Wearing the Habit: A Social Experiment

For my Intro to Communications class at SXU, I was asked to team with another classmate and conduct a test of nonverbal reaction to a specific event. The experiment was simple. In a semi-controlled setting, use one or more nonverbal expressions and record the reactions of the sample. The project was an introductory look at doing field research as well as preparing the documentation.

My partner and I thought about what to do an experiment on. One group did theirs on eating chips in a "quiet area" of the school, another did theirs on body positioning in an elevator. After brainstorming ideas for a bit, we came to the obvious decision: reactions of students when I wear my habit to school.

What follows is the form, experiment, and findings of one friar's experience of wearing a religious habit to a Catholic university.

Our experiment was one in which was used the ethnographic method by putting ourselves into the environment, carrying out the function, and recording the reactions of nonverbal cues and gestures made by students. In the following paper we will break down our research question, the setting of the experiment, the behavioral “norms” when addressing our situation, hypothesis, method, sample, data table and records, analysis, and of course the conclusion.

Research Questions: In a Catholic institution, how will people react to seeing a student, normally seen in casual clothing, wearing a religious habit. Will the reaction be positive, negative, or indifferent? Will people visually engage the student or avert their gaze?

Hypothesis: We believe that students will be caught making indecisive eye contact with the student friar, then turn away quickly (gaze aversion) when the friar (Vito) returns eye contact. We believe that most reactions nonverbally will be expressed through eyebrow movements and eye motions rather than a sort of actual body placement or head reaction. The reason we believe this will be the case is because some people will not be used to that type of clothing in their everyday life or a classroom, so there nonverbal reactions should consist of uncertainty, shock, and tentativity.

Setting: The experiment was conducted in a classroom setting. The class consisted of about 25 students (13 girls and 12 males) along with a male professor; the class was an undergraduate philosophy at a Catholic Institution in Chicago, Ill. (St. Xavier University). The normal attire for the classroom was "casual," consisting of jeans, sweatpants, t-shirts, hoodies, polos, etc. There is no specific dress code for the class.

Behavioral Norms: There are specific patterns or "norms" that exist in the context of a college classroom, specifically with regards to first entering the classroom. We based these “norms” on someone who is socially confident, outgoing, and would be considered socially amiable.

1. Make and/or eye contact with others in the classroom.
2. Maintain a sitting posture that is toward the "front" of the classroom (facing the professor and the whiteboard.)
3.Body placement that encourages open communication with the professor and possibly others.
4. Do not ignore classmates by head movements or other nonverbal cues.
5. Do not give negative body movements towards others.
6. Do not judge others negatively by eye movements (rolling of the eyes).
7. Do not stare at someone for a long time with a blank face or check someone’s entire body out.
8. Should not address someone with negative facial expressions.
9. Stay away from negative or rude eyebrow movements.
10. If looking at someone without them knowing, do not turn your entire body to the individual.

Method: Two students at St. Xavier University conducted the experiment on 11 other students (6 males and 5 females) along with a professor (male) to record nonverbal reactions of a student wearing a religious habit. While the professor was aware of Vito's status as a friar, the students were not and none had ever seen Vito wearing his habit to class. Since the experiment would take place in the context of class, our ethnographic study entailed one person to serve as an active participant wearing the religious habit (Vito) while another recorded the reactions of students. The method of our experiment was for Vito (who is a friar) to wear his Friar habit into our Philosophy classroom. We entered the classroom 5 minutes before the start time to get a clean sample of the students and professor as they saw Vito. No advance notice was to the class regarding this test. We wanted to record people’s instinctive nonverbal reactions without them knowing we were recording data. We sat in our normal seats in the back of the classroom which allowed for us to get vital reactions because people tended to naturally look into the back of the classroom when walking to their seats. The way we recorded data was simply formulating a chart in a spiral notebook that included each person we tested in the left side of the chart, their gender, and whether they reacted with a gaze aversion, positively, negatively, or indifferent. Vito  faced the front of the classroom with welcoming eye contact so students would only react to the nonverbal message of the religious habit...thereby isolating the variable for the experiment. Only an experimental group was used since we had reasonable data to predict how students would react to Vito when not in his habit.

Subjects/People M/F (Male/Female) Gaze Aversion, Positive, Negative, Indifferent, and Reactions
P1 M Positive reaction, smiled when making eye contact.
P2 M Gaze aversion, Positive reaction, smiled when making eye contact.
P3 F Indifferent, little to no eye contact with any facial expressions or cues.
P4 F Gaze Aversion, eye contact but looked away quick didn’t want to be caught looking. Physically turned her body around during class and starred. Shocked.
P5 M Positive reaction, smiled when making eye contact.
P6 F Indifferent reaction with a lot of starring, taken back expression of eyebrows.
P7 F Indifferent, not much eye contact.
P8 F Negative stare.
P9 M Gaze aversion, stared. Eye contact when Vito was not looking.
P10 (class sit-in, not a student in the class.) M Positive, but visibly stared. Shocked.
P11 F Gaze aversion, but would continuously stare occasionally.
P12 (professor) M Stared way more than normal when coming into the classroom and looking at Vito. Uneasy.

Analysis: After conducting our experiment we found that 33% (4 out of 12 people) were caught in gaze aversion, turning away when they made eye contact with Vito. In the gazing we recorded a lot of focused eye contact with uncommitted body involvement - a nonverbal cue of confusion. This was our leading result, followed closely by indifferent nonverbal cues which was 25% (3 out of 12 people).  These people did not have any extra eye contact when seeing Vito than normal.

When eye contact was returned and received  positively(3 out of 12 people), people either smiled (female) or nodded their head (male). One person was recorded as a negative reaction which is .08% (1 out of 12 people). Her cues were negative body placement and the arching of her eyebrows.The female student displayed visible apprehensiveness from the eye contact with Vito in his religious habit, but because of the randomness of the sample, it is inconclusive as to actual reason for the reaction.

The last person recorded (.08%) was the professor. The professor noticeably stared at Vito at the beginning and throughout the class...even showing body movement (leaning back) when seeing Vito. Three times during the class, the professor displayed trouble finishing an audible thought - at each time the professor was caught staring at Vito.

Conclusion: In our conclusion, the experiment proved our hypothesis in which students, when coming across someone in a different style of clothing outside the “norm,”will react in a nonverbal sense of awkwardness and uncertainty. In an attempt to process the clothing, the students averted their eyes whenever they made eye contact with the test subject. Other aspects of the experiment worth noting:
  • None in the test sample (including the professor) asked about the habit Vito was wearing
  • Only the professor asked about the habit in subsequent classes
  • The language and topics of discussion by those sitting around Vito noticeably changed after the experiment. 

Future Questions: How would this test have resulted at a secular institution, or a different religious institution? How would the test have taken place in another part of the country where Catholic religious garb is known more or less? How would the students have reacted if they'd not experienced Vito in "normal" clothing, but first saw Vito only in a religious habit? How powerful is the nonverbal message of religious clothing in the classroom setting to other students and to the professor?

While this little class experiment is a far cry from a published research article, I think it gives others a unique insight into what it is like wearing the habit. We earned an A on the project.

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6 Response to Wearing the Habit: A Social Experiment

July 13, 2011 at 8:57 AM

Very interesting experiment. I was struck by the fact that the women reacted more negatively and/or with apprehension than the men.

July 13, 2011 at 11:13 AM

It's always an interesting thing, the habit. It can draw people to us or close us off. It can be a source of power or simply a source of recognition. I've worn it on the street in Chicago and people tend to be indifferent, though there are some stares, but people who interact with me only interact positively.

July 13, 2011 at 11:09 PM

I agree Sr. Ann - when I heard there were negative reactions I was surprised. In my experience at school, more males students will talk to me when I'm in habit than female, but more females will ask about at a later time (when I'm not wearing the habit).

It's an interesting bit of information. Granted it could have been more scientific, but it gives me plenty to think about as I try to establish myself as a student and a friar.

July 14, 2011 at 1:06 PM

I'll make a bet that most women with a negative or "gaze aversion" reaction have a past they are not proud of, that may or may not include a past abortion. For a long time before I sought out healing and mercy, I was afraid of clergy in general, when I had reveared them in childhood. www.postabortionwalk.blogspot.com

July 15, 2011 at 6:42 PM

The first time I wore my habit in public was after our spring convocation. I was leaving our mother house and heading back to the house I stay at. Usually in life people try not to make eye contact with me. I noticed more people notice me. Some look away, but many smile. Some people also hold doors for me and sometimes bow. That was/is something that has taken time to get use to. brother vito. I really enjoy your blog.

July 18, 2011 at 10:32 PM

I'd say the purpose of a "habit" is to keep one separate from the world.