Cultural norms can have more of an influence on our behavior than we realize or like to admit.
As a woman of South Asian heritage who lives in the West, I know first-hand how much of an influence culture can have on a person’s “code of conduct” so to speak. Culture can dictate so many aspects of our life—from how we dress and who we have as friends, to what our political affiliations “should” be, and even who (and if) we should marry.
Being the creatures of customs and habit that we inherently are, humans have a tendency to act and adjust ourselves to a set of rules or expectations that society places upon us. Some of these can certainly be positive, but some can feel like shackles we feel we need to break out of.
How do these often unspoken rules, norms, and social standards have a hold on us?
Here’s some clarity on how culture can affect how we think and act.
1) Birds of a feather….
Well, you know how the rest of the saying goes. This wasn’t my personal experience, but growing up in Canada, I do remember a lot of my Indian friends being encouraged by their parents to have mostly other Indian friends.
Traditional families were forever concerned that their children would lose touch with their heritage. They were also thinking of the future: surrounding oneself with culturally common friends early on meant it was more likely that their child would choose someone “from the same community” as a husband or wife.
They automatically assumed that associating with people from the same culture meant they had the same values. It worked for them, so why wouldn’t it work for their children?
While you may not have this particular cultural influence in your own life, perhaps you can relate to being encouraged as a child to hang out with a certain group of people because it pleased your parents.
Maybe your mom wanted you to hang out with the popular cheerleaders because she saw that as the right extracurricular activity for you. Perhaps your parents were determined that you go to an ivy league school because that’s just the kind of family you come from. The list goes on.
More often than not, it can be easy not to question these cultural norms that have been given to us. Our families are the foremost cultural influences on our life.
We tend to step into these behaviors without thinking if this is something that we want or we automatically assume that it’s right for us. So we start to live out the roles assigned to us.
2) Then there’s the “company culture”
By this time, you might be miles away from your parent’s influence. You’re claiming your life as yours and loving it. You’re excited to make waves in your new job. You feel like a mover and a shaker and this is your time to stand out and shine. But wait.
Your boss expects all her employees to burn the midnight oil for the third day in a row this week because the project you thought was perfect needs some more tweaks. You’re realizing that working late is just the norm with this job.
So you find yourself canceling dinner plans with friends you haven’t seen in ages yet again. The way things are going, you might not make it to your niece’s ballet recital tomorrow night either.
Or maybe the company has a softball league and even though you’re not particularly fond of baseball you find yourself taking one for the team.
We’ve all been in these workplace scenarios and despite our conflicting thoughts have gone along with the status quo.
3) Culture can be beautiful
In many ways, culture can be a source of pride. I love dressing up in an Indian lehenga or sari, for example. I feel my most feminine and confident self when I’m draped in an Indian sari.
I don’t know what it is, exactly. Maybe it’s the beautiful hand-woven embroidery or the bright, bold colors. Maybe it’s the feel of the raw silk or the sense of glamor that plays up to my personality.
I also adore the Bhangra music from my Punjabi culture. Seeing singer Diljit Dosanjh be the first-ever Punjabi performer at Coachella was a proud moment.
4) Culture can reinforce religious beliefs
Culture can go beyond individual and smaller groups like work and family and be a powerful force—especially when it is tied up with religion.
There are countries—in some cases groups of countries—that are predominantly Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu, Jewish, or Muslim, for example.
These cultures can limit or inhibit freedom of choice over what we eat (Hindus, for example, aren’t allowed to eat beef, while Buddhists must refrain from any meat altogether), how we dress, and who we are “allowed” to marry.
Take the dress code in Iran. For more than 40 years, the culture—enforced by an authoritarian religious regime—has enforced a mandatory hijab law. The penalty for breaking the dress code is imprisonment and even death.
22-year-old Mahsa Amini was arrested in September 2022 by the morality police for not wearing her hijab “properly.” It was her murder that instigated mass protests for cultural change across the country. Women are dying every day in Iran because they dare to defy the collective culture over what should be a personal choice.
5) It can get political
No doubt that the culture we live in can influence our politics. If our conservative family has been registered as Republicans for generations, it can be very difficult for us to break away from that mold. Especially if you have the kind of family who would strongly disagree with you.
People have become family outcasts because of their politics.
Gun control in the United States is another hot-button issue and the topic of unending political culture clashes. Republicans tend to put a lot of stock in the Second Amendment: that is, the right to bear arms.
But many on the left (and right) are outraged at how easily it is to purchase a gun—even if you have mental health issues. Mass shooting after mass shooting isn’t changing the political stance that many people have.
6) Mind your manners: a cultural story
So far we’ve talked about how culture can influence the bigger parts of our lives. But culture can also creep up in the nuances of everyday life as well.
Here’s a personal story of being caught between two cultures.
I mentioned being of Indian heritage but being born and raised in the West. Growing up, going to school in Canada, I remember getting reprimanded by my fourth-grade teacher for not looking her in the eye when she was speaking to me.
I was confused. I thought looking down was a sign of respect. I had proof: I remember visiting my Indian grandparents in England and getting a stern look for meeting my grandfather’s gaze when he was speaking to me about something. I learned that looking at an adult straight in the eye was perceived as a sign of defiance—particularly when it was the patriarch of the family.
Talk about a culture clash: adhering to cultural behaviors between countries and communities can certainly trip you up.
7) The culture of beauty
Another culture clash comes to mind. In the West, many men—and particularly many women—see darker skin as more culturally attractive. They sun themselves until they are a warm, toasty brown. Or they go to tanning salons so that they don’t look “too white” before they go on vacation.
Sure, they use sunscreen because they’ve learned in the past half-century how detrimental the sun can be to our skin and health. But still, they prefer a darker skin tone to their own fair and what they call “pasty” color and complexion. Call it a cultural perception.
South Asians have a different cultural perception when it comes to the color of their skin. For Indians, fairness is akin to beauty. This means that the lighter-skinned you are, the more attractive you are. I may be stereotyping but stereotypes exist for a reason.
The off-beat cult classic film, Bend It Like Beckham comes to mind. The main character Jess Bamrah is discouraged from playing football because it’s not something that “good Indian girls” should do, but also because in the words of her mother: “Look how dark you’ve become from playing football in the sun all day!”
8) Culture and the sexes
Things may have improved on this cultural front, but the onset of the pandemic brought out a culture clash between the sexes and then some.
Women have been working outside the home since the Feminist Movement. More and more, both partners were picking up the slack when it came to cooking and cleaning in the evenings and weekends.
But when work became remote for both partners during COVID, women found that the traditional gender culture came back two-fold. Not only were women working from home, but they were also taking care of the children and the bulk (if not all) of the housework.
Cultural progress can sometimes mean one step forward and two steps back.
9) Celebrity culture, pop culture, and the like
This one is pretty popular in our current pop culture. This includes royals, who have a certain celebrity status. If the new Princess of Wales is wearing a Zara dress, then that dress will sell within minutes of the cameras capturing it.
I must admit that I’m not immune to this. I’m a huge Succession fan. I love everything about the show, the opening piano score (it’s sooo old New York), the characters (I love them but I hate them). And then there are Shivan Roy’s fashion staples.
Shivan’s clothes can be hit or miss but when I saw that chain link halter top (yes, the black one with the golden chain) she wore in the episode on her brother Connor’s wedding, I had to have it. I searched and searched online but couldn’t find it. I eventually gave up and went to sleep.
As the fashion fates would have it, an InStyle article about it popped into my Instagram the next morning and there was a link on where to buy the chain link top. I have no regrets, thank you very much. I am just as culturally influenced as the next guy.
10) The culture of “More is More”
Speaking of online shopping, we have become forever insatiable by a convenient consumer culture that calls out to us constantly to buy more, more, and more. We buy things we don’t even need just because we know Amazon will drop them at our door the next day.
Our homes are filled to the brim with gadgets galore, crates of clothes, and everything in between.
The final conclusion on cultural norms
In some shape or form, culture will always have some sort of claim on our behavior. But it’s up to our own personal values and belief systems to discern what to act on and what to let go.
Let’s make a serious attempt to evolve our culture for the collective good.