Would it be awkward to walk up to a person and say to them, “You are beautiful!”? Probably! But of course, it would depend who the person is and how close you are with them. The awkwardness of saying that to a person would be shaped and determined by our social norms.
In a sermon a few weeks ago, I heard a preacher invite everyone in the congregation to tell each of the people around them, “You are beautiful!” Awkward right? Kind of. Was it funny? For a lot of people. Was it true? Absolutely! Though it is for another blog post to explain why this is true. But for now I think it would be worth while to entertain a different question, “To what extent should we conform to our social norms?” If something is awkward, should we avoid doing it at all costs?
What if it were the case that as some of our social norms have developed over time and as we have conformed to these social norms, we have moved further away from what is good and true? What if sometimes doing the truth feels a bit awkward because it doesn’t conform to our social norms and even subverts them? What then?
I grew up in South Carolina, and then I moved to California. It wasn’t just a geographical change; it was a cultural change. And many of the social norms I took for granted in the South were foreign to Californian culture. Now that I have moved back to South Carolina, I am beginning to notice more vividly the many Southern social norms that dictate proper behavior and whether or not something is deemed awkward. Because social norms vary from place to place, discerning what is good and true and not simply cultural can be pretty complicated.
Walking up to a stranger and telling them that they are beautiful is probably awkward for most people in most cultures. However, how can we tell the difference between awkwardness that is just because we are doing something silly or from a different culture and awkwardness that is because our own social norms have drifted from what is good and true? This assumes of course that some of what is good and true transcends cultures. If some good things do transcend culture, how can we know what they are? And how can we know that our feeling of social awkwardness is because we are conforming to what is good and true rather than our social norms?