Informal norms are the unwritten rules that govern social behavior. They are passed down from one generation to the next and are often based on cultural traditions.
While they are not written into law, they are still important in shaping our social interactions.
They are often juxtaposed with another type of norm called formal norms. Formal norms have been codified into rules and norms so they are explicit and officially punishable if contravened.
Informal Norms Definitions
Informal norms were first set out as a concept by Max Weber (1978) who compared them to formal norms.
For Weber, the key difference was that informal norms are not codified, but controlled through social pressures and controls.
For a direct scholarly definition, it’s instructive to use Brinton and Nee’s (2001, p. 19) definition:
“Informal norms are rules of a group or community … that rely on informal mechanism of monitoring such as social approval and disapproval.”
Notably, formal norms may also be enforced through informal mechanisms, but generally, can also be enforced through formal means.
Informal Norms Examples
1. Shaking Hands after a Sporting Match
It is generally accepted to be polite to shake hands with your opponent after a sporting meet. Even if you lose, you should shake hands to show goodwill and acknowledge the successes of your opponent.
For example, you can often see after a tennis match that the players will approach the net, shake hands with one another, and shake hands with the umpire. This tradition of acknowledgement of one another is a sign of sportsmanship.
Similarly, at the beginning of a football (soccer) match, the teams will line up and shake hands as a gesture of goodwill.
If a sports star refuses to shake hands after a game, it’s considered a social taboo and often makes the news as a shocking undermining of decorum.
Related Article: 29 Formal Norms Examples
2. Covering your Nose when Sneezing
In many cultures, it is considered polite to cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze. This action helps to prevent the spread of germs and shows consideration for others.
It’s generally considered impolite to sneeze without covering your nose, especially in enclosed spaces such as on public transport or in an elevator. You won’t get into any legal trouble for this because it’s not a formal norm, but you will get frustrated sideways looks from other people on the train.
3. Not Littering or Spitting in Public Places
Littering in national parks and on hikes is considered especially bad behavior because it soils a pristine environment.
Because there is no one out there to police littering in the wilderness, it’s often up to friends and fellow hikers to enforce the rules through judgment and social disapproval.
But littering is also considered inappropriate in cities as well. In many cities, it’s even codified in bylaws, making it an example of a formal norm that is punishable. Spitting, on the other hand, is usually less legally enforceable, and remains an informal norm.
4. Saying “Please” and “Thank You”
In nearly all societies, it is considered polite to say “please” when making a request and “thank you” when someone does something for you.
This norm is so ingrained in our social interactions that we often don’t even think about it. But when we see someone who doesn’t thank their server in a restaurant, we often find it to be rude and even offensive.
But there is no rule saying you have to say please and thank you. As a result, it’s up to social judgement to keep people using their manners.
5. Knocking on a Door before Entering
In many cultures, it is polite to knock before entering someone’s home.
This action shows respect for the person’s privacy and gives them a chance to prepare for guests. Furthermore, it shows people that you respect their personal space and acknowledge that you are entering their land.
In some cultures, such as in parts of Asia, it is also considered polite to take off your shoes before entering someone’s home.
In some cases, entering without permission may even be considered trespassing.
6. Standing up for Judges or High Status People
When someone of high status, such as a CEO or president, enters the room, it is often considered polite to stand up.
This action shows respect for the person’s position and authority. It also shows that you are paying attention to the person and are interested in what they have to say.
At the same time, not standing up can also be seen as a sign of disrespect. For example, if you were to meet the queen of England and remained seated, it would be considered very rude.
Similarly, people of high authority may also need to be referred to by their surname or their title, such as Mr President.
7. Giving up your Seat on Public Transport for the Elderly or Pregnant
When using public transport, it is often considered polite to give up your seat for someone who is elderly or pregnant.
It’s also polite to give up your seat for someone who is disabled or has a physical condition that makes standing difficult.
This is because these people may have difficulty standing for long periods of time or may be more susceptible to injury. As a healthier person, you’re doing your duty to the vulnerable people in your society by giving them your seat.
8. Wearing Appropriate Clothing to Work
In most workplaces, there is an implied dress code that employees or students are expected to follow.
This dress code is usually based on the norms of the profession or the culture of the organization. For example, in many offices, it is considered inappropriate to wear shorts or flip-flops.
While you may not get into legal trouble, and there might not even be an official dress code in the office, not following the social norms around dress might lead you to being seen as lazy and may impede your ability to get a promotion.
9. Not Using Mobile Phones in Public
In many places, it seems rude or confronting when a mobile phone rings. For example, a phone that rings in the middle of a meeting is a faux pas. This is because they can be disruptive to other people who are trying to concentrate. It’s also seen as a sign that you are not concentrating on the group.
Similarly, when we see someone using their phone in a quiet area, we often find it to be rude. This is because we think that the person is being inconsiderate of others and is not following the social norms of the situation.
In some places, this informal norm becomes formal. For example, libraries, cinemas, and hospitals often have rules about turning off your phone.
10. Keeping Your Voice Down in Public
In most cultures, it is considered polite to keep your voice down when you are in public. This is because loud noise can be disruptive to other people and can be seen as a sign of disrespect.
For example, if you were in a library, you would be expected to keep your voice down so as not to disturb other people who are trying to concentrate. Similarly, if you were in a restaurant, you would be expected to have a conversation at a volume that is appropriate for the setting.
In some cultures, it is also considered polite to speak softly in general conversation. This is because loud voices are seen as a sign of disrespect.
11. Asking the Father’s Permission to Marry a Woman
In many cultures, it is considered polite to ask the father’s permission before marrying his daughter. This is because the father is seen as the head of the household and the person who has the most authority over his daughter.
Asking for permission shows that you respect the father’s authority and that you are willing to consult with him about important decisions in your life. It also shows that you will be respecting his daughter.
In western culture, this is becoming less and less common as people’s individual liberty and freedom to make decisions about their own lives is more and more centralized in public thought.
12. Not Swearing around Children
In most cultures, it is considered polite to not swear around children. This is because swearing is seen as a sign of disrespect and can be offensive to some people.
It’s also seen as a sign of immaturity and can be a bad influence on children. If you want to show that you’re a responsible and respectable person, it’s best to avoid swearing in front of children.
Similarly, it’s a good idea to avoid swearing in public or professional settings where you are supposed to show decorum and respect for the people around you.
13. Raising your Hand to Speak in Class
It is considered polite to raise your hand to speak in class. This is because the teacher needs to control the noise levels and keep everyone concentrating. If everyone could speak whenever they wanted, then there would be a rabble of noise.
By raising your hand, you’re allowing the teacher to keep this control and ensuring there is a calm, learning-focused atmosphere.
If a student starts speaking out of turn, the other students might look at them as if they are rude, and may even hush them to maintain the standards and norms of the classroom environment.
14. Waiting in a Queue
In many cultures, it is considered polite to stand in line for your turn. This norm exists to promote fairness and orderliness.
If everyone just pushed their way to the front, then it would be very chaotic and people would probably get hurt. By waiting in line, you’re showing that you respect the order and that you’re willing to wait your turn.
This norm is so strong that people will often get upset if someone tries to cut in line and tell them to go to the back. In some cases, if the line is for something very important, people have even been known to fight over line cutting.
15. Saying “I’m sorry” when you’ve made a mistake
It is considered polite to say “I’m sorry” when you have made a mistake. This is because it shows that you are taking responsibility for your actions and that you are sorry for any inconvenience or hurt that you may have caused.
Saying “I’m sorry” is also a way of asking for forgiveness. It shows that you are willing to make amends and that you value the relationship more than your pride.
If you don’t apologize for your actions, people around you may outcast you or judge you harshly into the future.
16. Not Gossiping
In many cultures, it is considered impolite to gossip about other people. This is because gossiping can be hurtful and damaging to the people.
When you gossip, the people around you will note that you’re an untrustworthy person. They may internally judge you and remember not to tell you important or sensitive information into the future.
As a result, gossiping is considered a taboo that is regulated by the culture, not laws.
17. Putting your dog on a leash in parks and other public spaces
It is polite to put your dog on a leash in parks and other public spaces. This shows that you have full control over your animal at all times.
Not all people like dogs, and some people may be afraid of them, so keeping the dog leashed shows respect to those people. It’s also right to leash your dog in public to ensure it doesn’t cause damage, catch native animals, or fight with other dogs.
By keeping your dog on a leash, you’re respecting the personal space and safety of others as well as the natural environment.
18. Only Having Hard Drinks After 5 PM
In many cultures, eit is only polite to have hard drinks after 5 PM. This is because hard drinks contain alcohol, which can make people feel tired and impair their judgment.
As an immigrant to North America, I found that this rule is much more strict in this continent than Europe. When I lived in Europe, people were not judged as much for drinking in the middle of the day or walking down the street with an open drink in hand.
19. Acknowledging Traditional Territory
In Canada and Australia, there is an expectation that public officials giving speeches should acknowledge the traditional territory on which they stand. An example might be saying “I acknowledge that I’m standing on the traditional territory of the Wiradjuri people.”
This shows respect to the culture that was colonized by western settlers, and shows a commitment to reconciliation. In Australia, this is called the acknowledgement of country.
20. Writing Salutations In Emails
As a university professor, I often find my students (who are used to sending text messages) fail to use salutations in their emails. This is seen as rude, and won’t get them far when applying for jobs!
An email salutation might start with “Dear Chris,” and end with “Kind Regards”.
These salutations show that you are greeting the recipient of the email politely and have respect and decorum in your questions or comments.
21. Tipping at a Restaurant
Tipping is perhaps the quintessential example of an informal norm. It’s not a law to tip, but in the United States, people rely on tips to make a living wage. As a result, failure to tip is considered extremely rude.
This is an American taboo, in particular. In nations like New Zealand and Australia, tipping is not a part of the culture.
The expectation in these countries is that the price written on the bill is inclusive of all expenses, including the expense of paying a living wage to your employees. By expecting patrons to tip, the business is seen as breaking a norm that they should shoulder the responsibility of paying a fair wage for their work, and pass that cost on inside of the official price of the service.
More Informal Norms:
- Eating with Cutlery
- Eating Pizza With Your Hands
- Giving Personal Space
- Wearing A Shirt And Covered Shoes To A Restaurant
- Picking Your Nose In Public
- Walking On The Right Side Of The Footpath
- Keeping A Well Mown Lawn
- Making Your Bed In The Morning
- Paying if you Break Something
- Taking your shoes off before walking into someone’s house.
- Asking for Permission to use Someone’s Tools
- Not Being a Sore Loser
- Tucking In Your Shirt
- Saying “Bless you” when Someone Sneezes
- Sending An RSVP
Related Concept: Social Fact Examples
Informal vs Formal Norms
Informal norms are the rules that we follow on a day-to-day basis that exist in the cultural milieu but not in laws. Formal norms, on the other hand, are the laws that are codified, and that we have to follow or else face consequences.
While both formal and informal norms are important in our society, breaking a formal norm is usually much more serious than breaking an informal one. For example, if you don’t RSVP to a party, you might be considered rude, but if you speed in your car, you’ll get a fine!
Formal norms are usually created by institutions with rational-legal authority such as governments and bureaucracies.
Other Types of Norms
By following social norms, we can demonstrate respect and commitment to the cultural values that we share with others. While some norms are codified in law, many more exist as informal rules that we follow on a day-to-day basis. Examples of informal norms include tipping at a restaurant, eating with cutlery, and giving your seat to an elderly person on the train. Both formal and informal norms are important in our society, and failure to follow them can result in negative consequences – be it social judgement or sanctions by the police.
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.