Violating Folkways in the Customer Service Setting

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In this experiment, I thought it would be interesting to examine deviant behavior in a retail setting, where customer service workers are under pressure to perform certain tasks of emotional labor in order to please the customer. The folkway that I chose to violate is engaging in small talk with a cashier as a purchase is made. Usually in these social interactions, the cashier is going to inquire, “How is your day so far?” or “How are you?” and the customer is expected to briefly answer, “Fine, and you?” or something along those lines. The cashier typically responds, “Fine, thank you,” and by then the transaction is nearly complete, if it is a small purchase, like in my experiment. This engagement is ordinarily just a formality of convention and not an example of someone being genuinely interested in how another person's day is going. Customer service workers are also expected to provide a certain attitude of friendliness and positivity to make the customer feel comfortable. I did not want to make the worker feel embarrassed or awkward but was interested to see how the layer of a worker-customer power dynamic would affect the outcome of the experiment. Leidner (1999) discusses the “inauthenticity that many interactive service workers suffer” in “Emotional Labor in Service Work”, which I found very interesting and wanted to explore in relation to deviant behavior (p. 93).

For my experiment, I decided to go into a convenience store and purchase something small like a pack of gum or a bottle of soda. I tried to find times with different levels of busyness because I predicted that the number of customers waiting in line would affect how the cashier responded to me. I went through the line (when there was one), and when the cashier asked how I was doing, I answered very honestly and openly, going into lengthy detail about my day and how I was feeling. I expected to be rushed along politely and not engaged by the cashier in any sort of interested or meaningful way. 

The first time I went into the store, it had mild customer activity—two people waiting in line and three or four browsing the products. I chose a pack of gum to purchase from the candy aisle and brought it to the counter, where I waited behind the two other customers and observed their interactions with the cashier. They both exhibited the typical interaction I described, not using more than two or three words to describe their day or emotions. When the cashier, a young white man, asked how my day was going, I launched into a story about my morning and a dream I had the previous night about my father that ended up causing stress for me well into the day. I definitely felt uncomfortable divulging so much personal information about myself to a stranger, and the cashier seemed uncomfortable hearing about something that would usually be considered private. 

However, because I was a customer and they were providing a service for me, they remained polite, nodding and indulging my story until I was finished. My story ended about a minute after the transaction was complete. Afterward, I felt guilty for subjecting the cashier to an uncomfortable conversation. This makes sense considering, as Kaplan (1987) writes, deviant behavior affects one's “subjective association of self-derogating attitudes with self-devaluing experiences in conventional membership groups” (p. 279). 

The next time I went in, I purchased a can of soda while it was busier (I waited behind two customers while two more waited behind me). When I started talking about my day, the cashier, this time an older white woman, was very clearly displeased and responded with a curt, “Well, that's nice.” When I attempted to continue talking about my dream, the customer behind me said, “Move along, buddy,” and was visibly irritated at my deviance. This made me much more uncomfortable than my other attempt at the experiment.

I concluded that violating this folkway was greatly affected by how much stress the employee seemed to be under, depending on how busy the store was. The busier the store, the more likely the cashier seemed to be to eschew their expectations of politeness and courteousness. On the other hand, the less busy the store, the more likely they were to humor my long story, even if they were not interested.


Kaplan, H. B., Johnson, R. J., & Bailey, C. A. (1987.) Deviant peers and deviant behavior: Further elaboration of a model. Social Psychology Quarterly, 50(3), 277-284. doi:10.2307/2786829

Leidner, R. (1999). Emotional labor in service work. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 561, 81-95. Retrieved from