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Act of Defiance: Bothering Random Shoppers

I chose to commit my act of informal defiance while I was grocery shopping. I went to a familiar shop I visit often, and where I recognize some of the cashiers. There, I randomly approached other shoppers and attempted to engage in conversation about the items they were looking at. Depending on the shopper, I either suggested other items or asked their opinions on the items they were taking from the shelves.

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The Deviance

This is a deviant act because approaching strangers without a valid reason, such as returning a lost item or asking for directions is considered rude. Most importantly, engaging strangers in conversation is unexpected in the current social order (Heslin 164). Under the strain theory, the reason for this behavior is deviant can be explained by privacy being a goal in North American culture (Heslin 174). Thus, denying people this privacy is a rejection of this goal along with the institutionalized means of reaching it, making it an example of retreatism (Heslin 174). An alternative interpretation is an acceptance of being social as a cultural goal, but rejecting the primary means of achieving this, attending social gatherings, which classes such acts as innovation (Heslin 174). Furthermore, for some people, this behavior can be examined under the control theory. From this perspective, one’s inner and outer controls, such as internalized moral principles and the potential disapproval by others, prevent him or her from deviating (Heslin 167-168). The pushes and pulls in this situation might be the need to socialize, difficulty deciding on a purchase, or desire to help others.

The Reaction

The shoppers’ reactions to being approached were both positive and negative, but not particularly pronounced. Most engaged in conversation, albeit reluctantly, but tried to end it as quickly as possible. However, one older person was amicable and seemed to enjoy the conversation. I started by asking whether she liked the flavor of the thing she was holding. When the person said that she had never tried it before, I said I did, did not like it, and suggested a different one. She thanked me for the advice, smiling and continuing to what can be described as idle conversation. These responses can be seen as a form of positive sanction (Heslin 164). However, this was the only example of a positive response out of the six people I approached.

Another respondent initially assumed I was an employee of the shop or was trying to promote a brand. When I said I was not, his facial expressions and tone changed from neutral to negative. He refused to engage further and suggested I “go prank someone else.” His frown and disapproving shaking of his head were informal negative sanctions (Heslin 164). This can be seen as the most negative response to the experiment.

The other four shoppers reacted similarly to one another; they engaged in the conversation neutrally, answering my questions in short phrases and without going into any detail. Their negative sanctions were similar to the ones described above: frowning and shaking their heads. Notably, I observed no verbal sanctions or attempts at formal sanctions, such as calling the security. Furthermore, once the conversation was over, they resumed their shopping.

Another observation is related to a significant change in the respondents’ attitude during the debriefing process. Once I informed them that I was doing this research for a paper, their attitudes changed once again. The overall shift was positive, with smiles and nods as positive sanctions. Two respondents wished me luck with my paper, and one asked for details about this assignment and expressed interest in my findings so far.


The observations in this experiment suggest interesting findings about deviant behavior. The mild informal sanctions for unsolicited questions and advice show that while this behavior is considered deviant, it is not perceived as serious or uncommon. This may be related to the validity of asking for advice or giving suggestions as a reason to approach strangers. Additionally, the reaction of he person who refused to engage was significant in that it exposed the reasons he perceived as valid for approaching stranger.

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The older person’s reaction is another point of interest, which can be interpreted in two ways. One, considering that social norms change over time, it is possible that people follow them to different extents. This is related to the differential association theory, where different groups can exist in society that affect views on conformity and deviance (Heslin 166). Two, it is possible that engaging in conversation with me was also a deviant act, where the pushes and pulls to deviate outweighed the person’s controls (Heslin 167-168). In either case, there is evidence for reciprocity in deviant behavior.

Finally, people changing their attitudes quickly when the context and perceived reason for the approach change once again point to the low severity of such deviance. Furthermore, this observation exposes the nuance in this social norm as the perceived reason has such a significant effect on the respondents’ reaction and willingness to engage. Thus, the act of engaging strangers in conversation is not necessarily deviant by itself; the context of a specific interaction makes it more or less deviant.

Works Cited

Heslin, James M. Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach. 12th edition. Pearson, 2016.

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