Cultural norms are the standards that govern behavior in a particular society.
In other words, these are shared beliefs about acceptable behavior, which can exist as informal expectations or as codified laws. They are different from “ideas”, “values”, and “attitudes”, all of which can be held privately and do not necessarily influence group behavior on a cultural level.
Norms determine how people interact with one another, shaping everything from our social etiquette to our moral codes. These are not static but change with time, with some old ones getting abandoned and new ones emerging.
Norms depend on historical circumstances, social groups, and context. While norms vary across cultures, the growing interconnectedness of the world is also bringing similarities in them, as we will discuss. Before that, let us talk about the concept in more detail & look at some examples.
Cultural Norms Definition
Richard A. Shweder defines cultural norms as:
“Cultural norms are the unwritten rules of a society, which prescribe how people should behave in different situations and prescribe what is acceptable and what is not” (1991).
There are some disagreements amongst scholars about the concept. For example, Katzenstein defines them as the “collective expectations about proper behavior for a given identity.” (1996). But Sandholtz argues that shared expectations are an effect of norms, not an intrinsic quality.
Instead, he defines norms as the “standards of appropriate behavior for actors”, emphasizing their “oughtness”. (2017). Another way of looking at norms is given by Hechter & Opp: they are “cultural phenomena that prescribe and proscribe behavior in specific circumstances.” (2001)
Many concepts, such as “conventions” and “morals”, are also usually seen as equivalents of norms. Even “rules” are not necessarily different from norms; both of them are standards of conduct with different levels of explicitness & consequences.
Laws can be seen as highly formal versions of norms, although at times, the two can be contradictory. For example, the law may forbid a certain action, but norms may allow or even promote it.
Cultural Norms Examples
- Greetings: Different cultures greet different people in different ways. In a new culture, you’ll need to figure out the cultural norms around greeting other people. For example, in the West, it is common to shake hands, while in many Asian countries, you may be required to bow to people. Similarly, a kiss on the cheek might be used in some cultures, but invasion of privacy in others.
- Family structure: In our article on types of families, we outline a wide range of different family structures. While the traditional nuclear family used to be the cultural norm in the West, it’s changing over time. Furthermore, many Indigenous cultures have more horizontal family structures, embracing the concept of “it takes a village to raise a child.”
- Table manners: There are many norms around eating at the table, and they differ between cultures. For example, sitting at the floor to eat is common in some Asian cultures, while it would be considered rude in Western culture. There are also expectations about what you can and cannot eat, depending on the culture.
- Gender roles: We’ve spoken extensively on this website about the sociology of gender norms, and even the idea that there are different types of genders in different cultures. Unlike sex (your biology), gender is seen as a social construct (a social perception) – and different cultures construct gender differently.
- Personal space: Personal space refers to the physical distance that people like to keep between themselves and strangers. In Western cultures, we like a lot of personal space. However, in non-Western cultures, personal space is a lot smaller, and people often sit or stand quite closely to one another. Similarly, physical touch differs between cultures. For example, patting on the shoulder is expected in some cultures but not in others.
- Social hierarchy: A social hierarchy is a type of ranking system about who is idealized and lauded in a society, and who is less respected. Social hierarchy is often based on wealth, social skills, or strength (the wealthier and stronger you are, the higher you are in the hierarchy). but in some countries, it may be based on age, wisdom, or religiosity. Gender roles may also determine social hierarchy in patriarchal societies.
- Fashion: In Western cultures, fashion tends to be seen as a positive form of self-expression, and people dress in ways that cohere with their personal identity. However, other cultures often expect conformity in what’s worn as a sign of respectability.
- Religion: In some cultures, religion is considered a central pillar of the culture, and the two are inseparable. If you don’t conform to the religion, you may be well outside of the cultural norms. In contrast, the West tends to see religion as a private matter, and your religious identity may be less of a factor impacting whether or not you are considered a normative member of the culture.
- Language: Whether you’ve got high cultural capital is not only influenced by your grasp of a language, but also the dialect, accent, and ways of addressing others.
- Public behavior: When I traveled to Malaysia, there were signs all over the trains warning against public displays of affection. In fact, I was quite taken aback at the sheer number of signs telling me what was moral and immoral to do! By contrast, in Canada, where I’m from, it’s rare to see signs telling you how to behave in public.
Other Examples of Cultural Norms
- Wearing certain clothing or head coverings in religious settings
- Obeying your parents in collectivist cultures and following your own path in individualistic cultures
- Covering one’s mouth when yawning or sneezing
- Waiting in line or taking turns
- Giving gifts for special occasions
- Wearing formal attire to weddings or funerals
- Addressing elders or authority figures with honorifics
- Observing holidays and festivals with specific rituals or customs
- Showing respect for flags or national symbols
- Eating with the right hand in some cultures
- Removing shoes before entering a home or temple
- Avoiding public displays of affection
- Avoiding certain foods or ingredients for religious or cultural reasons
- Observing cultural rituals or ceremonies for coming of age or marriage
- Avoiding certain topics of conversation or actions in public (see: cultural taboos)
How Norms are Created
Norms usually arise spontaneously, without conscious human action, although some are deliberate; they evolve with time, reflecting the values & priorities of a society.
As Peyton Young (2015) argues, norms typically emerge “without top-down direction”, arising instead from interactions between individuals (see: informal norms). Traditional customs and practices were the earliest forms of cultural norms, which grew out of shared community experiences and spread through observation & imitation.
Slowly, as societies became more complex, more formalized norms emerged. These were made by conscious human effort to maintain order & stability in society. Legal norms, say driving on a particular side of the road, are examples of such deliberate norms.
Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink say that there are three stages in a norm’s life cycle (1998):
- Emergence: Norm entrepreneurs (those aiming to bring social change) try to persuade others to adopt their norms.
- Cascade: When the norm acquires broad acceptance and reaches a tipping point (when many members of a group rapidly adopt a new practice).
- Internalization: When the norm becomes internalized and is almost automatically followed.
How Cultural Norms can Change
The act of breaking a society’s norms can lead to disapproval or punishment, but it can sometimes be a way of bringing social change.
In every society, norms are reinforced through rewards & punishments. When people defy norms, they risk facing negative consequences, such as warnings, ostracism, or even legal punishment.
Individuals often defy norms to challenge the status quo. If they feel that a norm is unjust, they often challenge it to bring social change: the civil rights movement is one good example, where many raised their voice against the racially discriminatory norms of the time.
At other times, people may defy norms to express their individuality, say through a unique fashion statement or other forms of self-expression. Not adhering to the norms of society is known as deviance. While often innocent, deviances can sometimes manifest as crimes.
A person who regularly disregards norms risks becoming an “institutionalized deviant”. Usually, other members of society initially try to persuade such an individual to start following the group’s norms. But if the person continues to defy, they may eventually give up on that person.
Not all members of the group face the same consequences for breaking norms. Hollander has a concept of “idiosyncrasy credits”, which says that individuals can build up a “reserve” of good behavior through conformity and later borrow against this (1958).
For example, if an employee is usually punctual but is late to an important meeting, the manager will most likely ignore the incident. Besides building idiosyncrasy credits through past performance, one can also inherit them through other means, such as high social status.
Cultural Norms in the era of Globalization
Globalization has promoted the spread of Western norms & values, but it has also led to a greater acceptance of diversity.
Globalization refers to the increasing interconnectedness of the world, which is brought about by the exchange of goods, people, and ideas. One of the most significant effects of globalization is the spread of Western cultural values.
Through the impact of media, education, and tourism, many non-Western societies have abandoned their traditional norms & practices in favor of western ones. This phenomenon is known as cultural homogenization, where diverse cultural practices are replaced by a more dominant culture.
At the same time, the increasing contact among cultures promotes the emergence of new norms and practices. So, there has also been a kind of cultural hybridization, where diverse cultural values come together to create new values.
Moreover, the increased contact & exchange between nations has led to a greater understanding and appreciation of different cultures. It has promoted cultural integration, where diverse cultural norms and values live together harmoniously.
Cultural norms are the standards of acceptable behavior in a particular society.
These usually emerge spontaneously but are sometimes deliberately made to maintain order. Defying norms, in extreme cases, can be criminal, but it has also been a way of bringing social change. In today’s world, globalization has played a massive role in shaping cultural norms.
Hecher, Michael; Opp, Karl-Dieter (2001). Social Norms. Russell Sage Foundation.
Hollander, E.P. (1958). Conformity, status, and idiosyncrasy credit. Psychological Review. 65 (2)
Katzenstein, Peter (1996). The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics. Columbia University Press.
Finnemore, Martha; Sikkink, Kathryn (1998). “International Norm Dynamics and Political Change”. International Organization. 52 (4).
Sandholtz, Wayne (2017). International Norm Change. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics.
Shweder, Richard A. (1991). Thinking through cultures: Expeditions in cultural psychology. Harvard University Press.
Young, H. Peyton (2015). “The Evolution of Social Norms”. Annual Review of Economics. 7 (1)