A formal norm is a norm that has been “codified and may be enforced by sanction” (Kendall 2006, 55–56). Generally, this means it is a norm that has been established by a group of people and set down into a clear set of rules.
While laws are one example of formal norms, they are not the only examples. Formal norms can also be workplace rules, classroom rules, standards of behavior in a hotel, or “no dive bomb” signs at the local pool.
Formal Norms Examples
Laws are the quintessential example of formal norms. Unlike informal norms (also known as folkways), laws don’t just exist in the cultural milieu. They have been voted upon and codified into a set of instructions that can be legally enforceable.
In liberal democracies, police forces can enforce the laws, and the offender can go before a judge and plead their case as to whether or not they broke the law.
Laws can have consequences as small as a fine or significant as years in jail.
2. Employee Manuals
Most workplaces have some sort of employee manual that sets out the expectations and rules for behavior while on the job. This can include everything from a dress code to how to take vacation days.
Commonly, they include instructions on rules around turning up on time, the procedure for hiring and firing, and sometimes, standard operating procedures on how to execute your role.
While breaking these norms may not have legal consequences, there can be sanctions from the workplace, such as being written up or fired.
3. College Entrance Exam Requirements
To get into most colleges in the United States, students must take and pass the SAT or ACT exam.
These exams are put in place to ensure students have a minimum standard of academic skills. This has the effect of minimizing drop-out rates at universities and sustaining the elite status of some institutions.
There are also formal rules around taking these exams, such as only being able to use a No. 2 pencil, not being able to bring a calculator, and having to sit for a certain amount of time.
4. Hotel Check-In Policies
When you check into a hotel, there are often a number of formal norms you must agree to. These can include everything from not smoking in the room to not having more than a certain number of people in the room at one time.
Furthermore, every hotel will have a check-in and check-out policy that regulates how long you are allowed to stay. This gives them enough time to clean the room for the next person to arrive.
There can also be consequences for breaking these rules, such as being charged an additional fee on your credit card.
5. Hallway Rules at Schools
In many schools, there are signs that say “No Running” in the hallways. This is a formal norm that is put in place to minimize the risk of accidents.
Similarly, when I was at school, students needed a bathroom pass that showed you had permission to be out of class to go to the bathroom.
While the consequences for breaking this norm are usually small (such as a warning from a teacher), the fact that these rules are written down makes them formal.
6. “No Horseplay” Signs at Pools
Pool rules are designed to protect swimmers from drowning and injury.
For example, many pools require that children under a certain age be accompanied by an adult. This helps to prevent accidents while also giving adults a chance to supervise the children.
Other rules, such as those regarding diving and horseplay, exist to help prevent injuries. By following these and other pool rules, swimmers can help to ensure that everyone has a safe and enjoyable experience.
7. Library Rules
Libraries are places where people can go to read, study, and learn in a quiet atmosphere. In order to maintain this atmosphere, and to ensure that everyone can use the library effectively, they generally involve a lot of rules.
Some of the most common rules include being quiet, not eating or drinking in the library, and not bringing in any outside food or drinks.
These rules aren’t only there to show respect to others in the vicinity. They also help to ensure that books and other materials are not damaged by food or beverage spills.
8. Classroom Rules
Classroom rules help to create a learning environment that is conducive to academic success. By establishing expectations for behavior, classroom rules help to ensure that learners are able to focus on the task at hand and avoid distractions.
Some common examples of classroom rules include respecting others, paying attention to the teacher when she is speaking, and being on time.
In addition to promoting academic achievement, classroom rules can also help to instill a sense of discipline in students. This helps teach children how to function within a structured environment.
9. Science Lab Regulations
Science labs usually have strict rules to ensure the safety of everyone in the lab. A common rule is to wear protective clothing, such as gloves and goggles.
Such rules are important because they help to protect people from dangerous chemicals and equipment. In addition, they help to keep the lab clean and organized, which is essential for conducting experiments.
10. Black Tie Dress Codes
A black-tie dress code is a formal dress code that is typically used for special occasions. The most important rule of a black-tie dress code is to wear a black tuxedo.
Other rules can include wearing a white shirt, black pants, and black shoes.
For women, the rules may be slightly different, such as wearing a cocktail dress or formal attire.
11. Professional Certifications
Professional certifications are put in place as a baseline requirement in some professions. People cannot practice in the profession unless they have up-to-date certifications. This maintains standards across the profession.
Many certifications require that you have a certain amount of experience in the field or a certain level of formal education. In addition, you may be required to take an entrance exam such as the LSAT for lawyers.
Professional certifications exist in a range of white-collar and blue-collar professions. For example, there are certifications required for accountants, engineers, and teachers, as well as plumbers, electricians, and mechanics.
12. Degree Requirements for Jobs
Like professional certifications, degrees are often required for certain jobs. For example, a doctor must have a medical degree in order to practice medicine, and a lawyer must have a law degree to practice law.
Degrees act as a signal to potential employers that you have the necessary skills and knowledge for the job. They also show that you have been through a rigorous educational program and have the discipline to complete it.
In some cases, degrees may not be required, but they may give you a competitive advantage. In these cases, they become examples of informal norms.
13. Migration Rules
People applying to immigrate to a new country have to pass a range of tests and filters in order to receive residency.
For example, when I moved to Canada, I had to sit a language test, receive health and medical checks, provide educational qualifications, and pay for administrative fees.
These checks and balances help a country to regulate who is allowed to enter a country, filter potential economic migrants to those who are most likely to contribute to the economy, and ensure the rules for entry are transparent and non-discriminatory.
14. Labor Codes
Labor codes are sets of rules that govern the workplace. They are designed to protect workers from exploitation and to ensure that they receive fair treatment.
Labor codes can cover a wide range of topics, such as working hours, safety, wages, and benefits. In some cases, they may also cover more controversial topics, such as unionization.
The rules in labor codes are usually enforced by government agencies, such as the Department of Labor. In some cases, they may also be enforced by unions.
Related Concept: Material Social Fact Examples
15. Tax Codes
Tax codes are sets of rules that govern how taxes are levied and collected. They are typically very complex, and they can vary significantly from one country to another.
Due to their complexity, a large bureaucracy is employed around the clock to ensure compliance. Similarly, businesses employ accountants to minimize the tax burden and ensure compliance in order to avoid fines.
16. Trade Treaties
Trade treaties are agreements between two or more countries that regulate trade. They typically focus on reducing tariffs and other barriers to trade, such as quotas.
These are agreements that are codified in international law, making them formal norms that affect how people go about business and international trade.
Trade treaties can also cover other topics, such as intellectual property rights and labor standards. The most famous trade treaty is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which was signed by the United States, Canada, and Mexico. It was reformed into the USMCA in July 2020.
17. Grammatical Rules
Grammatical rules are the rules that govern how words are used in a language. They dictate things such as spelling, word order, and verb conjugation.
Grammatical rules are learned both implicitly through exposure to a language and explicitly through language classes at school.
While the rules of grammar are not punishable, they are still formal norms because the rules are set, known, and explicitly taught. Grammar and word dictionaries codify these norms.
Across the nations that speak English, small differences in these formal norms are evident. For example, in the sentence “looking toward the future”, “toward” is used in the USA while “towards” is used in the UK.
18. Rules of Parliamentary Behavior
There are rules of parliamentary behavior that dictate how elected officials should behave in parliament. These rules are designed to ensure that debate is fair and orderly.
While these are not laws, many countries like Australia and the UK allow the speaker of the house to evict disorderly parliamentarians. These countries have rules like referring to people by the term “the honorable” and restrictions on how long a member can hold the floor.
19. Restaurant and Bar Rules
Restaurants and bars typically have their own set of rules that are designed to ensure that customers have a good experience.
For example, many restaurants have a dress code, and some may not allow children under a certain age. Similarly, many bars have a minimum age requirement and may not serve food.
While these rules are not laws, they are still formal norms because they are set, known, and enforced by the businesses.
20. Fire Codes in Buildings
Fire codes are sets of rules that dictate how buildings should be constructed in order to minimize the risk of fire. They are typically very specific, and they cover topics such as the materials that can be used in construction, the placement of exits, and the number of fire extinguishers that must be present.
Fire codes are enforced by government agencies, such as the fire department. In some cases, they may also be enforced by insurance companies.
Building codes are similar to fire codes, but they cover a broader range of topics, such as structural integrity and energy efficiency.
21. The Hippocratic Oath
The Hippocratic Oath is an ethical code that is followed by doctors. It requires them to pledge to uphold certain ethical standards, such as not harming patients and keeping patient information confidential.
The Hippocratic Oath originated in ancient Greece, and it is still used in modern times. It comes from the Greek philosopher Hippocrates, who is considered to be the father of medicine, who set out moral norms (or what we call mores) for physicians.
While the Hippocratic Oath is not a law, many physicians explicitly take the oath, and may post it on the walls of their offices.
22. Board Game Rules
Most board games have a set of rules that players must follow in order to play. These rules are designed to ensure that the game is fair and fun for all players.
For example, the ancient game of backgammon has rules that dictate how the pieces can be moved, how to set up the board, and what happens when a player lands on a certain space.
Similarly, card games like poker have rules that dictate how the cards are dealt, how much players can bet, and what happens when a player runs out of money.
23. Traffic Rules and Signs
Traffic rules are sets of guidelines that dictate how drivers should behave on the road. They are designed to keep both drivers and pedestrians safe.
For example, traffic lights are a type of traffic rule. They tell drivers when to stop, go, and yield. Traffic signs are another type of traffic rule. They indicate the speed limit, the type of road, and potential hazards.
Traffic rules are enforced by police officers. If a driver breaks a traffic rule, they may be given a ticket or, if it is a severe infringement, they may have to face a court of law.
24. Paying for Public Transit
In many cities, people have to pay to use public transit. This includes buses, trains, and subways.
Fares are typically set by the government, and they are usually collected by an automated system, such as a ticket box on a bus or a turnstile at a subway station.
Furthermore, public transit may have formal norms like rules about standing in line or giving up your seat to elderly or disabled passengers. If they are codified in the standards of conduct and signposted on the train or bus, they are considered formal. Otherwise, they may be seen as informal norms.
25. Parking Regulations
Most cities have parking regulations that dictate where and how long people can park their cars. These regulations are typically enforced by parking meters or parking attendants.
Parking regulations vary from city to city, but they typically include things like time limits, spots for disabled people or parents with prams, and no-parking zones.
Breaking parking regulations can result in a fine. In some cases, it may also result in the car being towed.
26. No Skating and No Loitering Signs in Malls
Many malls have signs that say “No Skating” or “No Loitering.” These are examples of norms that are designed to keep people safe and to prevent property damage.
In the 1990s, there was moral panic about young people loitering around malls, shoplifting, and lowering the aesthetic of the malls. As a result, many formal norms within malls are directly targeted at preventing youths from loitering without supervision.
27. Standard Operating Procedures in Workplaces
Workplaces typically have Standard Operating Procedures, or SOPs, which are sets of detailed instructions that employees must follow in order to complete their tasks safely and efficiently. They also help to maintain standards.
SOPs are usually specific to certain types of workplaces, like restaurants or factories. For example, a restaurant might have an SOP that dictates how often the floors should be mopped and how often the garbage should be taken out.
In our workplace, we have SOPs on how to write website articles, what’s required when uploading them, and how to format them so they’re readable for our visitors.
28. Community Standards on Social Media
Social media platforms have community standards that users must agree to when they sign up for an account. These standards typically prohibit comments that the platform considers outside of the social norm.
If a user breaks these standards, their account may be suspended or they may be banned from the platform altogether. For example, Twitter banned Donald Trump for his endorsement of riots against the Capitol.
Because these private companies have created a set of codified rules of behavior on their platforms, we can consider these to be formal norms.
29. Hate Speech Laws
In some countries, hate speech is against the law. This includes speech that attacks people based on their race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin.
Hate speech laws vary from country to country. In some cases, hate speech is only illegal if it leads to violence or public disorder. In other cases, it is illegal regardless of whether or not it leads to violence.
Some countries have very extreme formal norms of speech. For example, Thailand has a law that prohibits people from insulting the king. Breaking this law can result in a prison sentence of up to 15 years.
Formal norms can be either codified in law or be informal rules that are set by businesses or other organizations. Formal norms usually have some kind of enforcement mechanism, such as fines. However, this is not always the case, as some rules are put in place with the expectation of goodwill from those who should follow them.
By contrast, informal norms are another type of norm that refers to norms that are not explicitly written down or discussed, but breaking them is still taboo. We learn these through immersion in our cultural context.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.