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4 Social Norms You Should Break

How breaking some rules of social behavior can improve your social life.

There are many norms governing our everyday social interactions. For example, in the United States, it is normative to:

  • Allow some personal space between you and other people (often two or three feet between friends and four feet or more between strangers).
  • Take turns during conversation and avoid interrupting others while they’re talking.
  • Maintain a comfortable amount of eye contact (about three seconds at a time).
  • Reciprocate when someone does something kind for you.

It’s wise to conform to these social norms. They help people know what to expect during social interactions and they facilitate social connection, which is essential for one’s health and happiness. Also, people who do not conform to these norms risk social disapproval or rejection. (Consider how you feel about the person who stands too close for comfort, or the mooch who lives off the generosity of others without giving anything in return.)

On the other hand, there are some norms surrounding social interaction that you shouldn’t follow.

Some of the behaviors that are normative in our modern society (like glancing at one’s phone while talking to a friend) can limit opportunities for social interaction and hinder authentic social connection. These norms may also contribute to the loneliness epidemic in America, where at least one-third of adults feel lonely.

So, go ahead: break the rules. Here’s how:

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 others are doing. Other times, they ask because it has become a normative greeting in our society. “Hi, how are you?” seems to be 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.

When the question “How are you?” becomes a simple greeting rather than an expression of genuine concern, it forces us to provide quick and/or inauthentic responses. This conditions us to relate to others on a shallow level, which can make meaningful connection more elusive.

If you’re one of the many people who asks this question, reserve it for times when you really want to know the answer.

2. Talk to strangers.

Many of us tend to avoid talking to strangers, especially in crowded spaces. We assume that talking to strangers will be awkward and unpleasant, or we worry that others will not be interested in talking to us.

And yet, research shows that our concerns about talking to strangers are overblown. Talking to strangers often goes better than expected, and even brief moments of connecting with a stranger can improve one’s mood and well-being. In one study, commuters on a train into downtown Chicago had a better experience when they talked to a stranger than when they sat in silence, even though they predicted the opposite result. This was true for extraverts and introverts. Another study found that taking the time to talk to the coffee shop barista increased people's sense of belonging.

Try breaking the norm of staying silent. Say “hi” to the strangers you encounter during the course of the day. Doing so could leave you feeling happier and more connected to others.

(If you feel anxious about talking to a stranger, start by making eye contact. The data suggest that simply acknowledging a stranger with eye contact is enough to foster connection.)

3. Talk, don’t text.

Technology has dramatically changed the way we communicate in the modern world. According to a recent Gallup poll, sending and receiving text messages has become the most prevalent form of communication among U.S. adults under 50. In other words, texting has become the norm.

There are many advantages to texting, but research shows we may feel more connected with others if we pick up the phone or make a video call. What’s important is being able to hear the other person’s voice. The voice communicates interpersonal warmth, which is harder to convey via text.

If you want to really connect, make the call. Or at least send a voice message.

4. Put your phone away during social gatherings.

In a recent survey, 89% of cell phone owners reported using their phones during their most recent social gathering.

Even though it’s a normative behavior, using your phone when you’re with other people can have negative social consequences. Indeed, researchers have found that phubbing (the act of snubbing someone by looking at a phone) makes people feel ignored or rejected.

Even the mere presence of a phone can diminish the quality of social interactions. One set of experiments showed that simply having a phone out and visible during a conversation lowered people’s sense of connection to the other person and the quality of the conversation. This was especially true during meaningful conversations.

So, the next time you gather with friends or family, resist the temptation to use your phone. Keep it out of sight—and out of mind.

Also consider creating new norms or rules for your social gatherings (e.g., the first person to pick up their phone at dinner has to pick up the bill!).

Bottom line: Don’t be afraid of breaking the social norms that hinder meaningful social connection. Doing so may be a key to a less lonely world.

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