Breaching Boston: On accidental ethnomethodology

I was in Boston, MA a week or so ago for the meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. It was a good meeting, but it was in a part of Boston where I’d not previously spent any time. The Westin Waterfront is near the Boston Convention and Exposition Center, in the Seaport District. While there are some good dining options on the water, I wasn’t aware of that on the first day of the meetings. So, at lunch I decided to walk out and see what I could find. I started walking west on Summer street, not toward the water, but toward South Station because I figured there would be food in that area. As I crossed the “Fort Point” Channel, I came to a large building with floor to ceiling windows on the first floor. Inside, there were a lot of people standing in line at a number of different counters. It was a food court, and I wanted food. So, in I went. 

As I entered, I could see from the business attire that most were wearing that this was a largely professional crowd. Fortunately, I’d just given a paper, and looked pretty professional (for me). I was in khakis and button down shirt, which is about as put-together as I ever look. I started slowly walking through this food court to see what my options were. The lines were long, it was just a few minutes after noon, and the rush of people made it a bit difficult to see what was available. As I made my way through, I noticed that there were reception desks between this open food court area and the elevators to the rest of the building. I didn’t think much beyond “this must be an office building” and I kept walking to check out the options further down this lobby area.

Then, however, I hear someone yelling “excuse me, sir. Sir. Sir!” I looked over to see that a guy behind one of the desks was talking to me. 

I wasn’t sure, however, so I pointed at my chest as if to say “are you talking to me?” Very innocently, and simply curious about whether he was, in fact, talking to me (I’m no Robert De Niro).

Well, he was talking to me, and he waived for me to come over to the desk. So, over I went. Slowly. I really didn’t know what was happening, as I’m rarely singled out of a crowd by an authority figure (a benefit of being an unassuming, short, white guy, maybe?). As I walk up to the desk, the security guy (I guess that’s what he was, not ‘reception’) says to me, “this is private property.”

I casually said, “oh, are you asking me to leave?”

He says again, “this is private property,” and I say again, probably less casually as my sociological imagination had lit up, “are you asking me to leave?”

He comes back, “well, this is Fidelity, it’s private property.” 

“So” I say one more time just so we were clear, “you are asking me to leave?”


Well, I’m not the kind to make a scene, and it was clear I wasn’t going to wait in these long lines anyway. As I walked out of the ‘private’ building, I realized I’d just done an accidental breaching experiment. Here are two simple observations about how context affects the meaning of words, and about how easy it is to disrupt a situation and make people uncomfortable because rules have been broken.

When the man behind the desk called me over, I was a little anxious. I had been acting as if I was in any ‘public space,’ where I have a basic right to civil inattention. Civil inattention is a basic rule of public life – ‘I see you over there, you see me over here, but I’ll do my thing over here in my space and leave yours to you, and otherwise we’ll pay very little attention to one another.’ As I walked around Boston for the rest of the 3 days I was there, not one stranger initiated any interaction with me. Being summoned by a stranger (behind a security desk, yes) was out of the ordinary, and it did make me a little uncomfortable. However, things changed pretty quickly once I got to the desk. When the young man behind the desk told me I was on ‘private property,’ what he meant was that I had to leave. From his perspective, this was the obvious meaning of private property, but I innocently asked what he meant. It turns out that there aren’t many better ways to upset a situation than to ask for clarification of what is assumed to be common sense. He said “this is private property” again, a little bit louder, as if maybe I just hadn’t understood, and by the third time he said it, his voice was actually trembling a little bit. I’m 5’3″. I’m pudgy. I’m not an intimidating fellow. However, simply asking for clarification did in fact make my interlocutor a little uneasy.

A few questions came to mind as I reflected on this. What was it about me that got the attention of the man behind the desk? He can’t know everyone who comes into a building in a major American city, can he? Was it that I didn’t go right to the desks? Was it that I wasn’t wearing a suit and tie like most (not all) of the other men there? Maybe other people had badges I didn’t notice? I wonder if people of different race, age, or gender backgrounds would have been asked over sooner, or not at all?

Any thoughts? Any accidental breaching experiments you’d like to share?




Please Leave a Civil Reply. I moderate comments, so it won't appear right away.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s