The Perils of Social Norms

The Perils of Social NormsAs little kids, it’s drilled into us to be polite. Please, thank you, and excuse me are training mantras for the young. As adults, behaving politely becomes almost automatic for most of us. Being otherwise feels deeply uncomfortable. But what if our well-intentioned attempts to create norms of kindness are actually placing people in danger?

Social norms–the way we “should” behave according to our culture and society–can help guide us through new situations. Looking to the world around us for clues is one of the core ways humans figure out what to do; it’s no accident that Albert Bandura’s social learning theory is still taught in every intro psychology course.

But there is also a dark side to social norms, especially for vulnerable populations like women. Social norms may dictate politeness, for example, but this is not the correct reaction to rude comments about appearance (which recent videos about street harassment have shown to be incredibly common, and which, ironically and bizarrely, some people characterize as politeness on the part of the perpetrators).  It’s certainly not the correct response if you feel threatened by someone’s physical proximity or perceive yourself in possible danger.

Speaking out against others’ verbal mistreatment isn’t easy for people who are used to being polite. Walking or running away in a situation where you’re clearly trying to avoid someone feels like delivering a horrible insult. Yet, obeying social norms in these situations could make us vulnerable to verbal abuse or worse.

I don’t want to live in a society without please and thank you, but I sure as hell don’t want to live in one where women and minorities come in harm’s way because proactive self-defense is too uncomfortable. We can all practice better boundaries and assertiveness, and help reinforce them for each other. It’s ok to violate social norms when safety and happiness are at stake.