Social norms are the unspoken rules that govern how people interact with each other. They can vary from culture to culture, and even from group to group within a culture.
Some social norms are so ingrained in our psyches that we don’t even think about them; we just automatically do what is expected of us. Social norms examples include covering your mouth when you cough, waiting your turn, and speaking softly in a library.
Breaking societal norms can sometimes lead to awkward or uncomfortable situations. For example, if you’re in a library where it’s considered rude to talk on your cell phone, and you answer a call, you’ll likely get some disapproving looks from the people around you.
Understanding the social norms of the place you’re visiting is an important part of cultural etiquette to show respect for the people around you.
Examples of Social Norms
- Greeting people when you see them.
- Saying “thank you” for favors.
- Holding the door open for others.
- Standing up when someone else enters the room.
- Offering to help someone carrying something heavy.
- Speaking quietly in public places.
- Waiting in line politely.
- Respecting other people’s personal space.
- Disposing of trash properly.
- Refraining from eating smelly foods in public.
- Paying for goods or services with a smile.
- Complimenting others on their appearance or achievements.
- Asking others about their day or interests.
- Avoiding gossip and rumors.
- Volunteering to help others in need.
- Saying “I’m sorry” when you’ve made a mistake.
- Supporting others in their time of need.
- Participating in group activities.
- Respecting authority figures.
- Being on time for important engagements.
- Avoiding interrupting others when they are speaking.
- Showing interest in other people’s lives and experiences.
- Refraining from using offensive language or gestures.
- Being honest and truthful with others at all times.
- Treating others with kindness and respect, regardless of their social status or background.
- Putting the needs of others before your own.
- Participating in charitable works and activities.
- Helping others whenever possible.
- Welcoming guests into your home or place of business.
- Nodding, smiling, and looking people in the eyes to show you are listening to them.
- Following the laws and regulations of your country.
- Respecting the rights and beliefs of others.
- Cooperating with others in order to achieve common goals.
- Being tolerant and understanding of different viewpoints.
- Displaying good manners and etiquette in social interactions.
- Waiting in line for your turn.
- Taking your shoes off before walking into someone’s house.
- Putting your dog on a leash in parks and other public spaces.
- Letting the elderly or pregnant people take your seat on a bus.
Social Norms for Students
- Arrive to class on time and prepared.
- Pay attention and take notes.
- Stay quiet when other students are working.
- Raise your hand if you have a question.
- Do your homework and turn it in on time.
- Participate in class discussions.
- Respect your teachers and classmates.
- Follow the school’s rules and regulations.
- Use appropriate language and behavior.
- Ask permission to be excused if you need to go to the bathroom.
- Go to the bathroom before class begins.
- Keep your workspace clean.
- Do not plagiarize or cheat.
- Wait your turn to speak.
- Ask permission to use other people’s supplies.
- Include all your peers in your group when doing group work.
Related: Classroom Rules for Middle School
Social Norms while Dining Out
- Wait to be seated.
- Remain seated until everyone is served.
- Don’t reach across the table.
- Use your napkin.
- Don’t chew with your mouth open.
- Don’t talk with your mouth full.
- Keep elbows off the table.
- Use a fork and knife when eating.
- Drink from a glass, not from the bottle or carton.
- Request more bread or butter only if you’re going to eat it all.
- Don’t criticize the food or service.
- Thank your server when you’re finished.
- Leave a tip if you’re satisfied with the service.
Social Norms while using your Phone
- Keep your phone on silent or vibrate mode while in meetings.
- Don’t answer your phone in a public place unless it’s an emergency.
- Don’t talk on the phone while driving.
- Don’t text while driving.
- Don’t take or make calls during class.
- Don’t use your phone in a movie theater.
- Turn off your phone when you’re with someone else.
- Place your phone on airplane mode while flying.
- Do not look at someone else’s phone.
- Ensure your ringtone is inoffensive when in public or around children.
Social Norms in Libraries
- Be quiet and respect the other patrons.
- Don’t talk on your phone.
- Don’t bring food or drinks into the library.
- Don’t sleep in the library.
- Don’t bring pets into the library.
- Return all books to the correct location.
- Don’t mark or damage library books.
- Make sure your cell phone is turned off.
- Return your books on time.
Social Norms in Other Countries
- In France, it is considered polite to kiss acquaintances on both cheeks when meeting them.
- In Japan, it is customary to take your shoes off when entering someone’s home.
- In India, it is considered rude to show the soles of your feet or to point your feet at someone else.
- In Italy, it is common for people to give each other a light kiss on the cheek as a gesture of hello or goodbye.
- In China, it is customary to leave some food on your plate after eating, as a sign of respect for the cook.
- In Spain, it is customary to call elders “Don” or “Doña.”
- In Iceland, it is considered polite to say “thank you” (Takk) after every meal.
- In Thailand, it is customary to remove your shoes before entering a home or temple.
- In Germany, it is customary to shake hands with everyone you meet, both men and women.
- In Argentina, it is customary for people to hug and kiss cheeks as a gesture of hello or goodbye.
Social Norms that Should be Broken
- “Women should be polite” – Stand up for what you believe in, even if it makes you look bossy.
- “Don’t draw attention to yourself” – Embrace your uniqueness and difference so long as you’re respectful of others.
- “Don’t question your parents or your boss” – Protest bad behavior from people in authority if you know you’re morally right.
- “Mistakes are embarrassing” – It’s okay to make mistakes and be seen to fail. It means you’re making an effort and pushing your boundaries.
- “Respect your elders” – If your elders are engaging in bad behavior, stand up to them and let them know you’re taking note of what they’re doing.
Cultural vs Social Norms
Cultural norms are the customs and traditions that are passed down from one generation to the next. They’re connected to the traditions, values, and practices of a particular culture.
Societal norms, on the other hand, reflect the current social standard for appropriate behavior within a society. In modern multicultural societies, there are different groups with different cultural norms, but they must all agree on a common set of social norms for public spaces.
We also have a concept called group norms, which define how smaller groups – like workplace teams or sports teams – will operate. These might differ from group to group, and are highly dependant on the expectations and standards of the group/team leader.
Norms Change Depending on the Context
Norms are different depending on different contexts, including in different eras, and in different societies. What might be considered polite in one context could be considered rude in another.
For example, norms in the 1950s were much more gendered. Negative gender stereotypes restricted women because it was normative for women to be quiet, polite, and submissive in public. Today, women have much more equality.
Similarly, the norms and taboos in the United States will be very different from those in China. For example, Chinese businessmen are often expected to share expensive gifts during negotiations. In the United States, this could be considered bordering on bribery.
What are the Four Types of Norms?
There are four types of norms: folkways, mores, taboos, and laws.
- Folkways are social conventions that are not strictly enforced, but are generally considered to be polite or appropriate. An example of a folkway is covering your mouth when you sneeze.
- Mores are social conventions that are considered to have a moral dimension. Due to their moral dimension, they’re generally considered to be more important than folkways. Violation of mores can result in social sanctions so they often overlap with laws (mentioned below). An example of a more is not drinking and driving.
- Taboos are considered ‘negative norms’, or things that you should avoid doing. If you do them, you’ll be seen as rude. An example of a taboo is using your phone in a movie theater or spitting indoors.
- Laws are the most formal and serious type of norm. They are usually enforced by the government and can result in criminal penalties if violated. Examples of laws include not stealing from others and not assaulting others.
Conclusion: What are Social Norms?
Social norms are defined as the unspoken rules that help us to get along with others in a polite and respectful manner. It’s important to follow them so that we can maintain a positive social environment for everyone involved. Social norms examples include not spitting indoors, covering your mouth when you sneeze, and shaking hands with everyone you meet.
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. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]