- Social norms are the unwritten rules of behaviour and belief in our social groups.
- Social norms influence almost all aspects of our behaviour—including consent.
- Norms are enforced by members of the group, through social sanctions.
- Social norms aren’t perfect; some social norms can be fundamentally disrespectful.
- We should try to recognise and respond to disrespectful social norms.
Why are social norms important?
Can you answer these three questions:
- Which side of the escalator would you stand on if you wanted to let others pass?
- When are some examples of where you might accept waiting in a queue?
- What kind of present is appropriate for a five-year old boy?
If you can answer any of these questions, it means you’ve internalised a social norm - guidelines for acceptable behaviour within a group.
Social norms are a big influence on almost all aspects of our behaviour—including consent—because we tend to copy the people around us (and when we don’t, we tend to be very aware of it).
Some social norms can be super helpful, some can be harmful.
Given the power of social norms, it’s worth learning about what they are, how they influence us, and how we can influence them in turn.
Social norm basics
Here are five facts about social norms:
1. Norms are guidelines for acceptable behaviour within a specific group.
Example: “It’s not acceptable to fart in class.”
2. Different social groups will have different norms. (For any particular norm, the relevant social group is called the reference group.)
Example: “It’s not acceptable to fart in class, but it’s fine to fart in the car with my best friend.”
3. Norms are usually not written down anywhere. We just kind of pick them up through:
- noticing the way other people behave (“Nobody else is farting in this class.”)
- noticing the way other people judge behaviour (“Henry farted and now everyone is making fun of him.”)
4. Some norms are based on what other people actually do and feel, others can be based on what we believe other people do and feel.
Example: “I think it’s fine to fart in class, but everybody else thinks it’s unacceptable. Wait, what’s this… an anonymous poll saying everyone else thinks it’s fine too? Have we all just been holding our farts in because we thought everyone else would be offended? *farts*”
5. Social norms are enforced by members of the group. If you break a norm, you get what’s called a social sanction—which could be anything from a frown to expulsion from the group.
Example: “Alright, a couple of farts and maybe you just had a lot of beans last night. But 20 minutes straight and you’re clearly taking the mickey. See me after class.”
On the other hand, if you follow norms you get the rewards that come from fitting in.
How do social norms affect the Field Model?
Social norms influence every part of the Field Model, including:
- who we have relationships with
- what decisions we may or may not consider in particular relationships, and
- what kind of decisions we should say yes or no to, under what circumstances.
Most of the time this influence is positive—we live in a society with other people, and norms show us how to get along.
But sometimes this influence can be negative, and social norms lead us to treat someone else badly, or be treated badly ourselves.
What social norms do YOU live by?
It can be hard to see the social norms we take for granted every day. To get a glimpse:
- Make a list of things you have done so far today.
- How many of these did you do because that’s what everyone else does?
- How many of these things are normal?
- How many are unusual?
- If you wanted to do anything differently, how different could it be before people around you started getting worried or angry or criticised you for your behaviour?
The last question in particular will give you a sense of some of the social norms influencing your life.
For example: Getting on a bus to go to school
- Maybe you queued for a bus to school today. The bus pulled up, everyone formed a line of some kind to get on, it was pretty orderly.
- You did this because everyone else is doing it: everyone goes to school, everyone catching a bus queues for it.
- There are lots of norms at work. If you just focus on the queuing part, common norms can be:
- Form a line leading to the door of the bus.
- The line can’t be more than two people wide.
- Let people get off the bus first.
- When boarding, don’t push in.
- Don’t look at or talk to strangers in the queue.
- Don’t waste other people’s time. (Get on the bus smoothly. If you need a pass, make sure you have it ready.)
- If you had some other way of getting onto the bus, it’d be unusual. For instance, slipping in through the back door of a two-door bus is not standard - though on some bus systems it is.
- How far could you change queueing behaviour before people around you started getting worried, annoyed or angry?
- What if you walked on backwards?
- What if you had a chat to someone you didn’t know? (What if it was about the weather? What if it was about UFOs?)
- What if you jumped the queue?
- What if you argued with the driver?
- What if you tried to climb in through a window?
- What if you were naked?
- You can see that the norms around queueing for a bus (or for anything, really) are all about helping people get on with their day quickly, with minimal impact on each other, and while treating the bus driver and company with respect. If you play with the norms, the point where people would probably start to get angry is when you made the process harder than it need to be.
Recognising problematic social norms
There are a couple of ways to recognise a problematic social norm.
- Emotion: the norm feels wrong or unfair.
- Principle: you recognise the norm violates basic human rights and values.
If a norm just feels instinctively wrong—for yourself or someone else—it’s a good clue that it’s a problematic norm.
However, a norm doesn’t have to feel wrong to be wrong. If a norm is violating human rights and basic definitions of dignity and respect, then it’s a bad norm—even if it doesn’t affect you personally.
For instance, imagine you work with a group of people who think it’s good and funny to make sexist comments about another gender.
You might feel bad about it, and that’s a clue to you personally that this is a bad norm—but even if you feel completely cool with it, you still should be able to see that it violates basic human rights and values by demeaning an entire group of our population.
Responding to disrespectful social norms
What can you do if you find yourself living under a bad social norm?
Social sanctions mean we often feel a strong pressure to conform to the group, no matter what we feel personally.
Even so, you have a few options:
- Stand up and challenge the norm outright (“We should all be able to fart in class! I am Spartacus!”)
- Simply refuse to go along with the normative behaviour (*farts*)
- Check in with other members of the reference group to see if you could build support for a norm change (“How do you feel about farting in class? Pro or con?”)
- Offer support to someone else subject to the bad norm (“Don’t listen to those guys. The way you farted in bio? Tight.”)
But seriously, the norms around not farting in class are probably pretty good. Social norms that limit the freedoms, opportunities or social standing of entire classes of people are far more worth your attention.