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26 Examples of Social Norms
John Spacey, June 21, 2021
Social norms are informal rules of social behavior that emerge with the shared experiences of groups. These are a type of culture that aren't controlled by systems but are rather created, communicated and enforced with informal processes. The following are illustrative examples of social norms.
ConventionsSocial norms can include conventions that don't invoke much passionate interest but are norms nonetheless. For example, a convention of wearing socks with certain types of shoes.
Sense of AppropriatenessA shared sense of what is socially appropriate. For example, a culture where putting shoes on a table is deemed inappropriate.
Sense of ConsequencesA shared sense of the consequences for violating norms such as the unwritten rule that job candidates that violate some norm of professionalism don't deserve to be hired. For example, a candidate who speaks negatively of former colleagues would have little chance of being hired in many corporate cultures.
RitualsRituals can be viewed as norms. For example the norm of recognizing someone on their birthday with a cake and presents.
RolesNorms can create roles and set expectations based on those roles. For example, a school culture where seniors are expected to take on a leadership role within the school.
ResponsibilitiesNorms can create responsibilities. For example, a neighborhood norm that you put your garbage out in a timely and orderly fashion.
Honor SystemNorms often operate on an honor system whereby there is no penalty for noncompliance other than the risk of disappointing others. This can be quite powerful as many individuals will readily disobey rules they perceive as unfair if they feel they won't get caught. However, when an informal but fair expectation is placed on the same individual they may dread disappointing their group. For example, a student with a strong sense of sportsmanship such that they feel bad if they go to far and violate the norms of competition.
PolitenessNorms of politeness that govern things such as greetings, apologies and expressions of gratitude in a culture. For example, a norm that you introduce yourself to neighbors when you move into a new home.
EtiquetteEtiquette refers to norms that set out a path for dealing with situations that could be socially awkward. For example, a polite way to announce that you need to excuse yourself from a table in the midst of a meal.
RespectFollowing a norm is often interpreted as a demonstration of respect such as a neighborhood where it is a norm to maintain your property including trimming and cutting vegetation to some reasonable state. This may symbolize respect for neighbors and a desire to fit in with the community such that these seemingly superficial norms can generate strong emotional responses.
ReciprocityNorms often create ways for dealing with feelings of reciprocity whereby people often want to return kindnesses. For example, replying to gratitude with the phase you're welcome is a basic type of reciprocity.
Social TrustNorms help to develop trust. For example, a homeowner with two neighbors may strongly trust the neighbor who follows norms such as friendly greetings and be deeply suspicious of a neighbor who doesn't.
SensibilitiesNorms can be internalized to the extent that they become sensibilities whereby they can generate strong emotions in individuals. For example, a norm of taking your shoes off before entering a home in many cultures may be internalized such that it is difficult to adapt to cultures where this norm doesn't exist.
SignalingNorms can be used to signal social status. For example, a gentleman who holds a door for someone in a well mannered way may signal that they are of a high socioeconomic class.
Norm EntrepreneursPeople may challenge norms or attempt to install new norms. For example, a figure skater who feels everyone should use skate guards who tries to influence others to push for this feeling to become a dominant norm.
Norm MarketingMarketing that attempts to paint something as a norm in order to increase demand for a product. For example, a fabric softener product that portrays non-use of the product as socially awkward and unacceptable.
Norm PropagandaNorms form in culture that is beyond the direct control of systems such as governments or organizations. As such, these systems may use media to try to instill new norms. For example, a long running norm of standing on the left and walking on the right on escalators in a particular city that a government sees as a safety hazard such that they try to defeat this norm with advertising.
Old NormsAs individual's commonly internalize norms they may not adapt to changes in norms such that they become out of compliance. This can create generation gaps whereby generations have different norms. For example, a taboo subject that becomes open and much discussed.
Context SwitchingCulture is a fluid thing whereby most people belong to multiple cultures such as a teenager who engages in a youth culture, school culture, traditional culture and national culture. This requires interpretation of what norm applies to a particular situation. For example, a teenager may converse with their grandmother using different norms than they would use towards their friends at a skateboarding park.
Cross-cultural NormsIt is very common for people to interact who are from different national cultures such that they have few norms with which to guide the interaction. At this point, there are certain international norms that come into play. For example, if you don't share a language it is a norm to speak slowly, be patient, use body language and to try to avoid unfair assumptions.
Norm FlexNorms often aren't as bright line as rules and may include significant flexibility based on the reputation of an individual and the context. For example, a socially adept manager who follows all norms at an office except that they dress excessively informally. This may be overlooked by their peers based on their overall reputation for professionalism. This could be contrasted with a system such as a dress code that may afford no such flexibility.
Bliss PointNorms can be taken too far or taken too lightly such that there is a bliss point for each norm. For example, greeting a coworker the first time that you see them in the morning but not every time you pass in the hall in some repetitive way.
MediocrityMediocrity is a term for individuals who cling to social groups but minimize their contributions to that group. The mediocre are often careful to follow norms as group membership is important to them. For example, a coworker who is polite and socially cautious who tends to minimize their effort and contributions.
Inclusion & ExclusionFollowing a norm signals that you belong to a group. For example, the norms you follow may communicate your socioeconomic class. As such, norms are often used to include or exclude people from social groups such as a neighbor who is shunned by neighbors after they violate some norm.
Accidental Non-conformanceAccidental non-conformance to norms are basically social accidents. For example, in Japan there are often slippers in toilet rooms that are never to leave that room. It is easy enough to forget to remove these slippers -- but this is a strong norm violation that is viewed as quite embarrassing.
Purposeful Non-conformancePeople may break norms in order to exercise freedom from the group or to countersignal strengths such as individuality and intelligence. Norms are such a pervasive element of human behavior that it is common for supposedly individualistic subcultures to develop their own strict norms while at the same time viewing members as rebels for breaking mainstream norms.
Norms vs RulesNorms belong to culture and emerge with the shared experiences of groups. They are flexible and often unspoken. Rules belong to systems and are directed and controlled with a political process. It is common for a norm to become a rule or a law. For example, a norm and rule of maintaining your grass that is enforced both by neighborhood culture and city government.
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