Cultural Values and Cultural Norms

We take showers, put on clothes, fix our hair, and floss and brush our teeth before we go out into public.

We also take showers with a wild range and variety of choices in products, wear clothes of differing style and quality, fix our hair in styles that we feel good about, and we have a vast array of tooth-whitening and breath freshening products for our oral care.

The first sentence contains actions that could be classified as norms. Norms are formal, codified, or even legally enforced behaviors and actions that are generally adhered to by all who wish to be accepted in society, to maintain business relations, or to keep from being arrested for crimes. As a result, we have norms in most developed societies that require good personal hygiene, appropriate dress that covers genitalia, protects against the elements, and which meets the standards for business, safety, and standards of the uniformed professions.

We avoid wearing hairstyles that were wildly popular twenty years ago, because the values have changed, but different hairstyles have become the social, professional, and business norms. We floss and brush our teeth, because the norm for proper dental care now includes visits to the dentist, where we are taught that daily flossing and brushing are the established norm for regular preventive oral hygiene.

The second sentence contains actions and preferences that could be classified as values. They are not necessary to prevent ridicule, ostracism, job loss, arrest, or rotten teeth. They are based on our personal ideas about quality, affordability, stylishness, and preference. There may be disagreement even among members of the same household as to these personal constructs. One member may prefer to use the most natural and simple methods and substances for personal hygiene, while another desires the most expensive, complex, and high quality methods and substances.

There is probably a household norm, however, that the person who does no personal hygiene at all must change their ways in order to avoid problems with the other members.

Norms are often supported by laws, codes, ordinances, and instructions for detailed steps that are carried out to achieve known results. Flossing and brushing are known to reduce oral diseases and bad breath. A nurse knows not to wear perfume to work because it is known that perfumes can sicken or cause allergic reactions in patients. Public nudity constitutes a host of crimes and health hazards that are readily prosecuted.

Values are individually determined, but can be based in norms. A norm is that people must eat nutritious food that they tolerate well and are not allergic to,in order to stay healthy. A value is in the choices that people make in deciding which nutritious foods to eat. While there is no requirement to eat a vegetarian diet, people develop values based on preferences, tolerance, and belief in information that encourages vegetarian diets.

Choices of clothing design, form, fit, function and style can be both normative and value based. A chef must wear certain industry and OSHA mandated clothing, which is a normative requirement. The chef may also be able to choose the color, fabric, and style of the clothing based on personal values.

Choices in personal appearance can be normative and value based. For example, hairstyles that are the business standard have changed in many ways over recent decades and from year to year. While there is no formal prohibition against huge sideburns or tons of mascara and eye shadow, the business norm is now for a more natural appearance and for less facial hair. Varying levels of conformity can result in varying levels of promotion and other opportunities in a workplace.

One interesting development is the normative change in body composition in industries where physical attractiveness is a job requirement. In some jobs, employees are now required to work out extensively, in order to create much more muscle definition than was required twenty or thirty years ago. They can also be required to have artificially whitened teeth and to use the latest technology in hairstyling, skin care, and coloring.

Comparatively, the average individual can get away with carrying far more body fat than was acceptable even ten years ago. The values that favor individuals who have a reasonable body fat composition remain the same, but the alarming increase in obese individuals has introduced both normative protections against discrimination and mistreatment, as well as values which allow more tolerant and supportive attitudes toward the obese individual.

Finally, over time, values can come, go, or solidify for large groups of people until they become norms, whether enforced or voluntary. Examples include use of deodorant, proper dental hygiene, appropriate dress in public, showing concern about the environment, and getting as much formal education as possible.

Conversely, norms can come, go, or solidify into institutionalized norms, where they evolve into rights or obligations of a permanent nature. Norms can even evolve into value driven behavior that does not require enforcement. Examples include gender or racial segregation, which ended as a legal construct, but which continues in many ways as a value based decision. Cigarette smoke free environments beyond the legal requirements, are now considered to be a right for non smokers and an obligation for smokers.

As a result, norms and values, whether they are longstanding or relatively new, are changeable entities that are dependent on the importance that general society places on them.