Cultural norms in America include:
- Asking a woman if you can buy her a drink in a bar
- Greeting someone with a handshake
- Having conversations over lunch or dinner
- Whistling when something is surprising (like an attractive woman or a large bill in the mail)
- Chewing on one's lip when uncertain
- Speaking in euphemisms and hyperbole rather than literally (i.e. "It went a hundred miles over her head")
For every "norm" you'll find hundreds of exceptions, but that's not the point. America, like all other countries in the world, has its own culture. It varies from city to city, state to state. Some of our norms are also the norm in other countries. Most cultures today include talking over food. Very few places have a custom of silent eating, or eating alone. These cultural norms define what we expect when we socialize. They give us an idea of what is considered "okay" and "good" and what is considered "not acceptable" and "bad." When we follow the cultural rules well, we are rewarded with acceptance by the majority of people we encounter. You're relying on them and they're relying on you – to follow society norms so that both of you can rest assured that your behavior is "good."
But what happens when social norms aren't serving you? What about norms that are explicitly hurting or excluding people?
Many books illustrate how today's norms are not as beneficial as they could be. Ishmael and The Continuum Concept are two such books which I highly recommend. Here is an illustration of my own: In today's culture it is normal to offer to share treats with anyone in the room. This tradition goes back to a time before refined sugars were so widely available. It goes back to a time when a "treat" might have been an orange, a sweet potato or a banana. A treat might have been honey-covered nuts at worst. (While nuts and honey both offer health benefits, eating them together is rough on the digestive system.) A treat today can be a lump of chemicals with no food anywhere to found within it. And while you wouldn't offer someone suffering from an addiction to alcohol a shot of vodka, it is perfectly normal to offer sugar addicts a dough-nut. This is one example of how a cultural norm hurts people rather than helping them.
Another example: Sage smudging. This is a practice taken up by many alternative spiritual communities that are springing up to honor and worship in ancient ways. But with so many people developing fume and chemical sensitivities, there are a growing body of people who can't tolerate smoke (myself included). This practice of sage smudging has beautiful origins. However, it comes from a time when the air was pristine, and chemicals were not a part of our lives. In that environment breathing in some smoke wasn't a big deal. In today's crowded cities and chemical-laden environments, adding smoke doesn't increase the spirituality of an experience. This practice (and the practice of burning incense) excludes people who would otherwise love to participate in these spirit-based events.
And, a third example: Silences are considered awkward. Whenever we're in a group, we're expected to all compulsively talk to one another – or all silently tap at our phones. This constant stream of social input – vocal or digital – leaves no room for group introspection. Once upon a time, people could go for a long walk in nature or spend the day fishing and have long silences that were about introspection and absorption of experience. Today these comfortable, introspective silences are much rarer and harder to find. Because of this, our communication is more cluttered up with idle thoughts, logistical questions, and data-based exchanges. We're spending more time talking about unexamined opinions and less time actually having experiences worth talking about. I'm not saying this is everybody, or even you, but it is a growing trend, and an unfortunate one.
Cultural norms fade in and out of dominance or existence altogether over time. In the chart below I've outlined features of the Dying Culture – the existing culture's ways of hurting us, and it's opposing force, the Living Culture – the cultural facets we can normalize to increase our harmony with one another and the earth.
|Cultures||Dying Culture||Living Culture|
|Yards:||Lawns, non-fruiting shrubs and trees||Food-bearing gardens of rambling beauty|
|Love Languages:||Largely unrecognized||Used as a simple basis for how to give more effectively to one another|
|Food:||40% corn, wheat, soy, other grains;
40% animal products;
15% sugar, caffeine;
5% vegetables, fruits, nuts
20% nuts, seeds;
70%+ raw foods
Knowing that you're right
Curiosity toward others
|Partying:||Drinking, bars, smoking, rough-housing, late nights||Board games, fresh juices, kombucha, starting early, starting uninhibited and authentic from the outset|
|Needs:||Feeling ashamed for having needs||Expressing needs and having them taken seriously|
|Group conversation:||Competing for your turn to speak||Subtly directing others to bring out what you're curious about, and what makes them most excited|
|Emotional expression:||Compulsively smiling, regardless of mood||Authentic expression of emotions, including sadness and anger|
|Minorities:||Majority rules over the minority||Space is made for the minority to have their needs met|
|Radical ideas:||Shamed||Heard, considered|
|Creativity:||Tolerated, sometimes accepted||Nurtured, encouraged|
|Inspired feelings/actions:||Approached with skepticism, criticism||Met with encouragement and enthusiasm|
|Efficiency:||Achieved through specialization, hurrying, pinching pennies||Achieved through diversity, inspired enthusiasm, consciousness|
|Intuition:||Largely ignored, dismissed||Used as a basis for making sound decisions|
|Spirituality:||Religious dogma or atheism||Life-affirming awareness of self and synchronicities|
|Conversations:||Centered around movies, politics, weather, famous people, personal gripes||Centered around personal transformation, inspiring stories, healing/sustaining practices, current feelings|
|Therapy:||Endless sessions with little progress, anti-depressants and other drugs||Consciousness Alchemy|