Students partner and participate in an activity in which they tally specific actions while in conversation. Students define and discuss their understanding and experiences of cultural norms.


Students will be able to:

  1. Explain the idea of a cultural norm and articulate how an awareness of cultural norms fosters respect and community
  2. Reflect on the experience of breaking cultural norms
  3. Build an awareness of their own and others’ cultural norms that will translate into a larger understanding and respect for these norms and others’ perspectives


Tally sheets and stickers or tokens, pen/paper for reflection


Time Activity Notes
5 mins
  • Explain briefly the activity. Without giving away the intention of the activity, explain that students are going to have brief conversations with other students, except that there’s a catch. Each student will have specific instructions to place a dot or sticker on their partner’s tally sheet at certain times, but the partner won’t know when that is supposed to be. Other than the dots and tally sheets, students should talk about the subject as they normally would.
  • Before starting each round, give each student a tally sheet and a slip of paper. You can do this in a variety of ways, but one way would be to have two groups of students, one that stays stationary and one that travels. For each sitting student, give a behavior (examples below) and for each traveling student, give a behavior.
  • You can create an individual behavior for all students, create a few (5-6) and repeat them, or arrange groups so that all students see all behaviors as well as experience a variety of others’ norms.
    • Example “behaviors”: making eye contact, not making eye contact, saying “like” when you don’t need to, touching your hair, crossing your arms, rolling your eyes, biting your nails, or playing with a pen or paper.
    • Example script for secret behavior: Your job is to observe your partner while they are talking to you. Every time your partner does the action below, place a dot on their tally sheet, but DO NOT tell them why! Your action is a secret. Other than observing their actions and placing the dots, you should talk normally. Don’t stop talking until the I say “switch”. When I say “switch”, hand back the tally sheets with the dots you have placed. If they never perform their action, hand back their tally sheet without any new dots.
Introduce students to the day’s activity without giving too much away. We don’t yet want students to know that they will be working with cultural norms or that they are probably going to break the norms their partner has. This lesson is intended to “trick” students into breaking norms as that is something that we do commonly and unknowingly.

These suggestions include easily observable things that many of us do in our common communication. Some of them are cultural norms (eye contact) and some of them are less applicable (saying “like”). Narrate for your students the difference or choose your list of behaviors intentionally.

10 mins
Quick Conversations
  • You should give students 1-2 minutes to talk, observe, and place dots on tally sheets.
  • Every student should talk to every other student (or see as many other students as is reasonably possible) for a diversity of responses to the conversation.
  • Timing will vary depending on the size of class and time allotted; be sure students have enough time to demonstrate observable norm-breaking.
  • You can give students prompts for what to talk about, or treat it like a true ‘speed dating’ round and just let them talk to each other and ask “get to know you” questions.
    • Suggested prompts: your favorite books, one thing that you’re really good at, the best vacation you’ve been on, where you’d like to travel, etc. Find prompts or a structure that works best for your class.
5 mins
Dot Tally and Norm Sharing
  • At the end of the quick conversations, share out tally mark totals (before revealing what they mean!).
    • Suggestions: identifying the student with the most tally marks, identifying the student with the least tally marks, reflecting on giving tally marks (i.e., asking: “What is difficult to have a conversation and give tally marks at the same time? Why or why not?”, “How did paying attention to your partner’s actions change your conversation?”). You should also give space for students to share out with others what action they were looking for and reflect on whether many or few of their peers demonstrated this behavior.
5 mins
  • After briefly sharing out totals and preliminary reflections, reveal the point behind the exercise.
    • Example explanation: We all have things that we’ve been taught to value or do in communication with others, and we all have things that we’ve been taught to dislike or not do. How many of us have parents that demanded eye contact when correcting or punishing us? Others may have parents who expected them to look down when being corrected or punished. These are called cultural norms.
    • The trick is, they’re different for everybody, and something expected in one culture might be disliked in another! A cultural norm is a behavior pattern that is typical of specific groups. Such behaviors are learned from parents, teachers, peers, and many others whose values, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors take place in the context of their own organizational culture.
    • I assigned you made-up norms for this activity, but each of the dots on your tally sheet represents a time when you broke someone else’s “cultural norm”! That means that, if that had been someone’s real norm, you potentially made them feel uncomfortable, offended, off-put, or confused. The good news is, however, that we can work to understand the norms that other people have and to honor them, even if they aren’t our own norms.
During your explanation, it would be helpful to identify a time when you as a teacher or adult unintentionally broke someone else’s cultural norm or had one of your own cultural norms broken. Sharing this story allows students to understand a tangible example as well as models vulnerability for the discussion to come.
15 mins
  • Give space for your students to discuss and reflect on the activity with the knowledge of cultural norms and the intention behind the activity.
  • Progress from reactions to the reveal, to reflections on how it makes them feel to know that they “broke” someone’s cultural norm unknowingly, to thinking about times when this may have happened to them or when they broke someone else’s norm, and finally to solutions to how to avoid doing this or how to react when it happens.
  • You can also brainstorm cultural norms that students are aware of about other cultures, communities, or social groups*. Additionally, you can articulate the differences in cultural norms in different communities that your students belong to (i.e., it may be acceptable to greet a friend with “hey”, but a teacher might expect you to say, “good morning”).

Suggestions for discussion questions**:

  • How do you feel now that you know all those dots represent times you broke someone’s cultural norm?
  • How do you feel knowing the dots you gave out were times others were breaking your cultural norms?
  • What are some things that others do often that is against one of your cultural norms?
  • In what times or places do you most often find that people break cultural norms?
  • Have you ever intentionally broken someone else’s cultural norm? If so, why?
  • How can you avoid breaking others’ cultural norms?
  • How can you react when someone breaks one of your cultural norms or someone tells you that you’ve broken one of theirs?
*Be sure to avoid stereotyping and making generalizations in this exercise when discussing cultural groups.

**Depending on the level of familiarity of your students with the idea of cultural difference, diversity, and social inequality, you can also add an element of power and authority into this discussion by asking questions that address which cultural norms are valued over others in certain environments and why. For example, a student might be punished for breaking a teacher’s cultural norm but rarely would a teacher receive clear negative consequences from breaking a student’s cultural norm. Complicating the idea of cultural norms by including race, class, gender, and other lines of difference can provide for a rich discussion if appropriate for your students.

10 mins
  • Give students ample time to reflect and answer questions in closing.

Suggested formative assessment/reflection questions listed below.

 Optional: After doing this exercise, consider this way of doing it. During the exercise, on the blank side, the students check off behaviors that they witness others doing. This focuses on the behaviors and not the specific students. When sharing out, talk about cultural norms as a group and what each norm means for each person. After the individual conversations finish, tape the cards on the wall and have students circulate, look at the number of check marks, lift the card, and read about the cultural norm that was broken as a jumping off point for the larger class discussion.

Connections to Other Emotions

The group work fosters the emotions of connected and supported, as the discussion and activity are intended to create a safe space for students to talk about feeling disrespected (i.e., having a cultural norm broken) in a low-stakes, fictional simulation.

Criteria for Success/Formative Assessment

Students will be able to provide thoughtful responses to the following questions:

  1. What is a cultural norm? Briefly describe it and give at least one example.
  2. How do you feel when you break someone else’s cultural norm?
  3. How do you feel when someone else breaks one of your cultural norms?
  4. How can you avoid breaking others’ cultural norms?
  5. How can you react when someone breaks one of your cultural norms or someone tells you that you’ve broken one of theirs?