Michal Kowalski/Shutterstock
Source: Michal Kowalski/Shutterstock

I’m a social psychologist, and I study one of the most powerful and mysterious forces in the universe — social norms. Social norms are the understood, yet often unwritten, rules for accepted behavior: Wash your hands after using the restroom. Drive faster than the speed limit in the left lane. Don’t double-dip your chips.

Social norms have a powerful impact on our behavior, even when we’re not consciously aware of them. They affect what we wear, what we eat, and how we speak. They also influence how satisfying our romantic relationships are, how we relate to our children, and which political candidates we support.

We like to think of ourselves as individuals who march to the beat of our own drum. And it’s true that we are an individualistic culture. But it’s also true that, more often than not, we are influenced by the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of other people. Why is this the case? Because we are social animals with a fundamental need to connect with others. Nearly everyone wants to be liked and accepted by others; don’t you? This need for acceptance leads us to conform to the norms of our groups and the larger society. Those who don’t conform risk negative social consequences such as ridicule and rejection.

Conformity isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s good when people conform to the unwritten rule that diners should tip their servers 15 to 20 percent of the bill. Or when we help people in distress. At other times, though, conformity can be harmful to our health and happiness. Here are three examples:

1. Stop asking “How are you?” (unless you really want to know).

Sometimes people ask “How are you?” because they really want to know how you’re doing. Other times, they ask because it has simply become a normative greeting in our society. “Hi, how are you?” is a lengthier alternative to “Hi.” The standard response is usually mumbled as a single word: goodhowareyou? or fineandyou? This exchange happens even when people are moving in opposite directions, with no possibility of having an actual conversation. We've conditioned ourselves to provide superficial answers when people ask how we're doing. This isn't good for us.

I refuse to answer the question “How are you?” unless someone maintains eye contact with me after asking. If they don’t seem to care about or have time for the answer, I’ll ignore the question and just say, “Hi.” 

If you’re one of the many people who asks this question, reserve it for times when you really want to know the answer. And if you're asked by someone who seems to care, give them an honest answer. 

2. Stop glorifying busyness.

If you ask people how they’re doing (and wait for a genuine response) you’ll often hear, “I’m so busy.” Busyness has become a measure of success in our society. Many people like to humblebrag about how busy they are. They brag about getting only three hours of sleep, working 12 hours straight, or going all year without a vacation. One colleague recently told me she had such a busy workday that she forgot to eat. (That never happens to me!) Few people brag about getting 9 to 10 rejuvenating hours of sleep or leaving work early to get a massage. Even our children are busy; their schedules are packed with school commitments and extracurricular activities.

In his book, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough, Harold Kushner writes that we keep busy to “fill the gnawing emptiness in our soul.” That may be true, but another possibility is that we fill our calendars because it’s the norm. Everyone else seems to be doing it, so we think it’s the “normal” thing to do. We don’t stop to question whether this obsession with busyness is good for us, but maybe we should.

3. Stop driving distracted.

Think about the last time you drove a car. Did you talk on your phone? Did you look down when you heard the ping of a new message? If so, you’re in good company: The majority of us are distracted by our phones when we’re behind the wheel.

Distracted driving has become an epidemic that’s claiming thousands of lives every year. It's become a social norm. And, with the advent of in-vehicle information systems (or "infotainment" systems), the problem is only getting worse. Some new cars have information systems with 17-inch monitors! How many more distractions will we allow in the car before we admit how dangerous they are? 

Just because something is normative and socially acceptable doesn't mean it's a good idea. 

These are just three examples of social norms that many people follow blindly, without thinking. There are countless others. All of us should become more mindful of the social powers that shape our behavior and consider whether the norms we follow are harmful to us and others.

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