A Primer: Understanding Social Norms

Social norm

(noun): an expected form of behavior in a given situation. (as defined by dictionary.com)

Social norms exist all around us. They may be different depending on which country you’re in, and they may even be specific to your family, your own circle of friends, or within your work environment.

For example: it is a social norm in America to shake someone’s hand when you greet them. In other countries, the norm may be to give kisses on each cheek, to bow, or to put your palms together and nod your head. Yet in my specific friend circle, a hug is more of the norm – in fact, it’s the norm to hug everyone every single time you see them. So not only are norms different per country and culture, but also per smaller social constructs.

Examples of social norms

There are many examples of social norms we find surrounding us. Such as:

  • Standing and staring straight ahead when riding an elevator, ideally not talking or making eye contact, and watching the floor numbers slowly pass by.
  • Walking on the side of the sidewalk that is most common for the country you live in (right or left), and never ever standing still in the middle of a New York City sidewalk.
  • Saying “bless you”, or other similar terms, after someone sneezes.
  • Not putting your phone on speakerphone when in public places (I recently saw this one violated on a train).
  • Washing our hands after we use the bathroom (not everyone follows this but it IS a norm).

This list could go on and on, and you may even enjoy spending a few minutes next time you’re out and about observing how people interact around you, and seeing how many social norms you can spot. “I spy a norm of…”

How norms get formed

You may wonder how these norms get formed. Did they magically appear overnight, were they declared, did they evolve over time? There isn’t one singular way that norms get formed – it can happen in a variety of ways depending on the norm, the culture, and surrounding circumstances. In general, social norms can get formed, or at least started, in one of these ways (list is not exhaustive):

  • They can be explicitly and collectively defined by a group – like at the start of a workshop when it’s agreed that everyone will arrive on time, silence their phones, be open to others’ inputs, etc.
  • They can be explicitly and formally defined by a leader (of a nation or a group).
  • They can be explicitly or implicitly defined and enforced by an influencer in a group (who may not be the leader of that group).
    • For example, I once experienced my office manager declaring that we all must say “good morning” to one another when we came into the office. It was a wonderfully uplifting norm!
  • They can be passed down from one generation to the next and we have no idea how it formed, such as saying “bless you” after someone sneezes.

There is actually a theory that explains how, why, and at what rate new technologies and ideas (and norms) get adopted over time within a specific group of people. It’s call the Diffusion of Innovations Theory created by Everett Rogers back in the 60’s and is still very applicable to what we see in society today.

NOTE: Each situation in which a new technology, idea, or norm is being introduced will have its own timeline for adoption. The amount of time it takes varies depending on the size of the group, the geographic spread of the group, the type of technology or idea being introduced, and so on and so forth.


This theory shows that the very first people to adopt a new technology or idea (such as Facebook, smart phones, automobiles, VR, etc.) are considered to be Innovators. It’s a small percentage of people (2.5%) who are willing to jump on the bandwagon right away, even without much proof that the technology or idea works. They are considered to be high risk takers, and although we may disapprove of their way of life, new ideas and technology wouldn’t spread without them.

Early Adopters

The next group, which is slightly larger at 13.5%, are the Early Adopters. This group are not the ones camping out overnight for Apple’s brand new product that no one has ever seen or tried before, but they may buy it in the first month if Innovators are saying good things. They’re ok being one of the only people in their friend circle with the new product, even if that means they have no one to connect with yet. Often times, early adopters are also influencers in their circles and their co-sign on a product or idea will impact the next group’s decision.

Early Majority

And here is where most of us sit – in the Early Majority category. Enough of our friends and experts we trust have tried out the technology or idea and have given it the thumbs up. Since we’re a bit skeptical of new things, we rely on the previous two groups to test the waters before we jump in. As we join, we are likely to proactively tell our friends and loved ones that they should also join, further spreading the technology and idea. This leads to 50% of the entire group already adopting the trend – woohoo! – which can be considered as the tipping point.

Late Majority

The Late Majority is even more skeptical than the Early Majority and they represent an equally large segment who are both moaning about the fact that they are missing out on what the 50% is enjoying, and insisting that the new trend is still stupid and they don’t need to get on board. That lasts until they realize it’s becoming more annoying and painful to NOT adopt the new trend, and they begrudgingly join the herd (warning: they may continue to complain about it FOREVER…)


Lastly, and I definitely mean lastly, we have the Laggards. Amazingly, this group is 16% percent strong yet is completely resistant to the idea of something new. This group may take a really long time to adopt the trend (and mind you, it’s really no longer a “trend” by this point in time) or they never will. To be more fair, and nicer, if the trend involves adopting an expensive piece of technology or learning a complex skill, then the laggard category may be those who cannot afford it or are unable to access training, so being a laggard is not always self-imposed.

And You…

If you’re interested, take time to think about things you’ve adopted in your life. When did you first get on Facebook? When did you first get a cellphone? When did you first start typing and saying “OMG” or “LOL”? When did you start bringing reusable bags to the grocery store, or have you yet? As you think through these examples that are personal and meaningful to you, ask yourself how it came to be that you adopted the trend – did someone suggest it to you? Did you see it first and try it on a whim? Did you do it because you were the last one in your circle who hadn’t yet? All those answers describe which category you sat in (for that particular example) and which factors prompted you to join the herd.

 Why do we care about social norms?

As the above definition stated, social norms describe the expected behavior in a given situation. We care about these norms as they can help us:

  • When we’re in new situations and we’re not sure of what to do. Spending a few minutes watching others who know the norm can serve as cues for how we should behave.
    • I’ve used this when going into a quick-serve restaurant I’ve never been in before where I’m initially unsure of where to order, how to order, and how to get my food (do they bring it to you or do you wait for it?) Taking a few minutes to stand back and watch others helps ensure my experience will be smooth and seamless.
  • Be accepted into a specific group or culture – adopting existing norms of the group helps members quickly feel more comfortable around you.
    • This is very important when traveling to new cultures, joining a new friend circle that you want to become a part of (like your significant other’s friends), or assimilating into a new extended family (again, likely through your significant other).
  • Avoid embarrassment of being the person accidentally breaking a norm. Like being the only one leaving your dirty dishes on the table in a restaurant that is a clean-up-after-yourself establishment.
    • You can read a blog I wrote about how this exact situation almost happened to me.

And there you have it! Some tidbits on what social norms are, how they are formed, and why we do (and should) care about them. I love studying human behavior and why we do the things we do – if you have questions or want to discuss this topic more, then give me a shout at brooke@brookes2cents.com.

I hope you enjoyed this primer on social norms. Feel free to share with others if you did. Thank you!