Customs: Their Importance in Society

What Is a Custom? Definition and Examples

Businessmen shaking hands
Tom Merton/OJO Images/Getty Images

A custom is defined as a cultural idea that describes a regular, patterned way of behaving that is considered characteristic of life in a social system. Shaking hands, bowing and kissing are all customs: they're ways of greeting people that help to distinguish one society from another.

Key Takeaways

  • A custom is a pattern of behavior that is followed by members of a particular culture, such as shaking hands upon meeting someone.
  • Customs help to maintain social harmony and unity within a group.
  • If a law goes against an established social custom, the law may be difficult to uphold (e.g. prohibition laws in the Untied States).

How Customs Begin

Societal customs often start out of habit. A man clasps the hand of another upon first greeting him. The other man — and perhaps still others who are watching — take note. When they later meet someone on the street, they extend a hand. After a while, the handshaking action becomes habit and takes on a life of its own. It becomes the norm to adhere to the custom, and customs are often followed without any real understanding of why they exist or how they got started. Customs persist for generations, as new members of a society learn about existing customs through a process of socialization.

Importantly, different cultures often have different customs: something that is an established custom in one society may not be a custom in another society. For example, while one of the traditional breakfast foods in the United States is cereal, breakfast in other societies might include dishes such as soup or vegetables.

Customs exist among all types of societies, including both more industrialized and less industrialized societies. Interestingly, their nature doesn't change based on literacy, industrialization or other external factors. They are what they are, and they can impact the society they are a part of. They tend to be more powerful in less industrialized societies, however. 

The Importance of Customs 

Over time, customs become the law of social life. They create and maintain harmony in a society. For example, after handshaking becomes a norm, an individual who declines to offer his hand upon meeting another may be looked down upon and perceived negatively.

Consider what might happen if a whole segment of a population suddenly decided to stop shaking hands, assuming that handshaking was a very important custom in that society. Animosity might grow between the handshakers and the non-shakers, spreading into other areas. Handshakers might assume that, if the non-shakers won't shake hands, maybe it's because they're unwashed or dirty. Or maybe the non-shakers feel that they're superior and don't want to sully themselves by touching the hands of an inferior person.

Because customs are so important to social harmony, the breaking of a custom could theoretically result in an upheaval that has little or nothing to do with the custom itself, particularly when the reasons perceived for breaking it have no bearing in fact. 

When Custom Meets Law 

Sometimes it happens that governing bodies seize hold of a custom and, for one reason or another, incorporate it into a society as law. Consider Prohibition, a time in U.S. history when a law was enacted to declare that the consumption of alcohol was unconstitutional. Drunkenness was particularly frowned upon in the 1920s, while temperance was applauded.

Temperance became a popular concept, although it was never firmly grasped as a custom by American society as a whole. Nonetheless, Congress passed the prohibition against manufacturing, transporting or selling alcohol as the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in January 1919. The law was enacted a year later. 

Prohibition failed, in part because the "custom" of temperance was not not universal, and not as firmly established of a custom as temperance advocates had hoped. Plenty of citizens continued to find ways to purchase alcohol despite the law, and drinking alcohol was never declared illegal or unconstitutional. Congress finally repealed the 18th Amendment in 1933. The failure of Prohibition demonstrates that, when customs match law, the law is more likely to be successful. When laws are not backed by custom and acceptance, they're more likely to fail.