4.4.2 Socially Acceptable Behaviour

The term ‘socially acceptable behaviour’ is used here to define a standard for how people expect others to behave towards them.

People can only live and work together peaceably if they avoid upsetting each other.  That requirement applies to every personal interaction with another person, including strangers.  It is a prerequisite for a civilised society.

It is hard to define precisely what is socially acceptable – so it is not appropriate to apply the coercion of the law to enforce it.  The requirements are rarely articulated and are taken for granted by most well-meaning people, so it might be argued that they are self-evident and not worth enunciating – but unacceptable behaviour can tear a society apart.

A Cambridge University policy document, Acceptable and Unacceptable Behaviour, summarises the requirement in the context of staff working together:

“The University expects that all employees will conduct themselves in a professional manner when interacting with others or when managing colleagues.  All members of the University should consider their own behaviour and the impact that this can have on others.”

The above document is more detailed when it comes to defining what is unacceptable: behaviour that “may involve actions, words or physical gestures that could reasonably be perceived to be the cause of another person’s distress or discomfort”.  It states that unacceptable behaviour can be the basis of disciplinary action.  Many organisations have similarly published their behavioural requirements.

Societies vary enormously, so it isn’t possible to have a universal definition of all aspects of socially acceptable behaviour.  The following sub-sections list some general guidelines for reaching a formulation in a society:

●  People can avoid upsetting each other if they comply with the minimum form of the Golden Rule: avoid doing to others what you don’t want done to you ( There is almost universal agreement on the importance of this rule, which is a fundamental requirement for peaceful coexistence.

●  People are entitled to expect others to comply with behaviour agreed as a human right in a society ( The right to equal justice under the law is universally agreed, for example (though implementation may be patchy).

●  People need to show each other respect ( It means treating other people as equals, regardless of their ethnicity, gender, and political views.

●  Societies develop conventions of courtesy which, if complied with, make everyone feel better ( These include normal greetings, for example, and showing considerate behaviour.

●  Last but not least, people should show integrity so that others can trust them (



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/442c.htm