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18 Examples of Cultural Norms
John Spacey, November 16, 2021
Cultural norms are informal roles, expectations, conventions and understandings that shape life in a culture. These exist in national cultures, traditional cultures, ethnic cultures, city cultures, organizational cultures, subcultures and super cultures such that it is common for a single individual to be bound by multiple sets of norms. The following are illustrative examples.
RolesDesignated roles in a group or situation. For example, in social dance cultures one partner is typically the lead who chooses improvised steps to perform or initiates the transitions to predefined steps.
ResponsibilitiesCultures may expect that you will do something such that it is an informal responsibility. For example, a neighborhood where it is a norm to maintain your lawn regularly.
CustomsCustoms such as the American custom of leaving relatively large tips for service staff. Other cultures typically tip less than American norms.
LanguageNorms of language such as a norm of plain speaking whereby you don't try to impress with your vocabulary. This can be contrasted with cultures where fancy and extremely obscure vocabularies can be used without being viewed as pretentious.
PolitenessNorms of polite behavior. For example, American culture tends to expect candor and directness whereas Japanese culture is more likely to expect indirectness and saving face.
EtiquetteEtiquette are technical aspects of politeness whereby you are expected to do something specific in a particular situation. For example, local driving etiquette in Maui whereby people honk their horn to say hello to people they know.Above: Maui locals help elderly tourists who have run their car off a narrow road.
Faux PasA faux pas is something that is viewed as a social blunder in a culture. For example, a man who charges through a door without allowing an approaching group of women to go through first could be viewed as a social blunder in French culture.
ReciprocityNorms of social reciprocity such as the norm that you bring a small gift when invited into someone's home.
Emotional DisplayNorms may provide guidelines for the display of emotion. For example, the norm associated with masculinity in many cultures whereby it is considered poor form to express much emotion, particularly any emotions that could be viewed as a weakness. Likewise, there may be cultural situations where you are expected to try to look happy, serious or somber.
SensibilitiesSensibilities are feelings of right and wrong behavior that people in a culture view as obvious such that they are unaware it is a norm. In other words, sensibilities feel like a sense as opposed to a rule. For example, the norm in many cultures where wearing outdoor shoes in the home is considered unacceptable. This is quite common in Asia and the Middle East but is not a universal norm in Europe or North America. In Japan, shoes are also removed on picnic mats.
FashionNorms of fashion such as the formality that is expected in various situations. This changes with time. For example, in America it was a norm to wear a suit in a great number of social and professional situations before the mid-1960s such that people dressed far more formally than today.
ExpectationsExpectations for behavior ranging from trivial matters of politeness up to major life decisions. For example, the norm that an individual attend university after high school in certain socioeconomic subcultures such as the middle class or upper middle class of a nation.
FreedomNorms may restrict your freedom as they place expectations on your behavior. It is also possible for norms to create freedoms and to be a defense against paternalistic systems and institutions. For example, the tradition of tailgate parties in the United States essentially creates the freedom to have a party because it is a norm to do so.
MoresMores is the encapsulation of values in norms. These can be morals that apply to questions of right and wrong. Mores can also relate to less serious questions of politeness or expected behavior. For example, the mores in cosplay culture that you ask before taking a photo of someone.
BeliefsNorms can include beliefs whereby saying something that runs contrary to a belief breaks a norm. For example, the belief that waking up early is healthy and productive and waking up late is unhealthy and unproductive. This is a social construct that is prevalent in many traditional cultures. In this context, culture is essentially biased in favor of morning people.
SymbolsSymbols such as the color symbolism of a culture. For example, the strong association between the color red and good fortune in Chinese culture.
Social StatusNorms of respect. For example, a culture where conspicuous displays of wealth are viewed as showing off versus a culture where they are accepted as symbols of social status.
FolkwaysFolkways are learned behaviors that have become a norm. For example, in Japanese culture people learn to use chopsticks very well including common mannerisms of use. If you did not grow up in Japan, you may find that your mannerisms are a little different even if you understand the rules of etiquette surrounding their use. This could be described as a style whereby people develop a similar style of doing things that becomes a norm.
CounterexampleLaws, rules and regulations aren't norms. By definition, norms are cultural and social such that they aren't enforced by the systems of society. When a behavior is required by law it ceases to be a cultural choice. For example, if it is a norm in a village not to go for a walk at night this ceases to be a norm when it becomes a law that is actively enforced.
DiscussionNorms respect the individual with lightweight expectations that help people to build trust in a group. This can be contrasted with heavyweight laws and regulations that distrust the individual, systematize society and reduce freedoms. Norms help people to get along and to enjoy shared experience. It is common for norms to change with time and for them to be shaped by the needs of a time and place.
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