Knowing Your Norms

Knowing Your Norms

An offhand comment about paper writing on Twitter this morning led to an interesting conversation about what different fields consider typical. This brought to mind part of what Miss Outlier was talking about in her post on thought leadership, namely the different expectations she encounters. Every environment has a certain set of rules you’re expected to follow, many of which may not be initially obvious.

Academia vs industry is a conversation that comes up semi-regularly here, since we have writers on both side of the fence. In academia, or at least in graduate school, it’s not uncommon to go months without a hard deadline. I don’t think my husband has gone more than a week without a firm deadline since he started his current job. On the other hand, he’s expected to work certain hours, whereas my hours are fairly unregulated.

Norms can also be very specific to a small group, like knowing that your boss will swing through the office at a particular time of day, and assumes if you aren’t there, you aren’t getting work done, or that 7:00 AM meetings are totally typical for your company. Jargon is also a form of group norm. In my subfield, there are established usages for Greek letters that directly clash with materials engineering in general. Epsilon, for example, is the interaction potential well depth in molecular dynamics, and uniaxial strain in the rest of materials science.

But what about less obvious norms? In the Upper Midwest, it’s assumed you know how to play euchre. In biology labs, the supervisor is the PI (primary investigator) and engineering graduate students call them advisors. At my undergraduate institution, everyone took Statics by the end of their second year, and at my graduate institution, they don’t take it until their third year. I consider cottage cheese and applesauce a totally normal food combination, which appalls my husband.

How do you identify and adapt to new norms? Are there norms you have been surprised by?

(Also, for a hilarious discussion of changing meanings of normal, I recommend “Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir” by The Blogess)


After working as a mechanical engineer in different industries, I can attest that norms are different across various industries and between certain groups. For instance, working in a refinery plant is different than working in a central engineering department. For example, norms change even for different jobs in a refinery plant. To be in a project group meant basically having a set of hours to work, but being a maintenance engineer at the same plant meant working unconventional hours because of turnarounds and emergency shutdowns.

Working in one refinery plant group meant you knew how to play bridge or another meant you were expected to shoot skeet. The norm was determined by the person in charge or group leader.

Norms for working in the US is quite different from working in Saudi Arabia or anywhere overseas. Customs play a large role overseas.

One “norm” in particular that I’ve been noticing recently is in eating lunch routines. It used to be a couple years ago that all the grad students in my lab would eat lunch sociably – some would bring lunch and some would buy it, but we’d all sit down and gossip around the table while we ate. I really enjoyed it, and I felt like it built community.

But the new crop of students – apparently – never eat. We older students keep inviting them to lunch, and they never want to eat with us. I don’t know what they do for lunch.

But in general, I totally agree – knowing the norms is important. In new situations I try to just observe for a while and copy others to make sure I figure out the new norms before I try breaking them. 🙂

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