Part 3

Social Interaction

When President Bush strolled through his ranch in Crawford Texas holding hands with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, many Americans were amused. This type of interaction is not common between men in the United States. Typically, only couples hold hands while walking as a sign of their affection for one another. . In the weeks following this event, countless jokes were made in papers and on television shows across the United States showing the degree of homophobia present in our culture. However, in Saudi Arabia, this interaction ritual is a sign of friendship between two men.  Cultural practices may be different in Saudi Arabia, but in the United States, it is just not acceptable for two men to hold hands in public, especially if they are political leaders.

When we interact with one another, all forms of behavior are symbolic. We usually take this for granted until someone violates a social norm orinteraction ritual such as in the example above of President Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah. In this particular case it seems gender roles were violated which may be less acceptable considering it occurred among such influential men in leadership positions.
Harold Garfinkel (1967) became interested in understanding more about interaction rituals and devised a method for studying social norms by violating them. This type of research is referred to asethnomethodology.  Garfinkel pointed out that when we interact, we often assume that people understand the symbolic nature of our behaviors. When someone asks how we are doing, we usually reply with a short answer of “Fine, and you?” If we ask the person what they mean when they say, “How are you,” people may become irritated or feel uncomfortable. How could you not know what they mean?

Of course, most people know what this interaction ritual means, but there are many other forms of miscommunication that take place everyday when we interact. When people from different cultures interact, they often misinterpret behaviors even if they understand the same language. Even within the United States, people from a different social class, race, or gender may misinterpret behaviors during an interaction. In her research on conversation styles between men and women, Deborah Tannen uncovered a series of interaction rituals that had a completely different meaning for women than for men. She referred to these differences in communication asgenderlects. A genderlect is a linguistic style that reflects the differences between how men and women communicate. In her research, Tannen observed how men and women communicate in everyday situations. As you will see in the assigned reading, there are several different areas of miscommunication. Think about your experiences at home or at work. Do you find these forms of miscommunication to be present in your life as well?