We can illustrate the idea of cultural learning (and show how the concepts of roles, values and norms are inter-related into the bargain) using Proxemic theory – the study of how people understand and use space in a cultural context – originally developed by Hall (1966).

sctv_hallAlthough we are born with the ability to understand notions of space (our eyes, for example, are positioned in such a way as to create three-dimensional images that our brains have the ability to process accurately) Hall argued different cultures create different ways of “seeing space” – the most familiar example, for our current purpose perhaps, being the idea of personal space (although it’s possible to look beyond the individual to understand how whole societies organise and utilise space in culturally-specific ways – in terms of things like urban development, housing, transport and so forth).

Personal space can be defined in terms of an area (or “bubble”) that surrounds each of us which has a couple of important characteristics:

Firstly, the extent of our personal space varies both between cultures (in countries like England or the United States, for example, people generally like to maintain a greater sense of personal distance from others than they do in countries like France or Brazil) and within cultures – such as gender differences in our society (two women talking to each other, for example, tend to maintain less personal space between them than two men in the same situation).

Secondly, the space that surrounds us is considered to be “our property” and entry into it is regulated in various ways – something we can relate to different roles, values and norms using Hall’s (1996) classic example of “strangers waiting for a train”.

When waiting for a train at a railway station we are (for the sake of illustration) playing the role of “stranger” to the people who are also waiting for the train. In this situation the role, as with any other role we play, is surrounded by certain values (beliefs about how we should play this role). In our culture there are a range of values that apply (we should not behave towards strangers as if they were our closest friend in the world, for example) and in this particular example one of the values we bring to bear is that of privacy and, more specifically, the notion of personal space as a way of maintaining privacy. In other words, when playing the role of stranger we value the cultural concept of privacy, both for our own purposes and those of others.

In this respect we understand that privacy is an important concept in our culture and we should not act in ways that invade – uninvited – the privacy of others (just as we expect them not to invade our privacy). One way this value (or general behavioural guideline) is expressed is through various norms (or specific behavioural guidelines) that apply in particular situations.

In this instance, one norm that reflects the role of stranger and the value of privacy is that we do not sit too close to strangers; we do not, in short, invade their personal space. There are, of course, additional norms we could identify in this situation; we do not, for example, deliberately touch the people we are sitting next to, nor do we generally interact with them – although this may depend on things like the amount of time we are forced to spend sitting next to someone. We may, for example, make “general conversation” (to complain about having to wait, for example) although, once again, we need to avoid becoming too intimate or personal – a stranger doesn’t want to hear your life story. Such “conversational gambits” also have an important normative function here because they establish a “common ground” between strangers forced to sit together – we observe, for example, the norms of conversation and recognition in a way that is generally neutral (“how much longer are we going to have to wait”?) and which establishes clear behavioural boundaries.

If you want to simulate the cultural significance of personal space, it’s relatively quick and easy to do in a couple of ways:

  1. Pair off your students and ask them to stand next to or facing each other much as they would if they were in some outside location. If you make a rough note of the distance between them you should find a consistent distance across all pairs.
  2. A variation here is to pair girls and boys separately to test if there are gendered special distances (you should find there are).

If you want to do this in a more-structured way use these instructions (sorry but I don’t know the source):

“Using masking tape, place an X on the floor. Attach measuring tapes to the floor around 6 inches away from the X so that the increasing measurements go away from X. Ask one student volunteer to stand on the X. Following the measuring tape, have another student volunteer walk slowly toward the student in the centre. Instruct the student in the centre to say “stop” when the approaching person is close enough that they start to feel uncomfortable.

Record the distance. Then do the activity again from the sides and back.

Ask students: What is the standard shape of the individual’s personal space requirements? What factors may influence the amount of personal space we need? Will there be cultural differences? How does personal space affect interpersonal relationships?

The Simulation

A more-structured way to achieve a similar end is to play Paul’s “Urinal Game”, the basic rules of which are outlined below.

It’s worth reading Paul’s original article because it expands on the game and offers a number of ways to use it to teach a range of sociological ideas (from roles, values and norms to sociological perspectives) but My Sociological Activation provides a useful overview:

“On a whiteboard, draw a restroom doorway, three urinals to represent a men’s restroom (they can be circles, but explain to the students what they are meant to represent). Then ask for a male volunteer.  Ask him which urinal he would go to and have him stand there.  While the first volunteer does his business, ask for a second volunteer and have him do the same thing.  Then ask a third.  Students will probably laugh and want to talk about it.  Ask each of the volunteers why they went where they did? This game will often provoke discussion about the social norms in an American male restroom, that a man must not appear to be initiating any contact while using the restroom. This includes physical proximity, eye contact and conversation. Often the discussions will result in the consensus that if all three urinals are unoccupied, the correct answer is the urinal furthest from the door. If that urinal is occupied, the correct answer is the urinal closest to the door, leaving one unoccupied urinal as a buffer. If both of these urinals are occupied, a man must decide between using the buffer urinal or he can exit the restroom and come back later.”


You can vary the rules of the game a little to make the choices available to students a little more complicated. In addition to the 3 open plan urinals you could add a 4th option, the closed stall. That is, a student could choose to occupy the closed space rather than the open-spaced urinals. Place the closed stall option furthest away from the door so the student must pass the 3 open urinals to reach it.

As part of the debrief discussion you should also note that “bathroom etiquette” for men is not just a question of where you stand – it also involves being in complete control of where you look (normally straight ahead) and avoiding any sense of social interaction – you do not talk to the man standing next to you…

If you’re feeling particularly confident you can use your knowledge of the likely game outcome to “predict” student behaviour (the statistically-likely scenario is outlined in Paul’s article). Seal your answer in an envelope that you place ostentatiously on your desk before the game begins without telling your students what you’re doing. If the scenario plays-out as predicted, you can amaze your students by getting one of them to unseal the envelope and reveal your prediction – a good way to introduce the idea that we use behavioural norms to make life broadly understandable and predictable (which is a nice link into something like (Symbolic) Interactionism).

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