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The Fear of Offending: Social Norms and Freedom of Expression


The topic of this paper is the social and normative conditions for exercising the freedom of speech in Norway. Based on a representative survey of the population, the authors ask which types of utterances are seen as acceptable on different arenas in Norway, and whether certain groups are more likely to withhold their own opinion, out of fear of offending others or of being exposed to ridicule. The analysis shows that the Norwegian population has a balanced view of the freedom of speech as weighed against other social values, such as the value of protecting vulnerable groups and not offending or harming particular groups or religions. There is a high degree of consensus on the balance of values: a majority chooses the middle standpoints. Furthermore, the analysis shows that many would limit their expressions when presented with the risk of offending or hurting others, a process that we term “self-limitation”. Depending on the perspective on freedom of speech, such self-limitation will be interpreted differently. One important point however, is that self-limitation may lead to spirals of silence, where certain voices are less heard.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    In this chapter, we use the term “normative” in a sociological, not legal, sense, and define it as the social conditions that are directed toward people and situations , and which influence action (Østerberg 2012).

  2. 2.

    The survey was part of a large scale project, the Status of Free Speech in Norway, funded by the Fritt Ord Foundation. All publications and documentation (mostly in Norwegian) may be found at

  3. 3.

    This assumption was confirmed in a follow-up study that was carried out in 2015. Here, 70 % accepted speech that was critical of religion (Steen-Johnsen et al. 2016).

  4. 4.

    This, and other background analyses, can be found at

  5. 5.

    The reliability is good in our data (Cronbach’s Alpha for Q 4 is 0.795).

  6. 6.

    In Staksrud et al. (2014), we also found that ethnic minorities differed from the majority in terms of the content of their comments and in that they to a greater extent were more cautious about making statements after unpleasant experiences. We have not analysed data from this study on minorities in the present paper.

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Correspondence to Kari Steen-Johnsen.

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Steen-Johnsen, K., Enjolras, B. The Fear of Offending: Social Norms and Freedom of Expression. Soc 53, 352–362 (2016).

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  • Freedom of speech
  • Self censorship
  • Spirals of silence