Cultural norms are the shared, sanctioned, and integrated systems of beliefs and practices that are passed down through generations and which characterize a cultural group.

A norm (short for normative or normal ) is an acceptable and expected way of behaving in any given social situation. Similar to the associated concept of values , norms differ from individual to individual and society to society. Where values are general guidelines for behaviour, norms represent very specific rules that govern behaviour in particular situations.

Norms cultivate reliable guidelines for daily living and contribute to the health and well-being of a culture. They act as prescriptions for correct and moral behavior, lend meaning and coherence to life, and provide a means to achieve a sense of integrity, safety and belonging.
These normative beliefs, together with related cultural values and rituals, presents a sense of order and control upon aspects of life that might otherwise appear chaotic or unpredictable.[1] A lack of these norms is an anomie .

Implicit and Explicit Cultural Norms

norms are rules for governing behavior that are implied, but not bound by law. These laws underlie values and social representations and are less easily observable than languages, customs or institutions. Implicit norms are generally unconscious and require no formal declaration; however, violation of these unstated rules may result negatively within society.[2]

  • i. Folkways : Folkways are the implicit, general standards of behavior adhered to by a group. A violation of a cultural folkway is something to which society frowns upon, but does not lead to serious punishment. These are fairly weak types of norms.[3] The norm for men to wear pants but not skirts, for example, is a cultural folkway.

norms are written and formally communicated rules enforced by authority, and specific sanctions are imposed for their violation.

Explicit culture refers to aspects such as observed communication styles and language, cultural scripts, time and space orientation, work habits and practices, all forms of interpersonal and social relationships, types of food and eating habits, dress and appearance, fashions, art, public buildings, houses, monuments, agriculture, shrines, and markets.[4] Recycling is an example of an explicit norm. Oftentimes, the sheer idea of achieving a clean and sustainable planet is insufficient motivation, and many individuals in today’s society require incentives or consistent reminders to recycle and conserve.

  • i. Mores (pronounced "more-rays"): Mores are strong, explicit societal norms. While undocumented, a failure to conform to these norms results in a concentrated, negative social response from the individual or group to whom one fails to act appropriately.[5]

  • ii. Laws: A law is a legal, documented norm that exists to explicitly control behaviour.

Aspects of Cultural Norms

A social comparison
Aspects of Culture
Mainstream North American Culture
Other Cultures
1. Sense of self and space
Informal, Handshake
Formal hugs, bows, handshakes
2. Communication and language
Explicit, direct communication Emphasis on content--meaning found in words
Implicit, indirect communication. Emphasis on context. Meaning found around words
3. Dress and appearance
"Dress for success" ideal. Wide range in accepted dress
Dress seen as a sign of position, wealth and prestige. Religious rules
4. Food and eating habits
Dining as a necessity--fast food
Dining as a social experience. Religious rules
5. Time and time consciousness
Exact time consciousness. Value on promptness. Time = Money
Elastic and relative time consciousness. Time spent on enjoyment of relationships
6. Relationships, family, friends
Focus on nuclear family. Responsibility for self. Value on youth. Age seen as handicap
Focus on extended family. Loyalty and responsibility to family. Age given status and respect
7. Values and norms
Individual orientation. Independence Preference for direct confrontation of conflict
Group orientation. Conformity. Preference for harmony
8. Beliefs and attitudes
Egalitarian. Challenging of authority. Individuals control their destiny. Gender equity
Hierarchical. Respect for authority and social order. Individuals accept their destiny. Different roles for men and women
9. Mental processes and learning style
Linear, logical, sequential, Problem-solving focus
Lateral, holistic, simultaneous. Accepting of life's difficulties
10. Work habits and practices
Emphasis on task. Reward based on individual achievement. Work has intrinsic value
Emphasis on relationships. Rewards based on seniority, relationships. Work is a necessity of life

Cultural Norms from an Ethical Perspective

Cultural norms stand as supporting factors in the validity of moral conventionalism .

Cultural Norms from a Public Relations Perspective

Public Relations is a culturally embedded practice that differs in its functions depending on the country of origin, and supports the notion that international public relations should be targeted to the cultural norms and expectations of the intended audience.[6] Recent study findings reveal, however, that this area remains under-theorized and under-practiced, and that practitioners have room to improve in adjusting their styles to best target international audiences.[7] [8]

Cultural Norms in the Workplace

Cultural norms influence the interpretation of events in the workplace and the behavioural response to those events. Group cultural norms also influence behavioural responses to emotion. These norms regulate emotional displays in the workplace by defining those which are considered to be acceptable revealed in specific situations.[9]

On a larger scale, a recent poll conducted by the Middle Eastern job site, Bayt.com, revealed that “a significant 88% of those surveyed believe that the cultural norms of a country have at least some bearing on a working professional’s lifestyle and productivity”.

Cultural Norms Theory

In his 1970 discussion of a cultural norms theory, Melvin DeFleur , professor and scholar in the field of communications, suggests that “the mass media selectively presents and emphasizes certain contemporary ideas or values and influences norms by reinforcing or changing them.” For example, cultural norm theorists argue that television programmes presenting an active lifestyle for older people can change the attitudes of viewers in that direction."[10] DeFleur also suggests that the cultural norms theory provides the foundation for the more comprehensive social learning theory.[11]

Research indicates that mass media has little power to change norms over time, but more likely reflects and reinforces trends that already exist. Researchers believe, however, that over time, the mass media do act to create and change social norms.
See cultivation theory

See also

1. Social norms
2. Cultural scripts
3. Moral relativism
4. Biculturalism
5. Cross-cultural communication
6. Cultural identity
7. Acculturation

Further Reading

Batibo, H. (2009). The inter-cultural dimension in the use of languages of wider communication by minority language speakers. Journal of Multicultural Discourses, 4(2), 89-102.

Gammack, J. (2002) Mindscapes and internet mediated communication. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 7(3), April

Schuster, T.
(2007). Deviance. International Journal of the Humanities, 4(7), 107-116.

Varner, I., & Valentine, D. (2001). Teaching intercultural management communication: Where are we? where do we go? Business Communication Quarterly, 64(1), 99-111.

Victor, D., & Chapel, W. (1999). Using scenarios and vignettes in cross-cultural business communication instruction.
Business Communication Quarterly, 62(4), 99-103.

Wierzbicka, A. (2004). 'Happiness' in cross-linguistic & cross-cultural perspective.
Daedalus, 133(2), 34-43.

External Links


  1. ^ [1]Goddard, C., & Wierzbicka, A. (2004). Cultural scripts: What are they and what are they good for?. Intercultural Pragmatics,1(2), 153-166.
  2. ^ [2] Rugimbana, R. & Nwankwo, S. Cross-cultural marketing. Retrieved fromhttp://books.google.ca/books?id=nZVMX_T8D8YC&pg=PP1&dq=cross+cultural+marketing&ei=KDLJSuWQG6niyQSzj9GHBA#v=onepage&q=&f=false
  3. ^ [3] Navada, M. Principles of sociology. Retrieved from http://book.gonavada.com/html/Chapter5.html
  4. ^ [4] Mockler, R. Managing multicultural diversity: Interpersonal interaction. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=GanyRT7LgdkC&lpg=PA257&ots=-G0gK6xMkR&dq=examples%20of%20explicit%20cultural%20norms&pg=PA257#v=onepage&q=&f=false
  5. ^ [5] Andersen, M., & Taylor, H. Sociology. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=LP9bIrZ9xacC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q=&f=false
  6. ^ [6]Fitzpatrick, K. & Bronstein, C. Ethics in public relations. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books?id=P29hQYbViyEC&pg=PP1&dq=ethics+in+public+relations&lr=&ei=mDLJStPQBo7ayASnn_yWBA#v=onepage&q=&f=false
  7. ^ [7]Nikolaev, A. (2005). Ethical labelism: A debate over the universal code of ethics of international public relations. Conference Papers -- International Communication Association, 1-27.
  8. ^ [8]Curtin, P., & Gaither, K. (2003). International agenda-building in cyberspace: A quantitative content analysis. Conference Papers -- International Communication Association, 1-58. http://search.ebscohost.com.www.msvu.ca:2048, doi:ica_proceeding_11942.PDF
  9. ^ [9]Emmerling, R., Shanwal, V. & Mandal, M. Emotional intelligence: Theoretical and cultural perspectives. Retrieved fromhttp://books.google.ca/books?id=TJF5892APCoC&pg=PP1&dq=emotional+intelligence&lr=&ei=1TLJSra6O5CCyQTdtoSiBA#v=onepage&q=&f=falseQAS_VVN1nlJPSyJKrU3lNjM&hl=en&ei=nofHSu3oJMr_8AbiwLHhCA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1#v=onepage&q=cultural%20norms%20in%20the%20workplace&f=false
  10. ^ [9]DeFleur, M. L. & Ball-Rokeach, S. (1989). Theories of mass communication (5th ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.

  11. ^ [10]Adler, R., Rodman, G. & Sevigny, A. (2008). Understanding human communication. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  12. ^ [11]DeFleur, M. L. & Ball-Rokeach, S. (1989). Theories of mass communication (5th ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.