Social Norms

Science Direct defines social norms as “a way of thinking, feeling or behaving that is deemed by the group as appropriate.”

Every culture and community has a different set of norms.

Let’s look at some from different countries. This is not meant to be exhaustive, it’s just meant to give some examples:


  • It is customary to tip in restaurants. Servers rely on tip money, and it’s considered rude not to tip.
  • It’s considered rude to slurp or burp while eating.
  • If you get on an empty bus, it would be considered inappropriate to sit next to the only other person on the bus.
  • It’s considered polite to look people in the eye and say hello when you pass them on the street. It would be rude if you didn’t reciprocate a hello or a smile on the street by a passerby.
  • When speaking to someone, eye contact is considered polite, but also breaks are good. Constant eye contact can be too much.
  • Canadians value promptness.
  • Regardless of COVID protocols, people expect others to give them personal space.


  • Family heritage is very important therefore people are addressed by their last names. Calling someone by their first name is considered rude.
  • Burping is considered a form of gratitude.
  • It’s customary to refuse a gift a few times before accepting it.
  • People sleep in open public places.
  • Harmony is very important, and people will go to great lengths to avoid causing anyone public embarrassment.
  • Tea is an important part of culture. Teacups are continually filled as they are emptied. It’s customary to tap the table with two fingers to say thank you.


  • It’s considered rude and an insult to the chef if you ask for salt or other condiments.
  • It is considered good manners to arrive at someone’s house 10-15 minutes late, so that you don’t interrupt the host as they are preparing.
  • Most people in France practice a double kiss (on each cheek) greeting, although in some areas it’s four kisses.


  • The right hand is used for eating, greeting people, touching things, because the left hand is used for toileting. This is also the same in much of the Middle East, Sri Lanka, and parts of Africa.
  • Feet and footwear are considered unclean. Footwear is always removed when entering a home or place of worship. It’s important to avoid pointing feet at other people.
  • Being late is very normal, and not considered rude.


  • It’s considered an insult to tip any service industry workers (taxi drivers, servers etc.).
  • Eye contact during conversation is considered disrespectful.
  • Slurping your noodles is the norm. By slurping, you are complimenting the chef.
  • It is considered impolite to introduce yourself, instead you wait for someone else to introduce you.
  • The oldest person in the room is revered. They are to be served first.
  • Long before Covid, people have been wearing masks in public to avoid spreading germs
  • It’s common to greet people with a bow.

Latin America:

  • It’s considered a faux pas to be early to something. It’s considered better to be late.
  • It’s considered rude to have your hands in your pockets.
  • People stand close to one another in conversation. In conversation, it’s considered rude if you step back in need of personal space.

Middle East

  • It is important to dress modestly, despite the heat.
  • Public displays of affection are frowned upon.
  • Excessive complimenting can make people feel uncomfortable.

Here are a few more social norms from different countries:

  • It’s considered rude to sit in the backseat of a cab in Australia or New Zealand if you are traveling alone. Riding in the back suggests that you think you are better than the driver.
  • A thumbs up sign in the Middle East is equivalent to the middle finger in Canada. In Brazil, Germany, and Russia the OK gesture is considered very rude.
  • In some cultures, flowers have significant and specific meanings, and can communicate a message that may not be intended.
  • Here in Canada a head shake means no, and a nod means yes, but in several other countries these gestures have the opposite meanings.
  • While in Canadian culture eye contact is considered a cultural norm, plenty of other cultures see it as being disrespectful (including China, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, South Korea).

It’s impossible to know every culture’s different societal norms. Because of this, it’s important to recognize that we have assumptions and biases based on our own cultural lens. When we feel like someone is acting weird or odd, instead of assuming something about them, what if we take a humble approach and instead realize that they might be from a different culture, and therefore have different cultural norms and practices?

For Reflection

  • Have you ever been in a situation where you thought someone was being rude, and then realized the person was working within a different set of norms? Describe:
  • What are some different norms you have noticed while traveling or engaging with a different cultural group?
  • Have you noticed different norms within different families, organizations, or community groups? What were they?

Now that we’ve explored cultural norms a little, you can see how it is so easy to misinterpret behaviour from someone who is from another culture. When doing the work of peer support, it is quite common to work with people from other cultures. It’s important that we understand that their norms could be different than what we are used to, and we must choose to take a humble approach and challenge our assumptions.

Humour and Culture

Humour and laughter are universal. However, what we experience as humorous is different depending on our cultural lens. Not all cultures value humour as a desirable personality trait. Cultures that are grounded in collectivism, tend to place less value on humour than western cultures, which are more grounded in individualism.

There have been several studies done on this phenomenon. The study called Cultural Differences in Humor Perception, Usage, and Implications (2019), by Tonglin Jiang, Hao Li, and Yubo Hou, states the following in the summary:

…Westerners and Easterners’ views toward humor fundamentally differ from each other. Westerners regard humor as a desirable trait of an ideal self, associate humor with positivity, and stress the importance of humor in their daily life. On the contrary, Easterners’ attitudes toward humor are not that positive. Specifically, …Chinese [people] have ambivalent attitudes toward humor. Even though Chinese might sometimes admit that humor is important in daily life, they do not think they are humorous themselves. For Chinese, humor is a talent that exclusively belongs to experts and is not a desirable trait of their ideal personality.

Our cultural lens plays a big part in our humour perception. For example, when we say, “that person has a great sense of humour,” that statement is an assessment of someone’s humour based on our cultural lens. Maybe someone else thinks that the person we are referring to is not funny. Maybe whether or not they have a sense of humour is irrelevant to them. We may think someone is not funny while another person thinks they are the most hilarious person in the world. Of course, we want to ensure that jokes or attempts at humour are not at the expense of another person’s sense of worth or safety.

We must always make room for different perceptions, even in something as simple as humour. You might work with someone who has a different sense of humour than you, and that’s okay. Cultural humility is about creating safe space for everyone.

For Reflection

  • Have you ever noticed your own cultural lens regarding humour? If so, describe.
  • Think of a time when someone who is older or younger than you thought something was funny and you did not (or vice versa). What was it that you didn’t find funny? Why do you think you perceived it differently than they did?


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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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