions is because we observe them so many times over and over. When we encounter a situation we have never faced before, our natural response is to behave in the way we are accustomed to observing. Norms are not usually things that we follow consciously. Rather, they are things that have become natural for us through our observational experiences.

When we observe people violating social norms, we are quick to notice the inconsistency with our set schema for the situation. These actions tend to be memorable and something that we associate with the person that violated the convention. As a result, we would tend to avoid behaviour that would attract undue attention to ourselves or that would make us look very different from other people. In a world where people kill each other for being too different or behaving too differently, our natural response may have arisen as a natural defence mechanism, much like the way a chameleon blends in with its environment. Finally, I would suspect that there is more pressure to follow social conventions when there are more people around. By ourselves, we probably behave in whatever way is most natural, unless the social norm is so ingrained in us that it becomes our natural response.

I suspect that emotional responses to violations of social conventions also arise from the incongruence between what we expect and what we observe. If the observed behaviour is something that we admire, positive emotions will surface. If, however, it is something that we disagree with, or even if the behaviour seems like an unnecessary breach of social convention with no significant gain, more negative emotions will likely surface.

Carrying a Red Fuzzy Purse (The Norm Violation)

For this exercise, I chose to violate the social convention that men do not carry purses – in particular, red fuzzy purses. I chose the most feminine purse I was able to obtain to ensure that it would not be confused with what is commonly referred to as a European men’s carryall; I wanted to draw as much attention as possible.

I began carrying the purse the day after this exercise was assigned and as I sit in the library typing this paper, the purse sits next to me on the desk. I carried the purse with me as often as I could in order to elicit as many responses as possible from my close friends, complete strangers and everyone in between. I brought the purse to my classes, to work, to restaurants, to stores and I carried it when I socialised with other people. I had it in situations involving a lot of social interaction as well as in situations when other people were simply present. My plan was to passively observe those around me when I had the purse while behaving as I normally would. I predicted that many people would notice the purse and that when interacting with them, many would inquire about it. When people would ask about it, I planned to explain that I was carrying the purse because it was very practical and besides, it was so soft. Eventually, I imagined I would have to explain to everyone that it was for an assignment.

Other People’s Responses to the Red Fuzzy Purse

Surprisingly, some of my closest friends seemed to be very uncomfortable with the idea of me carrying a purse – some seemed to be very emotional about it. One friend’s response almost seemed hostile as he criticised me, exclaiming, “You’re carrying a red purse!” He continued to say that the least I could have done was to choose a Dallas Cowboys bag. He explained that it just seemed to him that there was something very wrong with the idea of a man carrying a purse and that it just should not be done. Incidentally, this is the same response he gave me when I had indicated prior to this assignment that I was considering carrying a handbag of some sort.

The way one friend reacted, it seemed that by me carrying a purse I was actually embarrassing him. He asked if I would be carrying the purse when we went certain places together and he generally seemed uncomfortable when the purse was near him. He even wanted me to reassure him – only half jokingly – that I would throw the bag away upon completion of the assignment.

Another friend, immediately upon seeing me, reacted with shock as she asked in disbelief if I was indeed wearing a purse. Another time, a friend asked me if I ever felt embarrassment in general. He could not seem to imagine subjecting himself to such awkward attention. With all of these strong reactions from people that knew me well, I was surprised when some people with whom I interact almost everyday did not respond at all to my new accessory.

Perhaps the most humorous response was from one of my teachers. First she told me with a hint of laughter in her voice that she liked my bag. Next she asked me if I was trying to make some sort of statement. I eventually told her that it was for an assignment. Later, she asked me if I were afraid people would think that I was homosexual. While I often felt at least somewhat self-conscious while performing this task, this was never really a concern that I had. Interestingly, when I was with other people whom I knew very well, the purse always seemed to incite some sort of discussion on purses and gay men. From these discussions, I got the general feeling that people would not find it too socially unconventional for a gay man to carry a purse.

However, the most notable reaction that I observed was from people that I did not know very well or at all. When passing by people or interacting with others, people would quickly glance at the purse as if to verify that it was indeed a purse that I was carrying. However, these people were always quick to look away or simply ignore it. Also surprising was that some people, with whom I interacted, did not react to it at all. When I pulled cash out of my purse at the supermarket and at stores, I expected that the people in the queue behind me or at least the cashiers would react in some way to what others viewed as unusual behaviour. However, these people did not respond in any way that I was able to discern.

My Response to Carrying a Red Fuzzy Purse

Naturally, at first, I felt a bit self-conscious carrying the purse around. However, after carrying it around for a while, I did not feel so self-conscious when I encountered new situations. In general, I did not feel so self-conscious when I was just walking around by other people. I felt more self-conscious when I had the purse and I had to interact with others – such as when paying for groceries. The time I felt most self-conscious was when I carried it down the aisle at church during mass.

In general, I felt very paranoid about having the purse stolen. I found myself often checking to make sure it was still at my side when I had to put it down and I found myself planning evasive manoeuvres as I passed unsavoury looking characters on the street, just in case any of them would attempt to snatch it. In fact, I was convinced one person was intending to steal it when he began to follow me very closely.

One aspect of my behaviour I anticipated I would have to modify when carrying the purse was to make it a part of my ensemble so that it would be one more thing I would have to ensure was matching. However, it was not quite something I got the hang of. Imagine the horror I felt when I looked at myself in the mirror and noticed I was wearing a lime green shirt with my red purse.

Finally, I noticed subtle changes in my gait and mannerisms at certain times while carrying the purse. First, whenever the purse began to slip off of my shoulder, I found myself adjusting it in much the same way I had noticed women often do it. I noticed a slight change in my gait when I had to run short distances as when running to catch a door before it closes or running to get on the subway car before it leaves. I am not sure if I was adjusting the purse the way I did because that is the most natural method for maintaining a purse on one’s shoulder or because that was the way I noticed people do it. I am not sure if the change in my gait was inspired simply by the fact I was carrying a purse or because I was somehow trying to keep it from slipping off when I increased my pace. However, these new motions felt distinctly feminine to me. While they did not make me feel uncomfortable, I was very aware of them.

Conclusions on Carrying a Red Fuzzy Purse

The social convention dictating that women may carry purses but that men may not was a result of the way in which men’s and women’s fashion evolved. When the handbag was first invented, both men and women alike used it. However, with the invention of breeches with built-in pockets in 1670, purses started to become out of fashion. Then, women’s fashion evolved to become more delicate and restrictive and pockets became impractical or impossible. The handbag gained popularity out of necessity, but then became an important fashion accessory. (History of the Handbag)

What I found most interesting was that the way in which people reacted to the purse seemed to be a function of how well the person knew me. It was my closest friends that had the strongest reactions, while people who were strangers to me hardly reacted at all. I suspect that this was because people did not want to be caught staring. This may also be because of social convention and it would be interesting to study how people would react in Pakistan where staring is commonplace. One person commented that it would take a very secure man to carry a purse and so she would naturally hold such a person in higher regard. Thus, while it would still stick out in one’s mind, it would not seem completely out of place. This may also explain the kinds of reactions I received. For people that knew me fairly well and did not react, it is also possible that they simply saw it as typical behaviour from the same person that wears dark glasses at night and faces the wrong direction on elevators. It is important to note, however, that people are likely to be surreptitious in the way they react to something such as this and it would just be impossible to observe everyone’s reactions at all times. Another thing that I found surprising was that people generally accepted my reasoning that a purse was very practical and that this particular one was soft to the touch when they inquired about it.

I was most surprised, however, by the emotional responses that people had to the purse that I carried. I imagined that most people would find it humorous. Naturally, I expected that I would feel slightly embarrassed, but I did not anticipate that others would also feel embarrassed or even slightly offended. Because of this, I would conclude that another reason that we, as social animals follow these norms is out of consideration for others. While we may want to save ourselves from looking different from the norm, we also want to avoid eliciting strong or unnecessary emotions in others. It is important to note, however that while some people reacted with strong emotions to the purse, most people I spoke with seemed to be very tolerable of it.

Works Cited

“History of the Handbag.” NFAA/FASA Accessory Web 1997: n. pag. Online. Internet. 2 March 2004. Available: http://www.accessoryweb.com/history.html.

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