Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Non-Verbal Communication in a Nightlife Environment

While the Portland club scene might not have as much glitz and glamour associated with it as many "super-clubs" or "ultra-lounges" in the world, it does seem to host a wide variety of differently themed clubs. Whether they are geared to punk rock, metal bands, honky-tonk, top 40, or underground electronic music scenes--it becomes obvious that the type of club has some effect on the type of patron it eventually attracts.

I recently made a trip to the downtown nightclub "Dirty," and conducted an ethnographic study of the behaviors and environment there. My original goal was to focus on how the night club environment affected non-verbal communication between people, but after a reading of Roland Barthes' "Mythologies," the approach toward my observations changed.

Barthes had suggested that due to the particular designs in our physical surroundings, we can be enabled (or disabled) in regard to the attainment of specific goals, and that the environment we operate in simultaneously confines, constrains, and encourages certain types of behaviors. Nowhere is this idea more easily seen in action as it was for us at Dirty.

For example: The nightclub Dirty is outfitted with 36 stripper poles. This is more than most of the stripclubs in the Portland area, which is saying something, as Portland has the highest number of strip clubs per-capita in the United States. In addition to the stripper poles, the club featured full lenth mirrors, swings, multiple bar areas, lounge areas (in front of the stripper poles).

It is obvious, when you walk through the door, that this place is designed for one thing. Debauchery. And it seems to infect its patrons with that type of sentiment, as participants can be observed acting in "dirty" ways, throughout the club, especially as the night wears on and the alchoholic intake increase.

In our study, we made copious notes about the design of the club, and how each and every feature contributed to the fancy-free party atmosphere. We obtained a treasure trove of photographic evidence which supported our claims, which we performed content analysis of, and coded 5 seperate modes of behavior which we were able to observe. They were listed as such:

1.) Naughty frames, where the participants were engaged in what we dubbed “dirty” behavior.

2.) Friendship frames, wherein the participants were engaged in shows of less sordid affection for each other, symbolized by side-hugs, arms around shoulders, and group solidarity photos.

3.) Humorous “photo op” moments, where the participants were either “hamming it up” for the camera, or the camera person himself found a particular scene to be funny enough to warrant a candid shot.

4.) Drinking frames, where participants posing for photographs were in the act of consuming beverages.

5.) Vanity frames, where the photographer captured participants wearing extravagant (or very little) clothing, and otherwise attracting attention to themselves.

In all, our observations led us to believe that actors in a club environment tend to socialize and interact nonverbally in ways which allow them to express freedom and disconnect themselves from the outside world. The club environment affords them opportunities to attract members of their preferred sex, and facilitates their doing so by providing music for dancing, and alchoholic beverages for consumption, which encourage "dirty behavior" among participants. This effect is then amplified by the presence of a photographer, who may act as an instigator as well as the record keeper for the events which unfold. As people will no doubt wish to re-live these experiences at a later date, the functionality of the photographer is well appreciated.

Furthermore, we suggest that the very existence of such a themed nightclub is reflective of the type of company it keeps, and in a metaphorical sense, the patrons of the club, the appearance, and goals of the club environment are congruent. This is a place where value is given to "classy" ways of becoming "classless," and the venue itself communicates these ideals to its patrons. They, in turn, act accordingly.