Everything stays different

NORMal - Everything stays different

Everybody thinks they know what normal is – but don’t have an exact definition for it. No wonder: All of our thinking, decisions and actions are based on a dense fabric of measurements, practices, regulations and wishes.

How high is Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest mountain – “normally”? According to the French: exactly 4,808.45m. But if the mountain was in Germany, it would 48cm higher – and even 232cm in Belgium. The reason for the variation: Countries have different standards for establishing “height above sea level”. Whereas France, Switzerland and Lichtenstein set their heights by the marker in Marseille, the Belgians uses the marker in Ostend and Germany uses a metal plate on the New Saint Alexander Church in Wallenhorst near Osnabrück.

But that’s obvious!

What is and isn‘t seen as normal varies between countries and individuals. “But that‘s normal!” – trips easily off the tongue. But nobody can really say what normality actually is. One explanation goes like this: Normal is whatever is considered as usual and self-evident. Psychologist Stephan Grünewald explains how things acquire a self-evident status and why we need this: “A society needs something like normality in order to function. But collective consciousness can only develop through a process of civilization where everyone agrees over a way of living together.” Agreeing a standard that overrides individual concepts of normality ensures that interfaces will work. And this is just as important for social interaction as successful global trade and the transmission and security of technical development. The Deutsche Institut für Normung (DIN) has been developing national standards since 1917. And at European and international level, norms define the characteristics of products, management systems and services, ensure quality through efficiency, fitness for use and compatibility, ease the free movement of goods and ensure consumer and occupational safety and environmental protection.

Normality is just a fleeting moment in time

TÜV Rheinland is active on many committees and consultative bodies where norms and standards are debated and determined. Many different factors and positions have to be taken into consideration on the way to a norm – and it can take many years. If you are harmonizing a radio standard for example, existing standards, new scientific findings on function and safety, technical feasibility and the wishes of market stakeholders have a part to play. “Norms and standards are always a compromise for solving a problem temporarily, but they create other problems because they are incomplete – carrying within them the necessity of progress”, says Stephan Grünewald. None can predict the direction that normality will take. In terms of social norms, changes often only come to light if you look back ten or twenty years from today. “Scarcely anyone predicted how powerfully digitalization would affect the world of work when the Internet came along in back the 1990s. But both individuals and society need to adapt to the new conditions”, says author and personal trainer Carola Kleinschmidt. Change is normal in science and technology, too. But the irrefutable laws of nature are a point of reference, all the same. Ancient units like the metre appear to be changing in response to progress. The original standard meter was established in the form of a length of platinum in 1799 – its length was one ten millionth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator – measured rather inaccurately with the resources back then. A new normality took over in 1983: A metre is the length of the path travelled by light in a vacuum in 1/299792458 seconds. And even this value could change again – if only a little – if it is possible to determine the speed of light with greater accuracy one day. If you want to measure how clean the air, set limits for toxins in children’s toys or test hygiene levels in school canteens, the laws of nature are not enough on their won. Much more importantly: You have to define what is normal in order to be able to decide what is unusual. Legislation can use newer and more accurate measuring methods for defining base lines and thresholds. The same applies to measuring heights. For years now, the countries of Europe have been trying to untangle the mess caused by different reference points with the help of satellites and complex models and bring it all down to a new and more accurate denominator. Mont Blanc doesn’t care how “height above sea level” is determined – it’s still the highest peak in Europe.

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Picture Credits: © TÜV Rheinland AG/Thomas Ernsting