Propriety

The Basic Idea

Did a parent ever say to you, “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?”

This rhetorical question was likely posed after you asked to partake in frowned-upon behavior — whether that was to attend a party, get your ears pierced, or join a hockey league with your friends. Although that question felt patronizing, your parents were communicating that you don’t always need to follow the behavior of others.

If your parents ever told you that you couldn’t wear a tutu to school (“It’s not school-appropriate!”) or taught you not to put your elbows on the dinner table at dinner (“It’s disrespectful!”), they were encouraging propriety. Propriety is “the state or quality of conforming to conventionally accepted standards of behavior or morals.1

Conformity and propriety are similar but have a subtle distinction. Conformity is our tendency to change our behavior to fit in with a particular group, while propriety refers to behaving in ways deemed ‘polite’ and honorable. It is about maintaining decorum to seem civilized and classy in the eyes of society.2

Propriety can also be important when it comes to research practices. The American Psychological Association defines propriety standards as “the legal and ethical requirements of an evaluation research study.3 They are standards that ensure any study conducted is appropriate and aligned with the field’s values.

Although the definitions vary across contexts, the overall essence of propriety lies in the idea that because our actions impact others, we should ensure that they fall in line with appropriate standards. They are often encouraged by parents or other figures of authority who want us to be perceived as proper, upstanding members of society. While conformity can refer to the decision to partake in immoral behaviors because of group pressure, propriety only refers to instances where we behave appropriately in society’s standards.

Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety.

– Confucius, ancient Chinese philosopher4

Key Terms

Conformity: an individual adapting their behavior to align themselves with the perception or opinion of others.

Decorum: a code of rules that govern the behavior of civilized people. Decorum is seen as an indicator of intelligence and class.2

Etiquette: another term for the code of rules (often referring to manners) that govern our behavior in social situations. 2

Social Norms: collectively held beliefs about what kind of behavior is suitable in a given situation.  

Social Proof: our tendency to copy behaviors of those around us to ensure we are acting in a way that is appropriate to the situation or environment we are in.

Socialization: a lifelong process where people adopt society’s values and ideologies and conform their behavior to fit in with those standards.5

History

The idea of propriety has been around as long as humans have lived in groups, forming societies with particular views on what is deemed acceptable. Although we currently tend to speak about propriety in the context of our behavior fitting in with socially accepted behaviors, centuries ago it was used as a way to refer to the state of a created object — often a piece of art — fitting in with appropriate standards.

When someone is creating a piece of art, they are sometimes expected to conform to a particular style or some general standards. This was especially prevalent in earlier periods of history. As stated by Roman author Marcus Vitruvius Pollio in the first book of his series The Ten Books on Architecture, “Propriety is that perfection of style which comes when a work is authoritatively constructed on approved principles. It arises from prescription, from usage, or from nature.” 6 Although there are times when avant-garde art is widely celebrated, other times people expect artists to add their own flair to existing standards. It is because of propriety that we can clearly define artistic periods, like the Renaissance or Realism, as all artists during that time period generally followed the same unspoken guidelines.

Social norms are the driver behind conformity. Social norms are to society what grammar conventions are to language — they dictate what is acceptable. Talcott Parsons, well known for his research on social conformity, suggests that humans undergo socialization, a process in which we learn to act morally and ethically in order to ensure a stable societal structure.7

Later theories included a contextualization of propriety as a payoff-maximizing strategy. The cost-benefit model was made popular by Norwegian psychologist Ragnar Rommetveit in 1955, as well as social psychologist John Thibaut and H. H Kelley in 1959.5 The perception of others can greatly influence our lives and our success, and therefore many of us will abide by propriety in hopes of favourable outcomes. Propriety is the “rational” way to behave as it helps individuals avoid discredit and punishment.5

Both socialization and the rational view of propriety consider conformity as having an external, social drive, but also regard the individual to be making a decision isolated from these factors.

Alternative theories emerged in the 1960s focused on the individual facing a decision. Game-theory accounts understood that it wasn’t just about the individual making a decision in isolation to avoid discredit – it was also that we expect everyone to do the same. We put the fork on the left of the plate not because it is appropriate, but because it is what we expect of others, and we want to follow the rules of the game.5 It is not always rational to do so, as it may not benefit our self-interest, but our desire to cooperate and get along with others takes precedence.

Consequences

Our desire to conform to propriety hugely influences our behavior. How many times have you done something because it was what was expected of you, or because you thought it would make you look good? Every time you abide by a dress code, demonstrate etiquette, or follow a particular custom, you did so because of propriety.

Propriety is not inherently positive, nor negative. Oftentimes, wanting to behave appropriately leads to behavior that benefits society. However, following the status quo can have adverse effects. If no one ever spoke out against restrictive gender norms or racial stereotypes, we would live in a less equitable society.

Controversies

Research has shown that propriety has a strong influence on our behavior. However, deviance is an (almost) equally powerful influence. People will sometimes break rules solely to not give in to societal norms — especially angsty teenagers who do everything in their power to disappoint their parents!

If both defiance and propriety are factors in determining how we behave, can we predict when one will win over the other? One predictor may be cultural patterns. Individualistic cultures value independence and self-sufficiency, which means people could be more likely to be deviant. Alternatively, collectivist cultures value group well-being, which influences individuals to embody propriety.8

The concept of “acceptable deviance” has been introduced as a way to understand how people tend to find themselves somewhere in between propriety and deviance. It is socially accepted to color a little outside the lines, but only to a particular degree.9

Case Study

Fashion & Propriety

Our clothes are perceived as markers of who we are. Although fashion is a great method through which to express one’s identity, we are often constricted by propriety. There are standards of what to wear for certain events – we even have dress codes like formal, semi-formal, and business casual. Propriety is why we wear black to funerals, and why we wouldn’t dream of wearing a white dress to someone else’s wedding. Although some of these standards are harmless and help keep a level of decorum, other fashion standards can be quite damaging.

From a young age, girls are warned not to dress too provocatively, as it can put them in danger or cause others to take them less seriously. A large body of research shows that women are perceived as less intelligent and less moral when they do not dress “appropriately.” 10

Social psychologist Regan A. R. Gurung and his colleagues confirmed these stringent judgments on women in their 2017 study, Dressing ‘in code’: Clothing rules, propriety, and perceptions. In their study, university students were asked to look at pictures of women and provide a rating on six positive attributes: intelligence, competence, powerfulness, organization, efficiency, and professionalism. Gurung et al. found that the students — regardless of gender or self-reported measures of sexism — consistently rated the women in less provocative clothing higher in the positive attributes. Women wearing form-fitting clothing or sheer blouses were rated lower. There was no description of whether these women were dressed like that for work or just in their everyday life. However, those deemed non-compliant with professional dress codes were judged negatively.11

Other research confirms these results. A UK-based study conducted by psychologist Neil Howlett found that women tend to rate women wearing shorter skirts and having fewer buttons done up on a blouse more negatively. This was especially true if they were told these women occupied senior management roles, but less strong if they were told the woman was a receptionist. These results show that people tend to be more judgemental for the clothing of women with high status.12

While men have a level of propriety to maintain at the workplace, they are judged less harshly for what they wear. The consequences for a woman not abiding to propriety in the workplace are far greater than for men, which leads to gender discrimination.10

Related Content

Holding the Line: Social Norms and Party-Line Voting

Political views have a strong hold on what values people deem the most important and what behaviors are perceived as appropriate. It is because our political views influence what we define as propriety that it can lead to such great polarization. It’s difficult to understand one another when we can’t agree on morals. In this article, our contributor Shi Shi Li examines how social norms influence us to vote along party lines regardless of our personal opinions. Li uses the example of the majority of Democratic senators to vote to convict former president Donald Trump, while the majority of Republican senators voted to acquit, to show how social norms lead to party-line voting.

Three Thought Patterns That Let Advertisers Influence You on Social Media

In the digital age, there are also propriety standards of our online behavior. There are ways we are expected to act and advertisers use this to their advantage to influence us. We don’t tend to realize how much the content we encounter on our computers and phones influences our behavior. We are very susceptible to it especially because of the pressure to conform to the majority, known as a normative influence. In this article, our contributor Hannah Potts explores the psychology behind why social media advertising is so effective and provides guidance on how to avoid those mind games.

Sources

  1. propriety. (n.d.). Oxford Languages Dictionary. Retrieved November 4, 2021.
  2. Decorum vs Decency vs Propriety vs Dignity vs Etiquette. (2020, April 2). Writing Tips. https://www.writingtips.cc/decorum-vs-decency-vs-propriety-vs-dignity-vs-etiquette/
  3. propriety standards. (n.d.). American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://dictionary.apa.org/propriety-standards
  4. Propriety Quotes. (n.d.). BrainyQuote. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://www.brainyquote.com/topics/propriety-quotes
  5. Bicchieri, C., Muldoon, R., & Sontuoso, A. (2018). Social Norms. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/social-norms/#EarlTheoSoci
  6. Quotes about Propriety. (n.d.). Quote Master. Retrieved November 4, 2021, from https://www.quotemaster.org/Propriety
  7. Socialization. (2021, February 20). Social Science LibreTexts. https://socialsci.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Sociology/Introduction_to_Sociology/Book
  8. Conformity. (2021, October 19). The Decision Lab. https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/sociology/conformity/#section-5
  9. Harman, L. D. (1982). Acceptable deviance as social control: The cases of fashion and slang. Deviant Behavior, 6(1), 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1080/01639625.1985.9967656
  10. Gurung, R. A. (2018, June 7). To Bi(kini) or not to Bi(kini): When clothing rules oppress. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/the-psychological-pundit/201806/bikini-or-not-bikini-when-clothing-rules-oppress
  11. Gurung, R. A., Brickner, M., Leet, M., & Punke, E. (2017). Dressing “in code”: Clothing rules, propriety, and perceptions. The Journal of Social Psychology, 158(5), 553-557.
  12. Howlett, N., Pine, K. J., Cahill, N., Orakçıoğlu, İ., & Fletcher, B. (2015). Unbuttoned: The interaction between provocativeness of female work attire and occupational status. Sex Roles, 72(3-4), 105-116. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-015-0450-8

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