Snow etiquette

Washington DC in the last few days has been different from normal. Mainly it's been snowing. This means a whole different way of behaving, and as the Washington Post says "Washington's long history of relatively mild winters has left residents without a common sense of snow etiquette."

As one of my current pre-occupation is with cultural norms I started to wonder how long it takes to develop them, and what, in this case, they would look like. I think they would develop in relation to the following types of questions that have surfaced, for example:

  • "If you dig your car out from its frozen tomb, do you then own that parking spot until the sun melts open the rest of the curbside space?"
  • If the hardware store is closed and/or has run out of shovels and you don't have one are you still obliged to follow the "District's law mandating that property owners clear snow and ice from their sidewalks within eight hours after the snowfall's completion".
  • If snow 'completes' but more is forecast within the eight hours are you allowed to wait and clear the snow in one go without incurring a penalty?
  • Is it ok to walk down the middle of the street as it is the only (relatively) walkable pathway without incurring a penalty for jay-walking?
  • If you are walking on a very narrow single-file strip of walkable sidewalk what are the passing regulations if the person in front of you is walking very slowly?
  • Ditto if there is a person coming towards you – which of you steps off into the snow drift?
  • If you are going into a shop with snow covered boots do you stamp off the snow before you enter or just inside the door where it is much warmer?
  • If someone ducks their responsibility to shovel do you shovel on their behalf? One store owner mented on the "bad vibes rendered when a handful of store owners ignore their responsibility while everyone else labors to create lawsuit-free harmony.'Invariably, other owners will shovel out the rest of the sidewalk, but they're going to end up resenting you,' he said."

I then Googled the question: How do social norms develop? A paper by Ann Carlson caught my eye: "Classifying Social Norms" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the The Law and Society Association, Renaissance Hotel, Chicago, Illinois, May 27, 2004 . 2009-05-26

She asks three pertinent questions:

  • How and when, for example, do social norms emerge to solve a social problem?
  • What role can and should governments play in developing social norms as a regulatory tool?
  • How should courts treat independently developed social norms?

And then poses an answer: "I suggest that the answers to these questions vary depending on at least two important characteristics: group size and the strength of economic or other interest among group members in resolving a social problem."

She then identifies four types of social problems relevant to the development and management of social norms:

  • "large-number, large-payoff" social problems, of which smoking and seat belt use are examples;
  • "large-number small-payoff" collective action problems, which often involve the management of commons resources and include carpooling, recycling and blood donation;
  • "small-group, large-payoff" problems, including Robert Ellickson's famous cattle rancher
  • a subset of small-group, large payoff problems involving commons resources, most thoroughly studied by Elinor Ostrom.

She makes the point that "within some of these categories — small-number, large-payoff problems, for example – norms may arise internally to help resolve group problems and government may play little role in either facilitating or enforcing those norms. For other categories — large-number, large-payoff problems in particular – governments may seek to shape new norms to overcome bad behavior (or even bad norms) (drunk driving and smoking illustrate the point).

I suggest that snow etiquette would fall into the large-number/small payoff bucket (snow melts, and is not present every year) so the DC Government may or may not intervene with regulations – as it has on the sidewalk clearing, but not on the shoveling out of the car. On this latter, according to the Washington Post: "Boston has codified its citizens' right to benefit from their backbreaking snow-clearing labor; a city law says that if you dig out your car in a snow emergency, a lawn chair or trash can renders the spot yours for at least two days while you're away at work."

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