I once had a professor who loved to talk social interaction: the study of people in any given situation, at any given time, with any given circumstance. It was intriguing, to say the least. Unfortunately for me, I took his class at the beginning of my degree program, thought all sociology classes would prove to be just as fascinating, and wound up bored to tears later in my academic career over the likes of Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. While these guys were geniuses in their field, bringing such issues as capitalism, material economic foundations of society, and the rise of bureaucracy and the rationalization of society into a much broader light, I longed for a more hands-on approach to learning social theory and ached for less time with my nose in a book.
Enter George Herbert Mead, my Sociology Superhero. This is a guy who believed that the "self" was constructed and reconstructed through interactive behavior. One of the founders of the Symbolic Interactionism theories, he concluded that the "self" can only develop through interactions with other people, so that the self is inherently social. I was easily wooed by his theory and mourned the fact that he had died 41 years before I was born, a good 60 years before I could interview him. After studying Mr. Mead, I grew to love his findings of Interactionism and looked for every possible scenario in which to run new studies.
The previously abovementioned professor, whose name has since escaped me, became keen early in the game to my expressed interest in social dynamics. He graciously granted me the time and space required to test my own newly developed theories "out in the field." Yet, throughout the duration of the school quarter, it became fairly obvious that my field experiments were becoming less of an opportunity to gather data and more of a prospect to just plain mess with people. For educational purposes, of course. Consider it more of a college-set version of Girls Behaving Badly, or in my case, Girl. I like to think Chelsea Handler would be proud.
To be true to my studies I had to wrap Mead's theories into my own hypotheses. Prove somehow that people evolve and adapt given the situation. After 12 years I had not yet found myself on the other end - being an unknowing part of a social experiment. Until last night.
Safeway checkout. End of the day. While my two children mistake the cart for a jungle gym, I gaze out the window and let the cashier continue to total my purchases. Tired sigh, quick glance to my watch, mentally I prepare dinner. The children hop and swing around me, chanting nonsense as I drift into thoughts of beaches and sand. Margaritas … painted toenails …
"That'll be $297.62," she says cheerfully. Say what? I look down and see a vast array of food that doesn't belong to me being swiftly bagged and placed in my cart.
"Oh wait! That's not mine!" The cashier and I laugh and start sifting through the items to sort out what's staying and what's going. No word from the lady behind me in line, to which all of this belongs.
"I am so sorry!" I tell the kindly cashier, "I should have put a divider up!"
"No, no ... I'm sorry!" she replies. "I should have been paying better attention!"
Still nothing is said by the woman who is, I feel, equally responsible for the confusion. She watches silently as food is unloaded, totals are re-tallied, and a new receipt is issued. I wait patiently, expecting her to offer her own apologies for her lack of attention. Nothing. She is totally devoid of emotion - if anything, acts as if the groceries aren't hers either.
As I exit, it occurs to me that she might not have been being rude, she might have been gathering data. Another fan of Mead perhaps, another girl behaving badly. I've got to start giving people more credit.