Breaking Norms and Breaking Free

8 min read
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Singing in a restaurant is one example of breaking a social norm.

Source: picjumbo / Pexels

There’s a scene from Disney’s “The Santa Clause 2” that lives rent-free in my head. Scott Calvin, played by Tim Allen, learns he must be married to save Christmas. He proceeds to go on a series of not-so-great dates. On one occasion, Scott meets a woman named Tracy, a bubbly Christmas fanatic.

After introductions, she sings a song to the tune of country pop star Shania Twain’s hit, “Man, I Feel like a Woman,” though the words are changed to be about the Christmas holiday. Her soft singing progressively turns into an entire performance, complete with jazz hands and belted notes. The other restaurant guests stared in surprise at her outburst. Calvin looks around at Tracy and the other guests awkwardly. He states, “It kind of scared me a little bit.” Frustrated at his reaction, Tracy walks out on their date.

While Tracy didn’t break any laws, her unexpected performance did break a social norm—an informal rule that governs behavior in our society. The expressions of secondhand embarrassment from Calvin and the peripheral onlookers indicated to Tracy that what she was doing was frowned upon.

Our society is made up of many norms that we often don’t recognize because they have become such a mainstay in our everyday behavior. For example, imagine the behavior of someone using an elevator. What direction are they looking once they’ve stepped inside? Likely they’re facing the doors.

It’s usually only when someone goes against the norm that our discomfort prompts us to think about what the expected behavior was. Social norms allow us to predict each other’s behavior. They are like a social glue that helps tie us together. However, cross-cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand has found, that glue can be tighter in some cultures than others.

Strict vs. Loose Societies

Group behaviors can be described in several ways, such as how collectivist or individualistic different societies are. With her research team, Gelfand investigated the differing roles of social norms across cultures.

Societies differ in how strongly they adhere to the unspoken social rules, and how severely a person is treated who breaks a norm. For example, some Germans will wait patiently to cross the street, even when no cars are present—yet teenagers from New Jersey can be seen jaywalking frequently. A person may get fined for chewing gum in Singapore, yet spit it out casually in the Netherlands.

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Densely populated groups tend to have stricter norm-adherence.

ilham izzul / Pexels

Some cultures are tighter than others—they have strong norms and greater punishment for disobedience. Tight cultures include those like Japan, Singapore, Austria, and Germany. These places tend to emphasize order and conformity. Gelfand even found that the time displayed on clocks was more uniform in tight cultures.

Other groups are loose—they have weaker norms and are more permissive. Looser cultures include those from New Zealand, Brazil, Greece, or the Netherlands. For example, we may see a person from a loose culture walking barefoot in public or decorating their fence with bras. They often give their children unique names and value authenticity. Many countries have a mix of tight and loose characteristics.

These differences may come from different levels of threat and population density. Those in tight cultures may need greater conformity because they face larger potential geographical, political, or biological harm. Feeling threatened even makes voters more likely to support tight characteristics, such as obedience to authority and greater punishments for rule violations. As Gelfand stated, “When you have people jammed around you, you need rules to help avoid chaos and conflict.”

Benefits of Norm-Breaking

Societies with loose norm adherence tend to be more open-minded, creative, and mentally flexible. These cultures are welcoming of people from a variety of religions, races, and other backgrounds. They are more tolerant of others and often celebrate diversity. Gelfand found that participants wearing fake facial warts were more likely to be helped if they were in a loose culture compared to a tight one. Loose groups are more likely to question whether norms passed down from generation to generation still align with current values.

We are currently seeing shifts in norm adherence with positive outcomes. For example, Pamela Anderson, the actress-model known for her hyperfeminine style, recently attended Paris Fashion Week without makeup on. She said, “I’m not trying to be the prettiest girl in the room. I feel like it’s just freedom. It’s a relief.” Her example will likely empower other women to let go of society’s high expectations concerning their appearance.

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Anderson’s bare face will likely empower women to feel comfortable letting go of society’s high expectations concerning their appearance.

Source: Andrea Piacquadio / Pexels

She’s not the only one letting go of image-related norms. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely described a similar experience in his new book, “Misbelief: What Makes Rational People Believe Irrational Things.” Ariely was badly burned in an accident as a teenager. As a result, half of his face is badly scarred. After going on a trip, Ariely had failed to shave the half of his face that still grew facial hair.

He was surprised that the reaction to his asymmetrical appearance was largely positive. Many others with scars or asymmetrical features wrote to him, expressing how they felt greater freedom to stop trying to meet an impossible beauty standard. Ariely himself wrote of the unexpected relief it’s been to skip the daily shaving in front of the bathroom mirror, foregoing the reminder that his face will never have the symmetry it once did.

Gen Z has started to recognize the harm of past norms too. They are much more likely than previous generations to talk openly about depression and anxiety and to seek treatment. The stigma surrounding mental illness has decreased over the last few decades, and when perceived stigma is lower, the person struggling is more likely to pursue help.

Younger generations are also much more comfortable breaking traditional gender norms. In one survey, nearly 60% of Gen Zers believe that there should be an option besides “man” or “woman” on forms that ask about gender, versus half of millennials and just more than 30% of Baby Boomers. This better reflects society’s diverse gender identities and advancements in our understanding of the complexities surrounding biological sex.

From these examples, we can see that some of the greatest benefits of reevaluating norms are self-acceptance and authenticity.

Finding Balance

Are norms holding us back? Is it possible for a culture to become too loose? On the one hand, a world without any norms would be one full of unpredictable chaos. There would be no standard for navigating safe eating and travel, for how to communicate and form relationships with others, or for how to structure educational and government systems. Tight cultures have lower rates of crime, greater self-control, and lower rates of obesity.

Upper-class groups tend to have more attributes of loose cultures, where they can afford to bend rules and be permissive compared to lower-class groups. As Psychologist Paul Piff and his research team found, drivers of expensive cars were much more likely to violate traffic rules and cut off pedestrians compared to drivers in less expensive cars. Loose groups may be willing to shrug off norms in ways that harm others without that privilege.

Like most psychological concepts, social norm adherence is a mixed bag. Gelfand suggests finding a balance between tight and loose. Many of the problems we see, such as crime and discrimination are from tight-loose extremes. We can see these extremes play out in parents who are too controlling or too indulgent. Gelfand found that nations that were too loose or too tight had higher rates of suicide and lower reported levels of happiness.

As a society, we can evaluate which social norms are adaptive—those that lead to greater acceptance, authenticity, creativity, and social trust. We can also begin to dismantle norms that have mentally imprisoned us and kept us from progressing. We can assess how our social norms affect the marginalized and whether they still fulfill their original purposes.

For many of us, it might be time to proudly sing a silly song in a restaurant, shed unrealistic beauty expectations, or open up about our mental health struggles. Each time we let go of a norm that’s no longer serving us, it allows others to do the same.

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