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Sociology of the Drive Thru

Living on the west coast often means partaking in the joys of In ‘n’ Out Burgers. One day, instead of just ordering up a Double Double, Alexa Megna received an extra side of sociology with an impromptu lesson on norms. In this post Alexa asks, what happens when things break down and we enter into the normless world of anomie.


I have a confession to make. Are you ready? Here it is: I love In ‘n’ Out. You know the burger joint on the west coast that is infamous for it’s tasty burgers, fries, and shakes? (For all of you east coasters, it’s like a better version of Five Guys. But that’s my own bias.) One day I found myself craving a Double Double from In ‘n’ Out. I just had to have one. So as I wheeled up to the drive thru line all I could think about was the Double Double heaven I was soon to be in.

Until, something funny started happing. The truck in front of me completely skipped the “Order Here” speaker box. He just drove right through. “That’s weird,” I said to myself as my turn at the box came up. Then I waited. And waited. I started looking around wondering if this was some joke. Why was the loud voice in the little box not talking to me? After looking around at the car behind me and huge expanse of space between the truck in front of me, I quietly said, “Uhm… hello?” Nothing.

I kept looking around thinking I was on one of those prank TV shows. I mean really, who would do this to me? I was just seconds away from Double Double heaven! Then I decided I would speak up a little bit louder, but not enough to let the car behind of me know I was struggling with this simple task. “HELLO?” I said loudly, with my arms waving at the box. Nothing. Starting to really panic, I looked for a sign. Literally. Maybe the order box was broken. Nope. No sign. Then I looked around at the people behind me. I swear I could feel their inquisitive eyes judging me from their shiny car windows. “Should I pull up to the first window?” I asked myself, “Should I just stay here? These people are judging me!” Finally, like a prince on a white horse, a young man, wearing the classic white In ‘n’ Out uniform came up to my car. “Sorry about that!” He said as he took my order and sent me on my way to Double Double heaven.

Starting to really panic, I looked for a sign. Literally. Maybe the order box was broken. Nope. No sign. Then I looked around at the people behind me. I swear I could feel their inquisitive eyes judging me from their shiny car windows.

After devouring my Double Double I started asking myself how that encounter could make me feel so ridiculous and slightly crazy. As I thought about it, I realized that it’s because the drive thru is not supposed to work in a way that causes such confusion. There are rules and norms you follow that everybody knows, like not to pull up to the first window to order. Everyone knows that you order at the little speaker box in front of the menu then pull up to the first (or second) window (unless the speaker box is broken, like in my case). And everyone knows that you are not supposed to walk through a drive thru (unless it is with a cardboard cut out of a car).

My near panic attack in the drive thru was the result of social rules of behavior (what we sociologists call norms) Norms are culturally identified behaviors and actions that tell people what they should and should not do. In my case, norms of the drive thru are in place to make sure that people get their food in a timely and organized fashion. In other cases, norms that we know in the U.S. like facing the door in the elevator and shaking hands when you meet someone new help alleviate situations that may be perceived as awkward. Every culture has different norms that dictate their lives as well. For instance, it is fairly common for Italians to kiss each other twice on the cheek when saying hello and goodbye. Give that a try in the States and you’ll quickly learn how norms vary by culture.

Sociologists would call what I was feeling in the drive thru anomie. Anomie refers to the confusion that ensues when norms have been broken or when norms are ineffective at controlling individuals. If you’ve ever started a new job, gone to a new place, or just felt like you didn’t know what you were “supposed to be doing”, then you’ve probably tasted anomie. The panic I felt when I was in the drive thru was anomie. Instances such as my drive thru experience are funny anecdotes but these stories also highlight the impact that normlessness has on individuals (especially if you’ve got a mean hanerking for a Double Double).

Dig Deeper:

  1. What other social norms have you seen on a regular basis? What purpose do they serve? How can you tell?
  2. Describe a social situation that you’ve experienced where you didn’t know what the norms or “social rules” were. This will probably involve some new or unfamiliar experience.
  3. While no one knows for sure, some research suggests that norm to say “bless you” when someone sneezes was first established when folks thought that evil spirits made us sick. Now that we know that germs, not spirits, make us sick, why do we continue to say “bless you”? What does this tell us about social norms?
  4. How does technology change our social norms? Think about how people used to write letters to one another on paper when it would take months for it to be delivered. Now compare that to the norms of communication when you send someone a text message. How does technology and social structure affect our social norms?