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.

The 4 Stages of Culture Shock 

Planning to move to a new country, integrate into a new culture? 

Will you remember that you can’t jaywalk in Switzerland? That it’s taboo for women to drive in Saudi Arabia? That European nudity mores are far less strict than those in the U.S. or many other places?  

Attempting to adjust to cultural norms might be surprising at first. In fact, you might get full-on culture shock. 

What is culture shock? 


Culture shock is a disorientating feeling of unfamiliarity that travelers or those integrating into another culture often experience. It comes in waves, and while it will dissipate after years of living in a foreign land, it may never leave entirely. You’re bound to continue discovering things about a new culture long after you’ve spent time there. 

But there are stages of shock that lead to some semblance of Acceptance. 

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Period 

When you first arrive somewhere, you will probably experience a “honeymoon period.” You’ll be in love with most things and curious, because everything is new. You won’t know the harsher sides of the culture or the faux pas you may soon commit or the criticisms you may face. 

Global Perspectives describes this period as follows: “The first stage of culture shock is often overwhelmingly positive during which travelers become infatuated with the language, people and food in their new surroundings.” 

Sounds beautiful. But…

Stage 2: The Pressure Cooker 

After a time, the frustrations slip in. Just like with any relationship, you start noticing the culture’s flaws. Things about the culture may upset you.  

They don’t queue up properly, they don’t arrive to meetings on time, no one speaks YOUR language.  

Remember, you’re viewing this culture through your own cultural lens, not theirs. So, all of these cultural differences build up in the pressure cooker and start to shock you. 

Stage 3: The Conformation  

While you can always increase the pressure by butting heads with your new culture, you could also try embracing it. Conforming – at least somewhat – to a new culture is essential to cross-cultural integration. 

Start learning the language and become familiar with the world around you. This will often lead to… 

Stage 4: Acceptance 

Acceptance is not the final stage in cross-cultural integration. But it’s one of the most essential stages in overcoming culture shock. Once you start to accept the culture you’re living in as it is, you’ll no longer feel quite so much pressure or frustration as when the shock first electrocuted you. 

But how and what social norms and values to conform to and accept? We’ll talk more about that next week. 

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.  


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. 

Norms & Taboos: Right vs. Forbidden

You cannot depict Mohammed in any form in a Muslim culture.

You cannot handle meat, fish, or eggs as a Brahmin in Hindu society.


Because both are taboo.

Taboos are a type of social norm which are far more serious than folkways or mores. They are so entrenched in a culture’s DNA that the behaviors are inherently banned.

Unlike folkways (right vs. rude) and mores (right vs. wrong), taboos are completely forbidden.

Religious Imagery

Jesus Christ is often represented in icons, sculptures, paintings, and other religious artworks.

Buddha is depicted as a rotund man, frequently in meditation and at peace with the world.

Various Hindu gods and goddesses are shown in full color at religious temples and in books.

However, as with many Islamic traditions, it is strictly taboo for anyone to depict the prophet Mohammed, because doing so is thought to “encourage the worship of idols,” as the BBC puts it.

This taboo is so strict that it hedges into law (a social norm we’ll discuss next week) and, if violated, is met with a death sentence.

This illustrates how serious taboos can be. Along with laws, they are the strictest social norms of any given society.

Food Taboos

Food taboos appear in most societies, as well. These, again, can often be the result of religious doctrine.

As Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow writes in his 2009 article, “Food taboos: their origins and purposes”:

“Most religions declare certain food items fit and others unfit for human consumption. Dietary rules and regulations may govern particular phases of the human life cycle and may be associated with special events such as menstrual period, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation, and – in traditional societies – preparation for the hunt, battle, wedding, funeral, etc.”

The author goes on to say that food taboos are illogical when compared with each other, as one group might consider a food “unfit” for consumption, while another group deems it fit. And both groups survive. On the surface, there seems to be no logical explanation for why certain foods might be harmful for one human and perfectly safe for another.

However, dig a little deeper, and you’ll find a culture’s history often explains its dietary taboos and customs.

One example given is Jewish dietary laws, which include fasting days and kosher eating, along with other traditional unifying food taboos.

As Benno Meyer-Rochow notes:

“Any food taboo, acknowledged by a particular group of people as part of its ways, aids in the cohesion of this group, helps that particular group maintain its identity in the face of others, and therefore creates a feeling of ‘belonging’.”

This is the very definition of social norms, in a nutshell. They maintain identity, provide cohesion, and enable members to belong to something bigger.

Norms & Mores: Right vs. Wrong

Are you able to talk back to your grandpa?

Is your culture gay-friendly?

What is your society’s stance on pre-marital cohabitation?

Can women in your culture go topless at the beach?

The answers to these questions relate to your cultural mores. Mores are the strongest social norms, because they’re based on the moral judgments of the society in which you live.

Mores inform society how to behave, and this is all based in the moral values of the culture. Do not kill, do not commit adultery, respect your elders. In many cultures, mores are tied closely with values, just like folkways…but they are different than folkways.

Mores vs. Folkways

How do mores differ?

As shared by Puja Mondal in yourarticlelibrary, according to Giddings and Halt (1906), “a practical distinction between folkways and mores is that violation of a folkway is generally met with laughter.”

However, the social ostracism that someone who crosses a mos (mores, singular) might meet can be much more severe.

For instance, whereas someone who always cuts the queue in the UK would simply be an irritation to those around him, someone who goes nude at a non-nudey beach in the UK would be violating a mos.


Depending on your culture’s dominant religions – and the degree to which these religions dictate societal norms, values, and behaviors – some mores may be determined by religious doctrine.

One example is cohabitation. A number of religions prohibit moving in with a partner before marriage. If you come from a culture with strict mores on the subject, others may look badly on you, tell you off, or even ostracize you for moving in with your partner.

The behavior is considered immoral and, therefore, a stain on the soul, and the reactions by the transgressor’s friends and family are meant to shame the behavior and make the individual alter it accordingly.

In a number of Western cultures, it is, for the most part, acceptable to cohabitate with a partner before marriage, unless one is brought in a strict religious family. In many Arab nations, it’s unacceptable and, therefore, uncommon.

This is what decides a culture’s mores.

Public Nudity

Another example is public nudity. American culture finds public nudity sexually-provocative and offensive, so most would be shocked if someone showed up at a beach in his birthday suit.

In a number of European countries, however, public nudity is much more lenient. Men might swim in the nude, women might go topless. And in Asia, women and men are often publically nude at their separate spas or saunas.

Even in traditional Africa, where sexual mores are strict, a woman might go topless. This is because breasts are not considered sexual or indecent. Their primary use is functional – for feeding babies – and so is looked at as such.

Right vs. Wrong

Unlike folkways, which distinguish between what is “right” and what is “rude,” mores distinguish between what is “right” and what is “wrong.”

And mores impact our society to a much higher degree than do folkways. As thoughtco puts it: “Mores exact a greater coercive force in shaping our values, beliefs, behavior, and interactions.”

Think about your own cultural mores and how they shape your behaviors.