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Don't Characterize People's Actions as "Normal"

What are you really saying when you say an action or feeling is "normal"?

Key points

  • "Normal" was defined by statisticians as average or that which occurs most often.
  • Characterizing an action or emotion as "normal" may involve imposing your interpretation of the action.
  • Creating an idea such as the “normal box” in which to put people can be harmful. It may cut off in-depth exploration of feelings and actions.

The term "normal" is both perceptual and subjective. It can mean different things depending on the circumstances.1

I often hear people tell others how they feel is "normal.” I guess they are mimicking doctors who tell patients their symptoms are “normal,” so they won’t worry about the symptoms they are experiencing. Or they may want a friend, for example, to know that others may feel the same way in their circumstances, that it is typical to feel this way.

While your motive may be good in telling someone what they are experiencing is normal, is it really a good thing? Let’s dive into what it means to be normal and the effects of characterizing someone’s actions as normal.

How did we come up with "normal"?

Jonathan Mooney, who describes himself as “a dyslexic writer, speaker, and do-gooder who did not learn to read until 12 years old,” gave us a brief and entertaining history of what he described as the pseudoscience behind the myth of the normal as average. What follows is a condensation of his terrific article.2

He asked, where does normal come from, and how does it impact our lives, institutions, and the world? Mooney noted that the word entered the English language in the mid-1840s. When it was first introduced, it had nothing to do with people, society, or human behavior. It was used by mathematicians to refer to a T-square or carpenter’s square because it meant perpendicular.

It is used in geometry as an objective description of a line. In this case, normal is a fact of the world that mathematicians characterize as a type of beauty and perfection. This original use of the term normal is a fact in the world and a judgment of what is right. For Mooney, this is noteworthy because people could use the word normal to say how things are and how they ought to be.

Mooney noted that at that time in history, a bunch of words rivaled the use of normal: natural, common, ordinary typical, straight, perfect, and ideal. Normal seems to have won out because of its ambiguity—its strength.

The first use of normal outside a mathematical context was by a group of men (it was only men who were studying normalcy) in the academic discipline of anatomy and physiology, who, at that time, had dominion over the human body. These fellows used the term “normal state” to describe systems inside the body.

The “normal state” was used to describe bodies and organs that were “perfect” or “ideal” and to judge an organ as healthy. However, the users of this term never rigorously defined it. Rather, they studied its opposite—the pathological state.

The Merger of Normal and Average

So, what is normal? Being not abnormal is not good enough. Enter the statisticians. Mooney said that the use of normal as average began in 1713 with the Swiss mathematician Jakob Bernoulli, considered by many to be the founder of modern-day calculus and statistics. His work is important because the idea of being able to calculate the probabilities of seemingly random events was a new way of thinking that challenged and disrupted the existing deterministic view of the world.

According to Mooney, it wasn’t much of a step for Adolphe Quetelet, who applied statistics to gambling, to apply the concept of statistics to human beings. He believed that statistics should be applied to all aspects of society, and in 1835 he put forth the concept of the “average man” to use as a model for society.

Quetelet’s idea of the average man became the normal man—normal became interchangeable with regular and average. Quetelet was soon followed by Francis Galton, who is most responsible for our modern use of normal. It was Galton who created the concept of the norm. Galton wanted to improve the human race and believed statistics could help. He loved the idea of the “average man.”

He created that which all psychologists must learn—the normal curve of distribution—where the most common traits are clustered in the middle. By arranging this distribution as a bell curve, the middle became “higher” than the undesirable deviations. The most frequent became the highest trait—the most desirable trait. And Galton called his distribution the normal curve of distribution. We now have a statistical theory of normal.

Mooney noted that by the early twentieth century, the concept of the normal man took hold, and the emerging field of public health loved it. The industrial economy loved standardization, which was the outcome of applying averages, standards, and norms to industrial production.

Conflating Average With Normal Is Big

Jonathan Mooney reminded us that statistics did not discover the normal. Instead, they invented the normal as that which should occur most often. Based on these statistical concepts, embedded in the social knowledge of the time was the idea that the average matters more than the exceptions.

Mooney cited one renowned historian of statistics who wrote that this meant that the diversity inherent in living creatures was reduced to an inessential spread of “errors.” The average was held as the normal—as literal, moral, and intellectual ideal.

What are we doing when we characterize someone’s action or feeling as normal?

Remember that the mathematicians used the word normal to say how things are and how they ought to be. When we identify someone’s action(s) as normal, we are not describing the action. We are characterizing it in some way. As what? As natural, common, ordinary typical, straight, perfect, ideal?

It’s a good idea to look at what we are doing when we characterize an action as normal. For example, a friend of yours tells you that a dear friend has recently died and they are sad. You automatically say how normal it is to feel sad. While this may be your way of trying to be helpful, it may hinder further in-depth exploration of the person’s experience.

To characterize an action or emotion is to impose your interpretation of the action. And, that interpretation is a value judgment on your part. Why do we want to do this? To impose our judgment on others’ actions and feelings?

Most likely, it has to do with being empathetic or sympathetic. Someone is feeling sad, angry, or hurt about something we identify with, so we wish to be helpful. Perhaps, someone has acted impulsively, aggressively, avoidantly, etc., in the face of some perceived threatening or harmful situation. Again, out of our feelings of empathy or sympathy, we describe the action as normal.

Our intentions may be good but using the term normal cuts off any discussion of the difficult feelings or situation. (Perhaps, this, too, is us imposing our desires in the situation.). Why not inquire about what the person is feeling or the action taken, enriching your conversations?

Don’t Use Normal to Characterize People’s Feelings and Actions

Mooney’s article is both remarkably important and entertaining—a good read. It reminds us to be leery of characterizing other people's feelings and/or actions as normal, given his caution that it is just another invention of human beings to put things in a new box: the normal box.

Putting peoples’ feelings and/or actions in the "normal box" risks:3

  • Imposing your value judgment on a person's feelings and/or actions.
  • Cutting off in-depth discussion of the feeling or action event.
  • Using normal judgmentally reinforces the idea that what is normal is the desired state.
  • Defining normal as average reinforces the idea that the diversity inherent in life is reduced to deviation from the norm.

References

1. _________ “Is There Such a Thing as a Normal Person?” Mental Health Living. November 2, 2017

2. Mooney, Johnathan. “How, Exactly, Did We Come Up with What Counts s ‘Normal’?: A Brief History of the Pseudoscience Behind the Myth of the “Average”. Literary Hub, August 16, 2019.

3. Rackson, Lalaina. “Why I Hate the Word “Normal”. Be Yourself. May 17, 2016.

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