Changing Fast (Signs) and Slow (Norms)

August 18, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

“All Gender Restroom” said the green triangular signs — one right, one left — placed over the more permanent male and female icons. The Marriott Downtown in Philadelphia was accommodating the American Sociological Association meetings. None of this “men’s room” and “women’s room” for us. No forcing people to declare themselves on one side or the other of the gender binary every time they need to pee. We finessed that problem with a simple change of signage. As an added benefit, all-gender would minimize the unfairness of long lines for women, short lines for men.*

That was the theory. In practice, it wasn’t quite working out that way. Turns out, it’s easier to change signs than to change norms. As William Graham Sumner said the paraphrase of Sumner says, stateways cannot change folkways** – and least not right away.

During the fifteen-minute break between sessions Sunday morning, I could see the lines extending out into the hall by about three people at both the right and left restroom. I chose left and took my place behind the three women. But I wanted to see how many people were ahead of us in line inside, so I edged past to the entrance.

This must have been the men’s room (and probably would be again once the ASA had left). On the left wall were six or more urinals. On the right side of the room were six stalls, doors closed and presumably in use. But at the urinals, not a soul. The restroom was standing room only, and nobody was standing. If any men were using this restroom, they were all peeing behind closed doors. You can lead a feminist man to an all-gender restroom, but you can’t make him pee in the urinal, not when there are women standing in line at the entrance.

What the hell, I thought. Time is short, and bladders are full. I jumped the line and walked to one of the urinals, hoping that the women waiting just a few yards away were observing a norm of not observing. When I had finished and was exiting, they were still standing there. I did not make eye contact. I didn’t speak.

In the moment, I wasn’t thinking of the sociological implications of this incident. (If I had, you’d be seeing photos here.)  But it illustrates how norms change, or don’t change. Someone I mentioned it to later said something about “reproducing structures” even when the organization’s stated goal was to change, rather than reproduce, the structure —  in this case, the structure of restrooms. Later, Philip Cohen tweeted, “It made me uncomfortable but I would get used to it.” True.
But it’s not just a matter of individual adaptation. Norms are social — shared ideas about how things should be done — and changing them happens when several people start acting on the basis of the new normative. If every time you went to the restroom there were two or three men at those urinals along with women waiting in line, eventually the all-gender restroom would be no big deal, and you’d wonder what all the fuss had been about. Of course, “eventually” can take a while.

* The title of this post is a knock-off of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. But considering the usual waiting time and men’s rooms and women’s rooms, my alternate title was “Peeing Fast and Slow.” Less sociological but more relatable.

** What Sumner actually wrote was, “legislation cannot make mores.” It’s probably from his 1906 book Folkways, but given that I was wrong about the quote, I’m not going to make any simple, definitive attributions.


Anonymous said...

I'm afraid that William Graham Sumner did not make that statement attributed to him:)

Jay Livingston said...

Noted and corrected.

trrish said...

I feel like they're trying to get credit for being with it but executing it poorly.