Several years ago, I read the 2005 commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College. It is a profound piece that challenges me to look beyond the immediate, the obvious, and the hidden-in-plain-sight.
I reread it frequently.
There is a long list of invisible, but expected, behaviors in society. Simple things really, like walking on the right. Nowhere with foot traffic do I see signs saying, “keep to your right.” We all know it. We just do it. (And this created a few problems for me when traveling in New Zealand. I got used to apologizing frequently as I ran into people.)
We stand in line, pull over for ambulances, and stop for buses. All these rules are invisible, but known, and they have other names like cultural protocols, manners, and expected behaviors. If you landed here from Mars, you would have a tough go of it for a while.
I had two recent experiences that caused me to reflect on this topic.
I was shopping at a local grocery store and was checking out. I like self-service check out. I am efficient, don't have to engage in small talk, and I bring my own bags. When I finished scanning my items, I scanned my bottle return receipts. To my dismay, the light above the register started blinking and a loud, androgynous voice boomed, “help is coming.” Other shoppers looked at me and I wasn't feeling so efficient. The area checker came over
and said to me, “You can't use bottle receipts here. You have to take them to customer service.” In my questioning, I asked her “How would I know this? Is there a sign? Other stores allow me to scan my bottle receipts.” Clearly annoyed, she took my receipts, huffed off, and returned with my cash.
Now I am annoyed because I feel stupid not knowing the invisible rule.
Same store, different day. I go through a line with a checker because now I know that I can't scan my bottle return receipts in self-service check out. I hand the cashier my bottle return receipts. She actually says to me, “Oh, these don't go here (in my hand, I am guessing she meant) they go up here.” She puts them on the customer side counter. I ask, “How would I know this?” while wondering why it really matters where I put the stupid receipts?
She is stunned and doesn't know what to say. Another invisible rule.
I work diligently to eliminate invisible rules; they erode good feelings and camaraderie. When colleagues visit or call, I explain as much as possible about how things work. “This is our process,” I frequently say. Also, “It is not necessarily the right way, but here is how I get things done,” and “I welcome your input.”
Eliminating the invisible makes work and life all much clearer. What can you clear up today?