Friday, June 22, 2007

The Power of Norms, or "Are Bostonians Hard Little Bastards?"

This morning while riding the Red Line there was a middle-aged woman wandering back and forth in the train, panhandling for a dollar.

Sound run of the mill? Not so fast...

I won't speak for the Blue Line, which I rarely ride...but over my eleven years in Boston, I've regularly commuted on the Green, Red and Orange Lines for four of them. And I've never seen anyone actually panhandling on the trains. It's pretty rare in the subway stations, too.

Granted there's lots of panhandlers right next to the entrances to the stations...but not in the stations themselves, and definitely not on the trains. I mean, it's a pretty serious faux pas to even talk to someone else on the train unless you know them. "Nobody botherin' nobody" is the motto.

So in this case, the best I could describe the vibe on the train was almost one of stunned surprise. You've got to be a bit hard to live in any city to begin with, and Bostonians are notorious jerks to boot. But people seemed blown away that someone had the audacity to panhandle on the train.

Interestingly, this woman seemed outwardly "normal". She certainly didn't look like your stereotypical bum beggin' for change. In fact, I think most people would've thought she really did need the dollar for the bus...if it weren't for her rather loudly (and melodramatically) bemoaning the fact that her parents died here, she's just visiting because her children are in foster care, and Boston is a nasty town and the people in it are mean because they won't give her a lousy dollar even though she's not drunk and "doesn't look dirty and nasty like a bum."

But back to what I wanted to talk about: the reactions of the people on the train. People weren't really ignoring her, they were practically it was a car wreck. The expressions on their faces really did seem like: This just isn't done! What the hell is going on here!?!? I don't know what to do?!? This...just...ISN'T...done!!!! The social norms had just been shattered by this one poor woman begging for a dollar...who, regardless of whether or not she was telling the truth, was obviously very upset over the whole thing.

I have a degree in psychology, and I work for a show about mental health and psychological I'm sure someone, somewhere, has done a study on this effect. I'll have to look around and see if I can find it; after living it this morning I have to think it'd be a fascinating read.

Ed.note: I didn't give her a dollar, either...I was a little too creeped out by her diatribe.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How thoughtful of you!