Although many of us often find ourselves running late in the mornings, we frequently can’t help braving the morning rush at our favorite coffee shop. In these situations, there is nothing stopping any of us from barging into the coffee shop, cutting to the front of the line and demanding that the barista get a double shot of espresso immediately. It would certainly save us time and we may avoid being late for work or school. However, imagine the potential reactions of the people in the coffeeshop. At the minimum, they would include dirty looks, and perhaps a calling out for such behavior. This is because waiting your turn, whether it is to buy a cup of coffee, get on the bus, or be seated at a restaurant, is an unspoken rule of society – a social norm.
Social norms are informal rules that guide behavior within society. Generally, they are a means of constraining behavior.1 While laws are in place to prevent crimes, social norms exist to maintain order on a smaller scale. Instead of people chaotically entering a coffee shop, forcing their way to the front and yelling their order to the barista, social norms dictate that we should stand in line and place our orders one-by-one. This system is more orderly and more efficient.
Of course, not all social norms are positive. Gender norms—the idea that behavior and expression is dictated by biological sex—are often limiting and problematic. Furthermore, because social norms are so ubiquitous and rigid, those who deviate from the norm often face consequences, which may range from mockery, to ostracization.
We internalize the social norms of our culture, many of us enforcing them and engaging in them automatically. While social norms can be useful tools for guiding our behavior and informing our decision-making, they can also be damaging. For this reason, we should learn to accept social norms only if they do more harm than good.