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.  


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.

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


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:


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.