Breaking the Norm: 4 Rules You Should Break

Breaking the norm: Going against something that is usual, typical, or standard.

Norms are typically unwritten rules. Even though I try to take a contrarian approach to life, I still try to follow the norms of society.

A societal norm is a way people are encouraged to behave. This mindset has become so familiar that people think of them as rules when in truth, they are not. Norms are unwritten expectations of behavior or a set of beliefs. However, rules are a set of written guidelines which are punishable if broken. Confused yet?

We should all strive to live within certain norms such as being kind, wearing proper attire for an occasion, and saying “please” and “thank you.”  I would argue that these are no longer the norm! But you get the idea.  

However, there are plenty of opportunities to challenge the norms.

Sometimes it can do more harm than good to your emotional well-being if you follow certain societal norms.  

The following are some important points to keep in mind when assessing your norms: 

It's Expected

I was brought up to believe that I had to become either a doctor or a lawyer in order to be viewed as a “success.” Well, call me a “failure” on that one. I was also “supposed” to have children after I got married – nope.  

Even though these were personal decisions, they were major hurdles I had to overcome. These expectations were deeply entrenched by certain family members and friends - I caught some serious crap for not living up to them.  

Changing course from society’s norms is difficult, but living in accordance with them can be even more challenging – perhaps destructive. I knew my decisions were the right ones. They were in accordance with how I wanted to live my life.  

Mirror Images

Imagine a world where all of us were exactly alike. What a boring place it would be.  Society tends to discourage those who are different from the norm and even make fun of them for being odd or eccentric. In some ways people can be intimidated by those who live outside the norm. How does this make you feel when you want to do something a little 'different' from everyone else? It takes courage to stop being a mirror image of those around you.


Think about the major breakthroughs in science and travel for example. The norm back in the day was to believe the earth was flat. Imagine if Magellan subscribed to this thinking and didn’t set sail in 1519 to circumnavigate the globe. True, Magellan didn’t survive the journey, but for the expedition team, it was a success.

Or, consider what life would be like today if the Wright brothers followed the norm that humans couldn’t fly (I know, humans alone can’t fly but planes, a human invention, can).

It is the spirit of being willing to go against the norm that can lead to major breakthroughs for yourself and even society.

I encourage everyone to embrace this spirit and possibility of challenging the norms of society (within reason).

How else do we advance? ~Ted

Breaking the Norm: 4 Rules You SHOULD Break ~parts adapted via Breaking the Norm

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: good how are you? or fine and you?

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 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 phone 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!)

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