Gossip can work better than direct confrontation to spread the message of what current norms are in a society, one researcher says.
Gossip can work better than direct confrontation to spread the message of what current norms are in a society, one researcher says.

Nordic people use gossip to deal with those who violate social norms

If you help yourself to too much food and drink at a Norwegian party, people may gossip about you afterwards. In other countries, the reactions to breaking unwritten rules can be far stronger.

These findings stem from a new study carried out by an international research group. Researchers joined forces to investigate how we react to violations of what researchers call social norms.

These are the informal expectations for what constitutes acceptable or unacceptable behaviour in country.

Changes over time

Social norms change over time. A couple of years ago, people rarely reacted negatively if you coughed into your hand.

Today, most people will look at you strangely – if not angrily – if you do that.

In these pandemic times, coughing into the corner of your elbow has become a social norm that is strongly expected cough etiquette.

Big differences between countries

The researchers concluded that social norms also differ between countries. They studied the social norms in 57 countries.

The study included participants in countries in Africa, the USA, Asia, Europe and Australia.

The researchers set up various scenarios for violations of social norms. Some of the violations were less serious, others more serious. Then they asked over 20 000 participants what they thought was an appropriate response to violating the norms.

They found similarities as well great differences between the countries.

In the vast majority of the countries studied, most people wouldn’t react at all to small deviations from the social norms.

But when it came to major norm violations, the researchers found it striking how differently people would react across countries and cultures.

Nordic countries gossip the most

Norway was not included in the study, but Sweden and Finland were.

Researchers found that in these two countries, gossip was considered the best way to sanction someone who violates the norms.

In countries like Algeria and Indonesia, the responses are a little stronger.

There, people feel that physical confrontations like pushing are a reasonable reaction. Sometimes the person who violates the norm is shut out of the community.

Gossip was rarely an option in these countries.

Some common features

The researchers found some commonalities between the countries where we might expect the strongest reactions.

These were all countries characterized by low median income, low gender equality and a negative view of homosexuality, abortion and divorce.

The Swedish researcher Kimmo Eriksson led the study. In a press release from Stockholm University, he noted that it’s important to be aware of these differences when we’re in other cultures. If you’re used to gossiping about people who’ve made mistakes in social contexts, you could easily become a norm-breaker yourself in another culture.

Gossip may work better

Vidar Schei is a professor at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) and has researched social norms.

He believes that even though Norway was not part of this study, we are similar to our Nordic neighbours. That is, we prefer more indirect methods such as gossip over less direct interventions like talking with the norm-breaker.

He finds it interesting to explore what effects such different ways of handling norm violations can have.

Whereas a direct confrontation may only provide feedback to the norm-breaker, gossip might do more to teach the "appropriate" norms to more people. He believes that gossip can delineate norm violations.

Schei believes a challenge with this type of study is that the researchers haven’t studied behaviour directly.

“The researchers gave the participants scenarios of norm-violating behaviours and asked them to assess which of the four different responses they found acceptable or not. However, we can’t know if the participants would actually handle the scenario in the way they select.

Low tolerance for deviant behaviour in Norway

Schei and the American researcher Michele J. Gelfand conducted a study in which they asked 7 000 people in 33 countries from four continents about what room for manoeuvre they experience in social situations.

The researchers found that Norway has little tolerance for standing out in the crowd.

In other words, Norway has strict social norms compared to many other countries – as strict as in Pakistan, Malaysia, India, Singapore and South Korea.

It’s challenging for an outsider to come into a society that has countless unwritten rules for how to behave, and where the tolerance for deviant behaviour is low, say the researchers.

Translated by: Ingrid Nuse.

Read the Norwegian version of this article on forskning.no


Kimmo Eriksson et al: Perceptions of the appropriate response to norm violation in 57 societies, Nature Communications, Volume 12, 2021.

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