Shaking an offered hand is an example of a folkway.
Shaking an offered hand is an example of a folkway.

According to sociologist William Sumner, a folkway is a behavioral adaptation that developed to make social life possible. Folkways are informal, unstated rules that govern society, unlike laws, which are formal written rules, and mores, rules about moral behavior, or taboos, acts which are strictly forbidden. Folkways vary by culture. Americans shake hands when meeting, for example, while members of other cultures bow. Sociology Guide notes, "No member of the group ever questions a folkway, nor is anyone needed to enforce a folkway." Sociology professors assign students to violate folkways and record the result.

Violating Folkways in Elevators

Elevator behavior is governed by folkways.
Elevator behavior is governed by folkways.

Elevators provide ample opportunities to break folkways. A complex set of unwritten rules governs elevator behavior. Violate those rules by singing out loud in the elevator. Stand backwards in the elevator. Sit down on the floor. Stand as deeply into the corner as possible. Dance in the elevator. Offer everyone in the elevator a snack. Introduce yourself to everyone in the elevator.

Violating Folkways in Conversation

What happens if you treat a friend as a potential employer?
What happens if you treat a friend as a potential employer?

Call your friends by their whole names. Be as polite as you would be at a job interview with friends. Alternately, speak in a very casual way to someone accustomed to being spoken to formally. Pepper your conversation with phrases from another language. Repeat every sentence twice. On the phone, insist on knowing everything about the person who is calling: Where are they? Why did they call just now? Where did they find, or keep, your phone number?

Violating Folkways while Shopping

Shopping is a common activity with unspoken expectations for behavior.
Shopping is a common activity with unspoken expectations for behavior.

Carry all your groceries up to the counter without using a cart. Let everyone go in front of you in line. Pay a bill over ten dollars in pennies. Stand backwards in the checkout line. Buy one small green bean from the produce counter. Wear a bathrobe to shop. Buy an entire shopping cart of beans. Carry a large teddy bear while shopping for groceries. Ask an employee for help finding several items in plain sight.

Violating Folkways in Class

Reactions to violations of folkways uncover unwritten rules.
Reactions to violations of folkways uncover unwritten rules.

Wear a Halloween outfit to class when it isn't October. Instead of a snack from the vending machine, bring in a plate and silverware and eat a meal. Call everyone in the class by their full name. Sit facing backwards.

SparkNotes states that "violating a folkway does not usually have serious consequences." But violating folkways does command attention. People who violate folkways, as sociologist William Kornblum comments, "may be thought of as idiosyncratic or 'flaky.'" People may be amused, bemused, or angry. Breaking folkways demonstrates the myriad of unwritten rules that govern behavior.