The Unspoken Rules of Society
You wake up in the morning, head outside, and you say “good morning” to your next door neighbor. You walk down the street and you see a familiar face; you nod to let them know that you acknowledge them. You get into the bus and an old lady walks in behind you, so you stand and let her take your seat.
You’re not compelled to do any of these things. There are no moral handbooks or guides that give us a checklist of the world’s dos and don’ts. It’s not in any constitution or any written rulebook. But somehow, we all follow these rules. We strictly abide by them. We don’t tell each other what they are, but we all know when someone breaks them. These are the unspoken rules of society.
Aristotle once said, “man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.” Because we’re such social animals, we depend on one another for everything including sometimes determining what is right and what is wrong.
We come together to make seats of governments, appoint leaders to keep things in check, and write ourselves a constitution. But that’s for the big stuff. For the little things that we are more likely to face everyday, there are no rules or constitutional demands, just a common understanding among all of us on what is right and what is wrong.
As a society, we love to look at pictures. It reminds us of a time that once was, it makes us feel nostalgic, and when we share these pictures with people, it gives them a sneak-peek into our lives. Where we were, how far we’ve come, and all the things we’ve been through along the way. Before smartphones, we would all keep large family photo albums in our houses for when a guest comes over. And occasionally as they sat, we’d hand it over to them and bond over the memories of times past.
We still do that today, but just in a different way. We often send pictures to one another from our smartphones, post throwback photos on social media, and simply just hand our phones to people to see a certain picture. But then, they start swiping left or right to see more pictures. So we get angry, why? Because they’ve just broken an unspoken rule - don’t swipe left or right if someone shows you a photo on their phone, unless they tell you it’s okay to do so.
Because unlike our family albums that are carefully curated to show the pictures we’re comfortable with others seeing, our phones have everything from funny memes we want to share, to private photos that should never be seen by anyone else. This is why it’s important to restrict yourself to as much information as the other person is willing to share.
It’s amazing when you think about it, but smartphones are a very recent invention. The very first commercial smartphone was released around 30 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2007 with the release of the iPhone, that phones truly became smart by modern standards. And in such a short period of time, as a society we’ve been able to create unspoken rules around using the smartphone that somehow we all just seem to follow.
Before phones were invented, we always had to visit each other unannounced. But since phones came around and texting became a thing, we created a new unspoken rule. You don’t normally go to people’s houses without texting or calling them to let them know. Of course, this often exempts family members and very close friends. But if you just want to stop by the house of a co-worker or someone you’re not really close to, you better send them a text first or you won’t be greeted by a smiling face when you ring the doorbell.
As humans, we communicate not just with our words, but also with our actions. In fact, as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. When we speak to each other, we’re watching for hand gestures, head movements, proximity, we’re watching for body language. Oftentimes, this helps us know how we’re doing in a conversation. Does the person seem interested? Do they look confused? All of that.
This is why it’s considered rude to look down at your phone screen when someone is talking to you even if you’re listening to them. People want to be able to look you in the eyes when they talk to you.
In the same vein, it’s also considered rude to leave your earbuds in your ear while you’re talking to people. This has become even more important since wireless earbuds became a thing. Because they’re so tiny and comfortable, it’s easy to leave them in your ears, even when you’re talking to people. But as a society, we’ve come together to say that it’s much more respectful to take the earbuds out so people don’t think they have to shout for you to hear them.
People on public transport often have no respect for personal space, and honestly, most times it’s not really their fault, there’s just very little room for everyone to share. And as a society, we’ve learned to understand these things, but still, there are boundaries you must not cross. No matter how close you have to be to someone else, you should never look into their phones. Like I already alluded to earlier, phones usually contain really private and sensitive information… some of which you really might not want to see, and peeping into someone else’s phone is a sure way to witness the unforgettable.
Speaking of smartphones and public transportation, there is one unspoken rule I wish more people would follow. Don’t play music out of your speakers in a small public place, like in a waiting room or on a bus. No matter how amazing you think that song is, not everyone is going to like it. And even if everyone does, some people might have had a rough day and just want to sit in silence to take a break to recollect their thoughts. We should give them the opportunity to do this. If you want to listen to music on your commute, get yourself a pair of wireless earbuds, they’re pretty cheap.
Similarly, “don’t take personal calls in public” is another really popular unspoken rule. Unless it’s an emergency, no one really wants to hear the conversation you’re having with your long lost second cousin or all the office gossip your coworker is giving you. And if you must take the call, it’s best you find somewhere even moderately private or reduce your voice to the bare minimum to avoid getting dirty looks from the people around you.
When someone whispers something to you, it’s an unspoken rule to whisper a reply back to them because more often than not, they’re whispering because they don’t want anyone else hearing in on your conversation.
As humans, we tell a lot of lies. Sometimes we lie to make ourselves feel better, sometimes we lie to protect other people’s feelings, sometimes we lie to impress people, sometimes to fit better in certain social spaces, and sometimes we just want to get some time off work.
Whatever the reason might be for you, the truth is we lie a lot, and for the most part, we’ve accepted this as a society. However, as a rule, there are two people you never lie to. Your doctor and your lawyer. Thankfully, these two people are also required by law to take your truths to the grave, so you don’t have to worry about your secrets getting exposed.
To prevent people from lying unnecessarily just to save face, there are also some questions we just don’t ask. You normally never ask how much they earn, how much they weigh, and you never ask a woman her age. Why that is, I’m still not too sure.
If you’re close enough to people, you’ll most likely know all of these details without asking. And if you’re not close enough to them to know, then you’re not close enough to be asking either.
It’s important to say it again that humans are very social animals. This means that we thrive in groups. As a result, we have learned to be kind to one another. It creates a sense of camaraderie and helps us build and strengthen our communities. So, to make it easier for everyone, we created unspoken rules to help us determine what is kind, what is nice, and what is not.
If you had an arrangement to meet up with someone and for some reason you had to cancel, it’s your job to reschedule. When you do this, you let the person know that you value their time and you’re willing to make things right for not fulfilling your end of the bargain previously.
If someone offers to share food with you, they get to have the first and last pieces. And if they have just one piece left, it’s only courteous that you don’t ask them for that thing at all.
Being kind doesn’t always mean cheering people on. Sometimes, it’s pointing out flaws and helping to fix them whenever we can. However, as an unspoken rule, you should only point out flaws that can be fixed in 30 seconds or less.
You’re having lunch with your friend and there’s something on his teeth, tell him. Your girlfriend’s shirt got untucked, let her know. But things like her makeup or his poor combination of clothes, there is no need to point out if they can’t immediately do anything about it. You’ll only make them insecure and self-conscious.
There are two places you should never make a fuss or start drama, a wedding and at a funeral.
Weddings are really special and sacred to most people and in most cultures around the world, so ruining one is heavily frowned upon in our society. Don’t try to propose at someone else’s wedding, please… unless they offer. Do not ask them, because then you put them in a weird position where it’s difficult for them to say no, especially if you’re close friends. Don’t make their lives harder than they need to be.
At funerals, you should have respect for the dead. Let people pay their final respects to their deceased loved ones, you can meet the living relatives much later to demand whatever it is they owe.
As children, we didn’t really see any of these unspoken rules because not much was expected of us at the time. Yes, we might have been taught to be kind to strangers and respectful to our elders, but generally, we were also easily forgiven if we ever broke any unspoken rule. But it’s not the same for adults. In fact, the older we get, the more rules get added to what we already have to follow.
As a child, leaving a shopping cart in the middle of a grocery store aisle could be considered cute, but as an adult, you won’t be forgiven so easily. As you get older, people will also be less keen to borrow your things. They bought their stuff with their own money and they expect you to do the same. So as a general unspoken rule, you never borrow stuff more than twice. If you’re borrowing it for a third time, then you clearly need one of your own.
When you start living on your own, you have to get important things like your furniture, kitchen utensils, and bathroom appliances. However, one thing you must never forget is a plunger. And this is one of the only unspoken rules that’s for personal benefit alone. You should always buy a plunger before you need a plunger.
On your first day at a new job, you’re usually told how things work at the organization. You’re given a set of duties and responsibilities and you’re educated on the culture of that office.
Things you’re allowed to do and things you’re not allowed to do.
However, there are a few things they don’t include in the orientation speech, like don’t cook fish or anything that has the potential to smell terrible in the office kitchen. Be kind to the less-skilled staff like the janitors and security guards. And wait until everyone has gotten off the elevator before you get on.
It’s rules like these that bind us together as a society. If everyone and everything was put in a constitution, we would be living like robots… but I mean we basically already are. By leaving many of these rules unspoken, we’re able to follow them more naturally, because some things are better left unsaid.
- EE, MM