After lengthy discussions with SB about how we could set up an experiment to look at how much people conform, we decided to manipulate an essential difference between BrE and AmE – yes, the manner in which we write the date. Americans write the date May 14th 2009 and British write the date 14th May 2009. Now, I don’t want to get into discussion about which is the ‘correct’ way to write the date but it does seem intuitively more simple to put the day before the month as this way it is in order of increasing size of time period. Of course, I am influenced by the BrE social norm! I want to be part of my cultural group.
At the time that we were planning our experimental study, 400 American students had arrived on our British campus for 8 weeks of study. We decided to see whether we could get American students to write the date in the British manner. We manipulated the date on two forms that the students were given when they took part in our experiment. We told them that the study was about architecture and creativity and asked them to build marshmallow and (AmE) toothpick/(BrE) cocktail stick towers in a given amount of time. At the start of the experiment, they signed a consent form that had room for one signature and, importantly for this study, the date. That way we could see how the American students usually wrote the date. Then when they had built their marshmallow towers they had to sign another form in order to be entered for a prize (BrE) draw/(AmE) drawing. This form had nine forged signatures, American email addresses and dates. We manipulated these dates so that a proportion were BrE (14th May 2009) and a proportion were AmE (May 14th 2009). We did not use any numerical dates (14/5/09) as it could become confusing for the participants.
Now the question is – can we get people to change the way that they write the date? In this particular case, can we get people to change their social norm? Well, as in many psychology experiments, there was that additional variable that changed the outcome of the whole experiment! By the time we had finished planning the experiment, the American students had been in the UK for two to three weeks. A large number of students had not been outside the USA before arriving on the British campus and so were adjusting to cultural differences. In one of the classes that these students attended, a register where they wrote their name and the date, illustrated a behavio(u)ral change across the first few weeks. In the first 2 weeks, all the students wrote AmE date, in the third week, 22% were writing BrE and by week 7, 88% were writing BrE. So even without our experimental manipulation, American students were being influenced by the social norm.
Working on this study with SB (an American student) over a period of 8 weeks gave us many opportunities to remark on cultural differences. For instance, we bought (orig. AmE) cookies and drinks as an incentive for these students to take part in the study. I was strictly instructed by SB in the type of cookies and (BrE) crisps/(AmE) chips to buy – they had to be familiar to the students otherwise they would not be interested. We almost had a breakdown in communication when SB saw the (BrE) sell-by date on one of the packs of cookies! If we write the date differently, we also read it differently. We always have to be calculating is it the 7/5 or 5/7? Things like that can make a difference when buying goods or arriving on the right day for a meeting.
Finally, let me describe one finding from our study that is not related to AmE and BrE date signing. In a previous study we found that people were more likely to change from 14th May to 14/5 than from 14/5 to 14th May. You could almost argue that 14/5 is the social norm in the UK. Many people would counter that it depends on the situation in which they are writing the date. Despite these considerations, we can state quite categorically that people do change the way that they write the date dependent on how many other people write it in a certain way. In the study with the American students, SB and I found that they changed from 14/5/09 to 14th May 2009 (from the numerical to the analogical) far more than in my previous study. We call this our ‘stranger in a strange land’ phenomenon. These students were out of their comfort zone and were more likely to copy the majority behavio(u)r to fit in with the group. Or maybe American students are more conformist than British students?