Posted: August 4th, 2022



Activity 4: Breaking a Cultural Norm


All societies have norms of behavior. When people do not act or react within those norms, sanctions are experienced. In contrast to social control through law, cultural control can be internalized by individuals through a variety of sanctions.

When an individual breaks a cultural norm, sanctions are incurred depending on the level of severity of the break. A small child may be told, “Don’t touch!” when he reaches for mom’s glasses. Drivers may honk their horns at someone who drives too slowly in the fast lane. Both of these are forms of sanctions.

For this exercise, you will break a cultural norm and observe the sanctions. The cultural norm you choose to break must comply with these guidelines:

a. Do not break the law! This exercise is meant to explore the kinds of social controls that do not fall under formalized law. Do nothing that might be construed as illegal, no matter how minor. Don’t even jaywalk.

b. Do not endanger anyone (including yourself). For instance, the earlier example of a driver being sanctioned for interrupting the flow of traffic would not be appropriate for this exercise.

c. Do not cause distress. Even with harmless intentions, there are many social conventions that could scare people when broken. Scaring someone could also put you in danger. For example, don’t sit too close to a stranger at a bus stop or follow someone in a store.

d. Don’t do anything related to Covid or masking. This could easily endanger someone or cause distress. It is not appropriate for this assignment.

Step 1: Choose a cultural norm. Take some time to think about cultural norms that you follow every day. Think about how you alter your behavior in different contexts and how you expect others to act. Here are some examples of cultural norms you could break for this assignment:

a. Space invasion: Standing or sitting too close to someone. Again, don’t do this with a stranger. If you break this norm, consider the context carefully. If you might distress someone this way, don’t do it. Also, don’t do it with someone with whom you have no barriers when it comes to personal space.

b. Context-appropriate clothing: Going to a coffee shop in a fancy dress or a nice store in your pajamas might count as breaking a cultural norm.

c. Emotive behavior: There are ways of expressing yourself that are only appropriate in certain contexts. Where would it be abnormal to sing a song? Cry? Use formal manners?

You may use one of these examples or come up with something else. Feel free to contact the instructor if you are unsure whether your cultural norm is appropriate for this assignment.

Step 2: Break a cultural norm. As you break your chosen cultural norm, observe the reactions of those around you. Also consider your internal reactions. Think about how your behavior is influenced by external controls and the internalized cultural norms that lead to self-control in yourself and others.

Step 3: Answer questions. Answer the following three questions about what you learned. Each answer should be one or two paragraphs in length.

Question 1: Describe the cultural norm you broke and your experience in breaking it.


Question 2: What sanctions or externalized controls did you incur? Remember that sanctions are not always forceful or formal.


Question 3: Were there internalized controls you had to circumvent, such as embarrassment or shame? What typically prevents you from breaking this cultural norm?


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