Normative conduct is a major component of systems of culture. Each culture has its specific norms for everyday social interaction. Differences in norms and cultural expectations often become grounds for intercultural miscommunication and misunderstanding. There are innumerable definitions of norms in the social science literature. For example, norms are defined as “rules of conduct,” “blueprints for behavior,” and “cultural expectations.” Comparing existing definitions, Gibbs (1965) finds three attributes of a norm: “(1) a collective evaluation of behavior in terms of what ought to be; (2) a collective expectation as to what behavior will be; and (3) particular reactions to behavior including attempts to apply sanctions or otherwise induce a particular kind of behavior”.
Sumner (1906) divides norms into three categories: folkways, mores, and laws. Folkways are those pervasive everyday activities widely accepted by the people of a culture. Folkways include such actions as the way we greet others, the way we eat, and other such actions. Mores are those norms placing strong moral demands on an individual’s behavior. Examples of mores include commandments derived from religious doctrine, incest taboos, and rules about what is acceptable to eat (e.g., in the United States it is unacceptable to eat the meat of dogs and cats). Laws are norms codified by a political entity such as a country, province, or city. A law may be derived from the folkways or the mores of a culture.
The existence of a norm becomes most evident when it is ignored or violated. Individuals who find themselves in a foreign environment, dealing with an unfamiliar culture, are likely to have this experience involuntarily. Such missteps are often milestones along the way toward becoming socialized to a new environment. The violation of any norm may bring down some form of sanction against the person committing the violation. The sanctions may range from a disapproving glance to loss of life. The sanctions imposed for violation of a folkway are through interpersonal channels. For example, if you were to “slurp” your soup in public in the United States, you probably would receive only disapproving glances from the people who heard you. On the other hand, if you do not slurp your soup in some cultures, you may receive disapproving glances (Gudykunst & Kim 1984).
The violation of mores, in contrast to that of folkways, attracts more severe sanctions. An example in the United States is that men do not hold hands. If you do, the response may range from surprise to ostracism to, in extreme cases, homophobic lynching. On the other hand, it is acceptable, though not customary, for men in India who are merely friends to hold hands. Violations of laws, obviously, bring about legal sanctions. These legal sanctions can range from a verbal reprimand to the death penalty.
Most popular books on intercultural norms take a direct approach to cultural adaptation: we ask the local people and/or other expatriates how a foreigner is supposed to behave. We ask, in other words, to be taught the dos and don’ts of the culture. The “dos and don’ts” approach is necessarily situational. Only a fixed number of situations can be presented, and then only in the most general manner. “Don’t start talking business with a Saudi,” we may be told, “until you’ve first made considerable small talk, and otherwise spent ten to fifteen minutes exchanging pleasantries.” But what if this is the second or third meeting we have had with that person that day? (Storti 2002). The same action may have different meanings in different situations. Relying solely on this strategy is not effective since the number of possible events is unlimited. Effective behavior in a cross-cultural situation is best achieved from a position of sound cross-cultural understanding. Norms are relevant only to specific situations, and, therefore, have limited explanatory power (Kim 1994).
That said, confronting normative differences offers the possibility of personal growth or cultural change. Generally, when we interact with people from the same culture, our expectations are not often violated, because people of the same culture share similar expectations. When we communicate with “outsiders,” however, our behavioral expectations may be violated with greater frequency because those strangers probably learned a different set of norms in their culture. When our expectations are violated, we can gain tremendous insight into the norms of our own culture, and how those norms influence our behavior. In addition, we are confronted with alternative behavioral patterns, which we might actually come to prefer (Gudykunst & Kim 1984).
Ethical relativism is an approach that holds that morality is relative to the norms of a given culture. The same action may be morally right in one society, but morally wrong in another. For the ethical relativist, there are no universal moral standards, i.e., standards that can be universally applied to all peoples at all times. The only moral standards against which a society’s practices can be judged are its own (Herskovits 1973). Even if we do not accept this relativist approach, it must be acknowledged that it raises important issues. Ethical relativism reminds us that our sense of right and wrong is deeply influenced by our culture. It also encourages us to explore the justifications underlying norms that differ from our own, while challenging us to examine the reasons for subscribing to our own norms.
- Gibbs, J. (1965). Norms: The problems of definition and classification. American Journal of Sociology, 70, 586 –594.
- Gudykunst, W. B., & Kim, Y. Y. (1984). Communicating with strangers: An approach to intercultural communication. New York: Random House.
- Herskovits, M. (1973). Cultural relativism. New York: Random House.
- Kim, M. S. (1994). Cross-cultural comparisons of the perceived importance of conversational constraints. Human Communication Research, 21, 128 –151.
- Storti, C. (2001). The art of crossing cultures. Yarmouth, MA: Intercultural Press.
- Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways. Boston, MA: Ginn.