Where do people learn how to behave in public? Where do the codes of conduct, the moral principles that guide human behavior and interaction, come from? The answer to these questions turns out to be much more complicated than what meets the eye.
To some extent, the answer lies in each person’s particular upbringing—clear lessons taught by mom and dad, teachers and school administrators, ministers and rabbis. Don’t take candy from strangers. Be respectful of others. Don’t run in the hallway. Treat others the way you want to be treated.
But explicit lessons like these are dwarfed by the murkier lessons we learn daily through the school of lived experience in public places with others. They are murkier because the lessons are not verbalized or written down anywhere; rather, they are intuited through culture, body language, facial expression, and other social cues. In other words, we are taught to behave in public by being and interacting with others in public spaces.
In Amy Cunningham’s essay “Why Women Smile,” we see an illustration of just how powerful these culturally transmitted lessons can be: a woman who makes a conscious, personal choice to stop smiling in public discovers that such behavior is unwelcome; the absence of a woman’s smile does not play well with the culture’s expectations of womanhood, femininity, and professional advancement, and she unhappily must submit to her culture’s social norms that dictate women should smile. No parent, teacher, or member of the clergy likely ever told her that not smiling would have negative consequences, but her interaction with others in public spaces screamed that not smiling is absent from the palette of acceptable choices available to her.
Similarly, in Brent Staples’ essay “Just Walk on By: A Black Man Ponders His Power to Alter Public Space,” the author demonstrates his acute awareness of how his very presence, as an African-American man, alters others’ behavior in public spaces, often “in ugly ways” (Staples 2). Again, no published book of ethics or code of conduct to which Staples might have been exposed growing up prepared him for his lived experience in public spaces. The experience of being in public places that formed his ethical education and taught him his culture’s expectations for acceptable codes of conduct.
As a sociologist, Erving Goffman created a model for social interactions based on dramaturgy in the spirit of Shakespeare’s line “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players” whose central metaphor centers on people’s “backstage” and “front-stage” lives (Newman, 120-128). Backstage represents a place of preparation, where individuals get ready for “public” performances of their character. While people may bring cultural norms into their backstage preparations, Goffman’s main point about the backstage is that it is an essentially private space, where individuals can make choices that emanate from their true inner selves. The leverage of Goffman’s model comes from highlighting the tension between those individual, private decisions people make backstage, and the expectations of those who will see the front-stage performance.
Stereotypically, American women are viewed as nurturing, maternal, and congenial; and the facial expression appropriate for conveying such cultural norms is the becoming smile. It is no wonder that most flight attendants are women and their latent function is to quell the nerves of fearful passengers. However, what happens when women refuse to fulfill the social expectation that they smile? Amy Cunningham’s essay, “Why Women Smile,” addresses precisely this question. Cunningham argues that women smile too often on the front stage, as the direct result of cultural indoctrination and pressure, even when they are unhappy. Cultural expectations make women feel burdened to lighten the mood in public places irrespective of their actual feelings: Speaking from her own lived experience as a woman, Cunningham writes,“Smiles are not the small and innocuous things they appear to be: Too many of us smile in lieu of showing what’s really on our minds” (Cunningham 1). In other words, in public spaces women are expected to follow unwritten rules that prevent them from expressing the full range of their emotional lives. In its original form, a smile is the most genuine way to express happiness; however, when women smile too much, and, especially when they smile in spite of contrary feelings, the smile begins to mean something different. “Evidently, a women’s happy, willing deference is something the world wants visibly demonstrated” (Cunningham 2). The cultural expectations, negotiated through social interaction like that Cunningham describes, circumscribe female expressiveness and behavior in public spaces.
Much like Amy Cunningham, who learns how stringently the unwritten rules surrounding women smiling in public spaces are enforced, Brent Staples learns his socially defined position in society through a similar mechanism. Through experiences, Staples learns how his presence alters the social dynamic in public spaces. He recounts the time when he was a new resident in Chicago, walking the streets one evening behind a white woman who he noticed “picked up her pace and was soon running in earnest” as Staples was approaching (Staples 1). Staples describes himself as someone who is a “softy who is scarcely able to take a knife to a raw chicken” and is surprised when he realizes his simple presence as an African-American man could cause such visible fear in a Caucasian woman (Staples 2). Staples is initially dismayed: Why did this woman feel suddenly threatened and what is it about himself that is so threatening? Staples reasons that the woman assumed he was a mugger or rapist or some other kind of threat to her safety simply because of cultural stereotypes. These stereotypes are reinforced in daily sensationalised images and stories carried in the media about African-American star athletes and domestic violence. Staples recounts another example of a time he was wrongly judged based on the color of his skin when he went into a jewelry store. Upon Staples appearance in the store, “the proprietor excused herself and returned with an enormous red Doberman pinscher straining at the end of a leash…her eyes bulging nearly out of her head” (Staples 4). Through deductive reasoning, people arrive at erroneous conclusions based on cultural stereotypes and then act according to those conclusions. Because Staples is an African-American male who stands a little over six feet tall, his imposing presence suddenly becomes threatening. Because of this social reality, Staples adjusts and he learns to “move with care, particularly late in the evening I give a wide berth to nervous people on subway platforms during the wee hours, particularly when I have exchanged business clothes for jeans” (Staples 4-5). These are considerations that do not typically enter the minds of people more readily accepted in public spaces without negative stereotypes. The way Staples conducts himself in public space must change depending on the particular people with whom he is interacting.
Just as Brent Staples alters public spaces, so too does Mervan Osborne, an African-American head of school living in Greater Boston. Osborne’s letter to the editor, published in the October 7, 2014, edition of The Boston Globe, discusses an interaction he had with a white father and son on a playground while chaperoning his African-American toddler. Like Cunningham and Staples, Osborne is acutely aware of the ways in which his presence and actions in public spaces alter the attitudes and behaviors of those around him: “I’m well-versed in the many ways my presence alters public space” (Osborne). Like the men who shun Cunningham for not smiling and like the woman who runs away from Staples, Osborne notes that his white peer “ma[de] a split-second decision, [and] darted in front of me and screened his son” (Osborne). He then tells his fellow readers of The Boston Globe, from the perspective of an African-American man, how such altered behavior makes him feel: “There’s a special sting to the small, subconscious acts of racism that pervade even the most innocent of spaces” (Osborne). He also observes how racism is transmitted both to the perpetrators and, in this case, to the victims: “As a father, I watch in awe as my son becomes more perceptive each day and absorbs more of the world into his nimble young mind” (Osborne). Here Osborne underscores the insidious process of culturally imbued racism.
We like to think that the opinions of others should not matter and that the way we conduct ourselves in public arenas are decisions left to each individual. From the polemical writings of Cunningham, Staples, and Osborne, however, it is clear that public spaces are mediated by far more than individual choices: there are social “rules” people tend to follow, borne out of stereotypes that are deep-seated in the culture and reinforced everywhere from the local playground to nationally televised news and advertisement campaigns. Cultural norms are stubborn, but Osborne suggests that there is a solution to change the way the public perceives men of color or, by extension, non-smiling women. More public space must be given to positive images and messages surrounding people who have historically been negatively stereotyped. Osborne waxes hopeful at the end of his letter when he describes the positive cover image of the celebration issue of an alumni magazine: “The cover features a simple image of a smiling, resolute black teen from Roxbury who had gone on to attend an elite local independent school, all the way defying stereotypes” (Osborne). Osborne concludes with the promising suggestion that by making a conscious effort to change the images beamed out into public discourse through the media, magazines, and the wider culture, we can perhaps pave the way for public spaces to be redefined as they expand their boundaries.
Claudia Udolf, KO ’14, Tufts ’18 is a student at Tufts University.
Amy Cunningham. “Why Women Smile” McQuade, Donald and Robert Atwan, eds. The
Writer’s Presence. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011
Newman, David M. Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life: Readings. Thousand
Oaks, CA: Pine Forge, 2000. Print
Osborne, Mervan. “In Rage and Despair, He Sees His Son Observing How the Cruel Myth of the
‘Scary Black Man’ Persists – The Boston Globe.” BostonGlobe.com. N.p., 7 Oct. 2014. Web. 19 Oct. 2014.
Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954. Print.
Staples, Brent. “Just Walk on By: A Black Man Ponders His Power to Alter Public Space.”
Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine (1986): n. page. Web.