Cultural Must-Adapts: When Is It Mandatory to Adapt to Cultural Norms?

Do you remember our four groupings of social norms – folkways, mores, taboos, and laws?

If not, then here’s our handy chart to recall how each of these norms applies to culture:

norms

As you can imagine, failing to queue up in Britain would not be looked upon as severely as, say, going topless at a beach in America. And this is due to the severity of the norm groupings to which each of these actions belong.

Folkways<Mores<Taboos<Laws

How strict is each cultural norm group?

Folkways are the softest social norms. While you have a choice whether or not to adapt to folkways, failing to adapt won’t lead to ostracism; it will simply lead some in your new cultural environment to consider you a bit rude.

One example: wearing formal attire in a business environment is a European folkway. A suit and tie in Europe is the uniform of choice for men.

So, when an American male manager walks into a business meeting with his European counterparts wearing a casual polo shirt and wrinkled slacks, while this casual attire is, of course, not forbidden, it may result in a negative perception of said businessman as a cross-cultural business leader.

This is one example of a folkway that you can choose to adapt or not, but in making that choice, consider how it’s perceived.

Mores define right versus wrong within a culture, so there is more pressure to adapt to this type of social norm.

For instance, if a female manager travels to a conservative country, and she comes from one where feminine business attire is much more liberal, she may feel pressured – or even be asked – to alter her attire, as it may be considered inappropriate or revealing, based on the culture’s mores.

This is the difference between “right vs rude” and “right vs wrong”. Again, you can choose to adapt or not, but in the process, you may be considered “rude” or “wrong” by the cultural standards of your new colleagues.

Mandatory Adaptions

When it comes to the last two social norm groups – taboos and laws -, you must adapt.

Remember, taboos define what’s forbidden, while laws define what’s illegal. If these norms don’t align with your own, and you believe there’ll be some “wiggle-room”, simply because you’re a foreigner, then you’re very much mistaken.

“Sorry, I didn’t know; I’m foreign,” might work when breaking a queue, but it certainly won’t work when breaking a law.

You must accept that other cultures have values that you must observe if you choose to live there. And if you can’t accept these deeply entrenched values and norms, then stand by your principles and don’t move there.

Because one thing is certain in building cross-cultural relationships: you should not expect an entire culture to bend to your will.

When in Rome…How to Adjust to Cross-Cultural Norms 

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

We’ve all heard this motto, and if you want to integrate into a foreign country, it’s true…to a point.

The social norms we’ve talked about within the past few weeks are integral to culture.

Without norms, there’s no conformity. And without conformity, there is no culture.

But, when you take the giant leap that is living in a foreign culture, how much are you expected to conform? How much do you want to conform?

What are you willing to “give up” in order to fit in?

Do As The Romans Do

Like many things in life, the answer to these questions depend on how much you personally want to change to fit in. The degree of your integration also depends on what you are willing to accept about your new culture and what you’re unwilling to adapt to or adopt.

Accepting is the first step when deciding just how much to “do as the Romans do.” And when you take Accepting certain social norms a step further to Adapting, you’ll have an even more successful integration…but this may depend upon your comfort with the social norms to which you’re adapting.

Consider the level of severity of the norms. Accepting and adapting to laws and taboos are a definite must if you wish to integrate properly, because they are the more severe social norms.

To a lesser but very real extent, one should adapt to mores and folkways, as well. However, the latter two have less severe consequences.

…But Don’t Overdo It

While adapting, you might be at risk for over-adapting.

In a Harvard Business Review article by Andy Molinsky, a Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Brandeis International Business School, Molinsky notes that he often sees individuals over-adapt cross-culturally in business culture and in academia. He calls it “over-switching.”

“Individuals attempt to adapt their behavior to match a particular culture but end up pushing too far, making larger mistakes than if they had just stayed true to themselves,” he writes.

When adjusting to the often less formal U.S. standards in academia, he sees students from more formal cultures “inaccurately calibrate” to being more informal than standard U.S. norms in class, in interviews, and in cover letters.

For example, Molinsky writes, “Students from countries where self-promotion is taboo learn that it’s required in the U.S., but don’t quite understand to what extent self-promotion is acceptable.”

They then lay it on thick, so to speak, and overly self-promote, in an attempt to adapt.

Awareness is key to knowing not to overswitch. And by Taking Action and looking for a zookeeper to guide you, you’ll be able to calibrate your adaption more precisely and “do as the Romans do” even more naturally.

Norms & Laws: Right vs. Illegal 

Cutting in a queue. 

Breastfeeding in public. 

These are folkways and mores – both social norms that aren’t accompanied by powerful consequences.  

If you did either of these things in a culture that doesn’t accept it, someone might give you is a dirty look or, at worst, you might be ostracized. But, it’s unlikely that you’ll suffer punishment for violating either of these norm types. 

Laws, on the other hand, are the very definition of social norms that cannot be crossed without punishment: they define what is right versus what is illegal. 

Legal Norms 

Laws are social norms, formally written and enforced by the state. They distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable human behavior in a society, and they also define the sentencing process and punishments for these behaviors. 

Any given culture or nation normally has a legislative branch that creates the laws. They are the social norm directors in this respect. 

Police and other law enforcement officials crack down on those who offend these laws. They are the social norm enforcers. 

Judges, juries, and the courts then lay down the law, correcting those offenders. They are the social norm punishers.

Treating infractions of legal norms with imprisonment and fines pressures members of a society to comply with and conform to the accepted norms 

Taboos -> Laws 

Many taboos become law. For instance, in Muslim countries, it is taboo for Mohammed to be depicted in illustrations, and it is also taboo for women to drive. These taboos then may cross into written law, either directly or indirectly. 

In Saudi Arabia, for instance, although there is no written law against female drivers, locally issued licenses are required for driving, and they aren’t issued to women. This makes female driving illegal in effect, which corresponds with the social taboo. 

Some American examples of taboos crossing into law have to do with the policing of dress code. Believe it or not, in 2014, a saggy pants ban was passed in Florida, and other cities followed suit. Towns in Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and New York also banned women from wearing shorts in the 30s and 40s. 

Mores and folkways, which can be offensive to some, do not often cross this threshold into law.  

For instance, public breastfeeding. In America, the social nudity mores might cause some to cringe when a woman breastfeeds in public; however, it’s not illegal to do so (with the exception of these states) and many women do.  

norms

Along with the other three social norm types, laws are the most restrictive and the most effective in defining a culture’s conformity. Without conformity of some kind, culture would not exist. 

Cultural Norms: What are They? And How Do They Relate to Values?

Conformity.

Last week, we talked about conforming to cultural norms. But what types of norms are we conforming to? And why and how are we conforming?

Well, to understand norms, first we must talk about values.

Values are what define a culture’s goals and ideals, and cultural norms are, in a way, these values, personified.

Values & Norms

Study.com defines norms relative to culture, thusly: “The term ‘culture’ refers to attitudes and patterns of behavior in a given group. ‘Norm’ refers to attitudes and behaviors that are considered normal, typical or average within that group.”

So, norms are more closely related to our behaviors, while values are more closely related to our attitudes, ideals, and beliefs. Both our values and norms are ingrained in us and in our society through its existing systems, such as family, the education system, and government.

The government and other higher institutions define a nation’s values, while the norms and values are implemented and taught by families and schools. Some degree of conformity in these two areas is expected in every culture. The degree of conformity is often based on survival vs. self-expression values, but conformity always defines cultural norms.

And we are often completely oblivious to the influences of both values and norms in the way we live our lives.

Different Norm Types

There are four different types of norms, which we will detail over the coming weeks.

These are:

norms

The majority culture in any nation invokes these expectations and rules, which are primarily based on their values. Behavior – such as habits, customs, traditions, and rule of law – is guided by the most prominent culture; they create the yardstick of what is considered “right” and “wrong” on the whole.

Swimming With/Against the Current

Do you follow your own culture’s norms? Do you swim with the school of fish? Or do you make a point of standing out from the crowd?

Whether you swim with or against the current, you’re making choices in defiance of your society’s values and norms, or you’re making choices in favor of them. Either way, your individuality is defined by the cultural norms of your society.

Remember, if you want to “fit in” to a foreign culture, you can look at norms as a sort of etiquette guidebook for the culture in which you choose to integrate.