The Secret World Of Rules

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?
Photo credit iStock Photo

About the Author

Deirdre Honner

Deirdre Honner is a human resources professional working in higher education. She has a master's degree and Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR) certification. Deirdre is a social media junkie and has presented locally, regionally and nationally on job-hunting strategies, social media and networking tools and the integration of both. Deirdre blogs about work at The HR Maven and you can connect with her on Twitter as @theHRmaven.


John Jorgensen

I’ve had similar problems with lack of direction or instructions at those self service lanes. No directions that you can’t use coupons, it won’t take magazines, no alcohol, no marked down merchandise….with no signs that they can’t be done there. I understand the principle and business decision behind those lanes but without clear instructions they are more of a hinderance that an aid. Good lession for all organizaitons to think of.

Andrea Ballard

Deirdre, This is a great thing to point out. Having been a rule-follower all my life, I know I dislike having that feeling of ‘breaking the rules’ when in fact I didn’t actually know the rule! At my old office, we had a large refrigerator in the cafeteria with milk/creamer for coffee and lots of juice and soft drinks. When I was given my office tour, someone pointed to the fridge and said “The stuff in there is free.” I thought she meant everything, so I frequently went to the fridge, and grabbed soft drinks or juice and left without paying. Turns out, only the milk/creamer were free…we were supposed to be paying for the juice or soft drinks. When someone finally told me, I was mortified! I never could look the cafeteria cashier in the face after that.
I think a good goal for those of us in HR is finding out the ‘unwritten rules’ in our offices and taking responsibility for communicating them to new hires.

Terese Bird

Thank you so much for bringing this up. I notice the invisible rule problem a lot because I emigrated from the States to the UK. I’m sure I unwittingly operated under many invisible rules while living in the States, but emigrating to a new country really made me see the invisible rules. For example, in the UK city that I live in, everyone queues to get onto the city bus. However, in the same city, people do not queue to board a train. When I lived in a very large US city, no one queued for either. People just bunched up near the door, and were fairly polite, not pushing ahead of others, but not forming a queue either. So when I arrived here, I operated under my old US rules, and I must have looked very impolite before I realised I really should be queuing.. My very polite teenage daughter was also unaware of this invisible rule, and was actually followed to her seat on the bus by an indignant native who demanded an apology for not queuing, until she realised. We would all do well to be aware of and even to question our own and society’s invisible rules.

working girl

Maybe she wasn’t so much stunned by your question as exhausted from having to tell everyone where to put the bottle receipts over and over. I would so hang a sign after the first 10 minutes of that!

Royale Scuderi

Another great post! Now you have me thinking about secret rules that I may have or encounter!. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

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