It all started in a guidance counselor’s office.
Zoe had known when she signed up for Speech and Debate that it would be a tough class to get into. It was incredibly popular, the teacher was only offering two sections of it, and Zoe was only going to be a junior. So she wasn’t exactly surprised when Mrs. Humphrey told her the class was full, but she was a bit disappointed.
“Mr. Zephran is teaching a Sociology class next year,” Mrs. Humphrey said. “How does that sound? The study of society and culture?”
Sociology. Well, she liked people. And she liked cultures. So she shrugged her agreement.
“Sure,” she said.
And so, on the first day of school, Zoe Ballard sits in a classroom with about twenty other students while a young-ish teacher in a tweed jacket sits on the desk at the front of the room and asks, “What is society?”
It is a class like Zoe has never taken before. Mr. Zephran asks big questions and waits for his students to formulate answers. He lets them say anything and doesn’t tell them they’re wrong. He lets that first class period become a 30-minute-long group discussion without worrying about the syllabus or expectations or anything like that. Zoe loves it.
A few weeks later, he introduces the concept of social experiments. He plays YouTube videos of a group called Improv Everywhere. They watch the No-Pants subway ride and the Grand Central Station Freeze and the Mirror Train Car, and then they talk about more serious examples, social experiments from the past, defining examples that were controversial and problematic, but had provided critical understanding of the way that society worked: the Stanford Prison Experiment, Stanley Milgrim’s Obedience Experiment, the Robbers Cave Experiment.
They spend almost a week talking about people and projects that had pushed the status quo in an effort to define the roles society and culture play in modern civilization. They talk about how something as simple as standing backwards in an elevator and seeing how others react constitute this kind of experiment. And at the end of the week, Mr. Zephran tells them that they will be spending the semester implementing an experiment of their own.
“Now,” Mr. Zephran tells them, “in this day and age, we have ethics committees and advisory boards, and Stanley Milgrim wouldn’t have gotten his obedience test past a single one of them, which is good. In this class, I am your ethics committee. I am your advisory board. Anything that you want to do gets past me first. Got it? Remember, we are pushing gently at the status quo. Design your project to give the people around you something unusual to throw them off, just a little. So take some time. Think about it. Have a tentative idea by Monday.”
The bell rings and Mr. Zephran smiles. “Go forth, budding sociologists!”
Zoe tries to listen to her classmates’ chatter as they file out of the classroom. Everyone is abuzz with ideas.
“Think Mr. Z will let me recreate the prison guard thing?”
Zoe rolls her eyes. That’s Jeremiah, she’s almost positive.
“I’m probably just gonna do the elevator. Something simple.”
That’s harder to place. Maybe Ellie? Or Samantha? She doesn’t have much time to ponder, because someone is called “Zoe!” and distracting her from her thoughts. She turns to see her friend Jimmy jogging to catch up with her. “What are you thinking of doing for your project?” he asks. She shrugs.
“No clue,” she admits. “I might have to consult the internet and definitely sleep on it. You?”
“Well, the way I see it, this is as good a chance to organize a flash mob as any I’m gonna get!”
She grins. “Of course you’re doing a flash mob. I’m not even a little bit surprised. You and your flair for the dramatic.” That wins a laugh.
“You’re one to talk,” he says, reaching up and tugging at a strand of her hair. Grinning, she gathers all her hair over one shoulder.
“You like the purple?” she asks, admiring the flash of bright color against the blonde for the umpteenth time since she got her stripe updated yesterday.
“Love it,” he says. “Good luck with your brainstorming; I gotta get to rehearsal!” And he jogs off toward the auditorium in another burst of pure Jimmy energy.
She runs a hand through her hair, shaking it back into place. “Good luck with brainstorming indeed,” she mutters, heading for the parking lot.
She and Gabe discuss it the whole drive home. “I don’t want to make people uncomfortable,” she says.
“Isn’t that basically the point of a social experiment?”
“Hence my dilemma.”
Gabe grins. “Free hugs?” he suggests. “The people uncomfortable with it will just walk past, and you’ll only get the people who want to participate.”
“Yeah, I thought about free hugs,” Zoe says, “but I’m hesitant because I feel like being a female with a ‘free hugs’ sign is just an open invitation to get groped. Plus, I think Wes is already doing it, and I’d like to do something a bit more original. I don’t want to just recreate what someone else has already done.”
“This is gonna be your gift giving thing all over again, isn’t it?”
Zoe grins. “Probably.”
That night, she turns the question to the internet.
An interesting social dilemma for you, denizens of Tumblr, she posts. Design a social experiment that involves limited social interaction and/or discomfort on the part of the participants. And, go!
She wakes the next morning to several interesting suggestions, but one in particular sticks out.
I don’t know how limited the interaction would be, but you could do a “People on the Street” type thing. Spend one day just going up to people and asking them about their thoughts and opinions and see if you can get strangers to talk to you. Then, later, ask the same questions to another group of people, but this time bring a microphone, a camera, and a friend and tell them you’re filming a documentary.
“Hmmm.” She peers at the screen, considering. There’s something to that idea. She doesn’t know what, exactly, but something is hiding in that. Conversations with strangers…
By Monday, she has it.
“Zoe Ballard!” Mr. Zephran says. “What brilliant idea do you have to share?”
“I was thinking about seeing how many people would be willing to write a letter to a stranger.”
And she outlines her idea. Write a letter, explaining the experiment, but not really giving any information about herself. Place copies of the letter in several public gathering places like coffee shops or bookstores. Provide a mailing address, leave it up for two weeks, and see what happens.
Mr. Zephran loves the idea, and he along with the class offer some ideas to tweak the project. Develop a way to count or keep track of people who read but don’t respond, give the respondents a list of questions to answer so they’ll have something to say, decide whether or not Zoe will respond to the letters she receives.
By Wednesday, Zoe has the final draft of her letter in to Mr. Zephran, along with a fill-in-the-blank slip, and she has settled on seven locations around the city to leave the letter – Stansell’s Sporting Goods, The Leaf and Kettle Tea Shop, Harrison’s Books, Cuppa Joe’s coffee shop, the UCSD Student Center, and two branches of the San Diego Public Library.
By Thursday, she’s ready. Her letter is as close to perfect as it’s going to get (Mr. Zephran had approved it right away — “Very friendly, very inviting, very Zoe!” — but Zoe kept tweaking and changing words here and there until she knew she had to stop to get her copies made), and it’s time to send it out into the world.
Most of her drop-offs go smoothly — she walks in, asks to talk to someone in charge, briefly explains her project, and asks permission to set out an envelope. Stansell’s, Harrison’s, and Leaf and Kettle are easiest — she’s known the owners of those places for years. Her mom helps her get approval to post in the Student Center, and the librarians are all very interested and helpful. The only place that poses any sort of challenge is Cuppa Joe’s.
“Okay, I’m sorry, explain this to me again,” says the guy behind the counter.
“My name is Zoe,” Zoe says, trying to be patient as she explains this for the third time. “I’m a student at Torrey Pines. This is a letter inviting strangers to write to me as part of a social experiment for one of my classes. Can I leave it here somewhere for two weeks?”
“What do you want us to do with it?” he asks, and Zoe tries not to sigh.
“Nothing,” she says. “Just leave it there, on a table or bulletin board or wherever, and don’t throw it away.”
“I dunno,” he says. “That doesn’t sound like something I can say yes or no to.”
“Then is there someone here who could say yes or no?”
The guy blinks like that hadn’t occurred to him, and disappears into the back. Zoe lets out a long breath. She isn’t really being that difficult to understand, is she? Maybe she should just give it up, find another coffee shop to stick this last letter in.
The barista returns, a pleasant-looking and fairly pregnant middle-aged woman following him. She looks a bit puzzled as she approaches Zoe. “Hello,” she says. “I’m Rachel, the owner here. You want to post a notice somewhere, is that right?”
“No,” Zoe says patiently, “I’m just trying to complete a school assignment. I need to leave this,” she gestures with the envelope, “in a public place for two weeks, some place a lot of people visit and would have access to it. It’s just a letter, inviting strangers to write to me. It’s for my Sociology class.”
“Oh.” Rachel throws the barista a strange look. “Yes. That’s fine, go right ahead. The table up by the window gets a lot of traffic. Will that work?”
Zoe smiles. “Perfectly.”
“I’ll leave a note for the employees so no one throws it away.”
“That would be great. Thank you!”
She waits until her back is turned to roll her eyes, but she heads for the table by the window and props the envelope up against the wall. Read me, the front says, in what Zoe hopes is an inviting manner.
And now, she thinks as she heads home, we wait.