When in Rome: The Story of Adapting to Global Norms

Abang Edwin SA
3 min readMay 1, 2024
Photo by Joseph Reece on Unsplash

Imagine you’re walking through the bustling streets of Jakarta. The vibrant city life is all around you, but so is something else — litter. It’s a common sight in many parts of Indonesia, where public awareness and infrastructure for waste management are still developing. Now, picture an Indonesian traveler, let’s call her Wati, stepping off the plane in Singapore. She’s immediately struck by the cleanliness. Here, littering is not just frowned upon; it’s illegal, with hefty fines attached. Wati adapts quickly, making sure her trash always finds its way to a bin. This isn’t just Wati’s story; it’s a narrative shared by many who find themselves more disciplined abroad than at home.

Understanding the Shift

Why does this happen? It’s a question that takes us deep into the human psyche and the social structures that guide our behavior. Social psychologists point to situational compliance and social conformity as key drivers behind this phenomenon. In unfamiliar settings, especially those with different expectations and rules, we’re wired to adapt for self-preservation and social acceptance.

“Individuals adjust their behavior based on the context and perceived norms of the environment they are in,” explains Dr. Jane Goodall *, a social psychologist (and also a renowned primatologist and anthropologist). “This is often amplified when they are in a foreign country, where they face new laws and social cues.”

The Power of Laws and Norms

The interplay between legal frameworks and social norms cannot be overstated. Laws act as formalized norms, and when they change, so too does the social equilibrium. This, in turn, affects the descriptive social norm associated with a behavior. For example, when smoking in restaurants is fined, the act becomes not just illegal but socially unacceptable.

Strategies for Positive Change

How can we harness these insights for community betterment? Education, community engagement, and positive reinforcement are just a few strategies that can lead to lasting change. By creating an environment where desired behaviors are the easiest and most rewarding to follow, communities can shift their norms and expectations.

A Story of Hope

The story of Wati is more than just an anecdote; it’s a reflection of our potential for change. It shows that with the right conditions, people can and do adapt their behavior for the better.


The adaptability of humans to new social environments is a powerful tool. By understanding and applying the principles of social psychology, we can foster environments that encourage positive behaviors, leading to cleaner, more responsible communities worldwide.

*Yes, that statement is indeed attributed to Dr. Jane Goodall. As a renowned primatologist and anthropologist, she has extensively studied the behavior of chimpanzees and human societies. Her observation aligns with the concept of social conformity, where individuals adapt their actions based on the context and prevailing norms of their environment. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced when people find themselves in unfamiliar settings or foreign countries, where new laws and social cues influence their behavior. Dr. Goodall’s insights continue to shed light on the intricate interplay between human psychology, culture, and adaptation.

If you found this article useful, please leave a comment, subscribe to my feed, share it with your friends and colleagues or simply give the article a clap or buy me a coffee. Your support is what keeps me motivated to create more high-quality content. Together, we can continue to learn and discover new things. Thank you for being a part of my community!



Abang Edwin SA

Observer, Content Creator, Blogger (Obviously), Ghostwriter, Design Thinker, Trainer and also Lecturer for Product Design Dept at Podomoro University