At its most basic, a cultural norm can be considered an unwritten “rule” followed by those within a specific culture, often unquestioningly. These “rules” can take the form of a practice, belief, diet, ritual, or set of expectations, and come to govern all aspects of life. A cultural norm may be intangible and abstract, or take on a more embodied form. It’s also important to realize that cultural norms do change—gradually. In our current cultural moment in the U.S. pink is associated with girls and blue is associated with boys. However, just a century ago, pink was associated with boys. There are also cultural norms surrounding the body such as hand gestures, language systems and speech patterns, body modifications, grooming styles, clothing, haircuts, etc.
A cultural norm often seems invisible and automatic to cultural “insiders,” or members of a given culture. Because it is widely acknowledged and accepted, it may feel universal or “natural” to this cultural group. For instance, living within the U.S. in the twenty-first century, capitalism—our current economic system—tends to feel inevitable. But did you know that capitalism is an economic system that only gained traction in Western culture in the 18th century? Before capitalism was developed feudalism and agrarian economies were the cultural norm, and before that trade was based on barter and hunter/gatherer systems. To cite another example, having a Christmas tree is a longstanding cultural norm in the U.S., but a fairly recent one in Peru as a result of globalization.
As much as cultural norms seem obvious and inevitable to cultural insiders, for those who are “outsiders” to a particular culture, cultural norms can be very elusive and confusing. This is because there is nothing “natural” about these norms at all! Consider for a moment the U.S. suburban norm of mowing the grass. Where did this norm come from? Why does it exist? Is there some universal code of behavior that states, “thou shalt mow the grass”? Of course not! This is a cultural norm.
An important concept to consider alongside of cultural norms is cultural literacy. Insiders to a particular culture become literate through daily practice without realizing it. It feels like it just “is.” However, when cultural outsiders come to engage with a new culture, it can be very confusing. Consider a time that you have tried out a new restaurant—maybe the menu was written in what to you is a foreign language, or the cuisine was new and different from what you grew up eating. Maybe there were unfamiliar utensils, or too many utensils, or food items you were not sure how to eat. In this space, you are a cultural outsider—you do not have “insider knowledge,” or “cultural literacy” of the unwritten rules of behavior and diet in this space.
To continue with the restaurant metaphor, when we attend a restaurant that is culturally familiar to us—the food, the atmosphere, the acceptable etiquette—then our dining experience is relaxed and stress free. We don’t think about the logistics of ordering, or wonder which utensils to use when, or how to eat a particular dish. However, when we are at a restaurant that is culturally outside of our experience, all of these seemingly small logistics become hyper visible to us. How do I say this word on the menu? Which spoon do I use? Do I use my hands or utensils to eat this item? In this scenario, the leisurely act of dining out might become a source of fear, shame, and frustration, especially if we are dining out with cultural insiders to this culinary experience!
This is what cultural literacy refers to. Just as one becomes literate in reading a language, we become literate in recognizing cultural norms. But just because we become literate in the rules governing our own culture doesn’t mean that we are culturally literate when engaging with cultures outside of our own. In fact, jokes are a great way of understanding cultural literacy because the humor housed in a joke is usually commenting on cultural norms. It is no accident that cultural humor is usually the last thing to translate for cultural outsiders! It’s like driving a car—while at first one might be overwhelmed while steering, pressing on the gas, using blinkers, and turning on the windshield wipers, eventually these all become automatic processes.
Of course, one of the trickiest aspects of a cultural norm or determining whether one is a cultural insider or outsider (or, sometimes, both), is determining what constitutes a culture. That is, where do we draw the line between one culture and another? For example, we could suggest that the culture of the United States is its own distinct culture, or that the culture of the United States is distinct from the culture of Mexico. However, what about children born to parents who moved from Mexico to the U.S. and now attend U.S. schools? Or border towns and cities that encapsulate aspects of both cultures? To go a step further, what happens when we consider all of the cultural variations within the U.S.: north and south, east coast and west coast, rural and urban, coastal and land locked? What about racial differences, class differences, gender differences, religious differences, ethnic differences, educational differences, differences in age, sexuality, and ability? In other words, while we use the language of cultural norms, the truth is that many of us inhabit many different cultures within a larger culture.
This is why the concept of intersectionality is so important! How we experience cultural norms has a lot to do with the various cultures and communities we find ourselves within. We might also find ourselves in marginalized cultures and subcultures whose cultural norms differ from those of the dominant culture. For example, at least in this moment in time, mainstream U.S. cultural norms reflect white, middle class, Christian value systems. This means that people living in the U.S. who are of color, working class, and/or Muslim will not find the cultural norms of their racial, classed, and religious identities reflected back to them in the larger U.S. culture. However, there are cultural spaces within the U.S. where the cultural norms governing these identities are widely recognized.
In short, cultural norms are not “good” or “bad,” they just are. However, whether or not we adhere to established cultural norms can affect our daily lives. We are often socially rewarded with privileges when we follow the established norms, and often find ourselves reprimanded or denied privileges when we do not. Therefore, just as important as understanding cultural norms themselves is understanding the context in which they operate. What is actively rewarded in one culture could very well be frowned upon in another. This is what we refer to as cultural stigmas.
Patricia DeRocher, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Core Division