Social Norms in Culture and Business
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Social Norms in Culture and Business

May 26, 2015

Kathleen Marker, Ph.D

Social norms keep society functioning and reduce deviance through social sanctions. While norms may keep society in check, they must also be bent and expanded from time to time to allow for societal progress. Take interracial dating for example – social norms, and the sanctions that went with them prevented interracial dating long after it had become legal in most states. Gradually changes in equality were made because of those individuals who were willing to break dating and racial norms at all costs.

Social norms keep society functioning and reduce deviance through social sanctions. A common assignment in an Introductory to Sociology course is to have students break social norms (legally) to understand how deeply ingrained norms are in American culture and how hard they are to break. For example, wearing a heavy coat and winter hat in the summer, engaging with people in an elevator, or singing in a quiet waiting room can produce fear, awe, and social shaming.

Norms may keep society in check but must also be bent and expanded from time to time to allow for societal progress. Take interracial dating for example – social norms, and the sanctions that went with them prevented interracial dating long after it had become legal in most states.  Gradually changes in equality were made because of those individuals who were willing to break dating and racial norms at all costs.

Much like American society, business organizations are dictated by norms.  Norms are established for customers and employees alike to follow in order to create functional structures.  A customer typically enters a business with well-established assumptions and expectations on the shopping experience, purchasing journey, and customer interactions.  Norms are appreciated and valued, and businesses rarely want to change them.

In recent interviews I’ve conducted at Kelton, I’ve talked with people about breaking norms in both life and business contexts.  What happens when norms are broken, bent, and ignored in business organizations?  Not surprisingly, businesses that fail to uphold these standards disappoint customers who come to expect  consistent services.

However, when done well with thought and purpose, bending norms in business organizations can allow for a pleasant surprise and the ability to wake us up from daily routines, allowing for improvements in business structures.  A recent interviewee recalled an example of coming across designated family lounges for breastfeeding moms at her local mall.  She was surprised that they were often empty in the first year, but then noticed they started to become used more often as families incorporated the new space and expanded their norm of what “family-friendly” meant in a business setting.

Another interviewee discussed her surprise when a business she had frequented for years suddenly started personally (and genuinely) greeting all customers upon entering and exiting the business.  Initially she was surprised—and even put off—by this change in personal service.  She questioned and tried to sanction this change in norms.  With time, she began to enjoy the expansion of this personal interaction and developed new relationships with the employees.

Like larger society, businesses can benefit from an audit of current norms in order to reflect on what expectations could benefit from an overhaul.  Altering business norms, as both of the example illustrate, can produce change for the better even if the change takes time.

Kathleen Marker, Ph.D

Senior Director, Qualitative Research

As Senior Director of Qualitative Research, Kathleen focuses on capturing consumer insights to inform future business decisions.  She relishes opportunities to speak with people about a wide range...

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