Norms

Last updated: 11 8 2021

About Sweden – an orientation about Swedish society.

This text is about norms. Norms exist in all societies. Norms are ideas and unwritten rules about how we are expected to behave, how we are expected to live and how we are expected to look. They are what is considered “normal” in a situation or a society. Norms influence how you behave towards other people and how other people behave towards you. Norms govern how we queue up in supermarkets, for example, or how we greet each other. 

The text describes what norms are. It also describes norms that restrict people and how such norms can be changed.

What are norms?

Norms can differ between different countries. In Sweden, it is the norm to shake a person's hand when we introduce ourselves for the first time, such as when we introduce ourselves in a job interview. Another norm is that we take our shoes off indoors, but in many parts of the world, this is not the norm. If you arrive to a new country, it can be difficult to know what norms apply there.

Norms change and differ depending on culture, era, and location. If we look back over history, we can see how norms have changed. For example, in 18th-century Sweden, it was fashionable for rich men to wear wigs, lipstick, and shoes with high heels. Another example is that it was unthinkable for a married woman in 19th-century Sweden to be outdoors without covering her hair.

Norms are necessary in all societies, and in many cases, norms can be a positive thing. They can help create order and make it easier for people to live together in a community. In Sweden, it is the norm to stand in a queue and await your turn in the supermarket. When someone breaks this unwritten rule and jumps the queue, things become disorderly for those waiting in line. The person who broke the norm may feel that they have done something wrong without knowing what.

  • Questions to think about

    Have you noticed any norms since you arrived in Sweden?

    Think about how people react if you jump a queue or break some other norm.

Norms that limit people

Norms can also have a controlling effect on people, which is negative. They can make people afraid to be themselves. And they can be discriminatory against those who do not fit the norm. There are many examples of norms that limit people. Some of these are:

  • The norm that everyone is heterosexual. This norm means that women are expected to be attracted to men and to fall in love with men. Conversely, men are expected to be attracted to and fall in love with women. This norm can be discriminatory against people who are not heterosexual. The norm means, for instance, that a woman who is married to a woman will encounter more negative reactions than a woman who is married to a man.
  • The norm of functional ability. The norm means that everyone is expected to be able to move, to see, hear, and understand information in the same way. The norm leads to people with functional impairments having less access to society and therefore being more limited. An example of this is when a person needs a lift or a sign language interpreter and there is not one available.

We are all influenced by norms about gender, skin colour, functional impairments, sexuality, age, and religion. Norms often make us imagine how a person is going to be based on what group they belong to. For example, there is a difference between the norms and conceptions about a woman who is able to walk and a woman who uses a wheelchair. Norms therefore have to do with discrimination and power. People who fit the norm are accepted, have more opportunities and more power to influence society and their own lives. People who do not fit the norm risk becoming subjected to worse treatment, harassment, and discrimination.

Norms are created by us. By becoming aware of those norms that limit us we can then change them, so that more people can fit into society. Norm criticism is a method that is often used to examine how different norms influence people's everyday life and values in society. Using norm criticism we can visualise who has power and who doesn't, or who becomes limited by the norm. Changes we can make might include changing our use of language by saying "partner" instead of "girlfriend" or "boyfriend". By doing so you are applying a norm criticism perspective in which you don't decide beforehand what gender a person's partner has.

Norms can be changed

In the 1950s, it was the norm in Sweden that women stayed at home to look after children and the household, while men worked to support the family. This made wives financially dependent on their husbands. This norm has changed since that time. In the 1960s and 70s, a number of policy decisions contributed to getting women into the labour market. Today, almost as many women as men are in employment.

Sweden's Riksdag and government work to devise different means of changing norms that limit people and cause discrimination. An example is the gender equality policy that the Riksdag has adopted. Another example is the Discrimination Act.