Which Social Norms Provoke Responses When Broken?

Many norms, such as the social contract governing silence in neighboring bathroom stalls and the gendered norms of clothing and behavior, provoke reliable responses when broken. Because social norms are often communicated and learned non-verbally, their boundaries may be nebulous or sharp.

Social norms are expectations, usually unspoken, which govern the limits of acceptable behavior and dictates proper conduct in given situations. Breaking them has different consequences depending on which norm is broken and what the relationship is between the breaker and those present.

Examples of broken social norms include:

  • Not engaging in a handshake when it is offered.
  • Telling strangers "I love you."
  • Wearing winter attire in the summer.
  • Laughing during a somber funeral
  • Facing the wrong way in elevators.

People may react to broken norms with silence and discomfort or with prejudice, anger, or any number of other emotions. Norms like sexual orientation and gender identity are often enforced both societally and through legislation. Other norms may be overlooked when broken as a courtesy under the assumption that the breaker is ignorant, inexperienced or distracted.

Because norms are so diverse and varied, they are often broken purely by chance in day-to-day interactions. This is overlooked as part of the social contract, although it is expected that breakers will improve their knowledge and command of social norms in future.