Rules were made to be broken, they say. But if you believe that, you’ve got a tough road ahead.
We can think of a bunch of rules—not laws, mind you, not even verbally acknowledged preferences, just unspoken behavioral expectations—that you have to follow if you want to keep your job, find a spouse, or be allowed into the nearest fast-food restaurant. (Even worse, outlandish behavior could make you the next viral YouTube hit, and not in a cool, ad-selling kind of way.)
We’re thinking about stuff like not snarling and drooling on your keyboard. There’s no law against playing rabid at the office, but if that’s how you get through the day, expect a very awkward meeting with HR this afternoon.
According to sociologist Melissa Hamilton, Ph.D, the things that prevent us from, say, log-rolling to work instead of taking the bus, actually do make sense from a social perspective.
“These types of unspoken ‘rules’ are culturally-based and -motivated norms of sociality,” Hamilton says. “These social niceties reflect a shared understanding of proper behavior among civilized people. They communicate that we have a shared understanding of cultural norms.”
And before you excoriate the value of social norms, call us all conformist sheep, and take off to draw more anarchy symbols on your Trapper Keeper, remember that it actually feels pretty nice to find your tribe.
“There is value in [these rules] making us feel part of a cultural community,” Hamilton says. “Humans are by nature social beings.”
On the other hand, some cultural norms start to look pretty darn silly when you look at them out of context. We’re talking about things like:
1. We knock on wood to keep something bad from happening to us.
This strange superstition seems utterly useless.
“My car has been running great,” you might say to a friend. Then, you’ll instinctively reach out and knock on the nearest wooden surface—your desk, a door, a tree stump, your dad’s peg leg, whatever’s available.
Why would quickly touching a piece of plywood stop your car engine from overheating? According to Mental Floss, it’s likely a callback to ancient pagan traditions.
Authors Deborah Aaronson and Stefan Bechtel told the site that “knocking on wood” is a toned-down version of a common pagan ceremony to ward off evil spirits. The practice might also reference pagan prayer traditions in which practitioners touched trees while asking for favors or guidance.
In any case, it’s not exactly a religious demonstration at this point, so if you’re feeling unlucky, knock all you want. It won’t do anything, but it feels nice.
2. We turn down the music while driving to help us navigate.
You’re looking for your friend’s house, and while you’re squinting, your hand absentmindedly reaches for the radio volume control. After all, the music’s too loud to “hear yourself think.”
Actually, this one’s not so strange. A study from John Hopkins University suggests that drivers can’t listen and look at the same time without experiencing difficulties.
“Directing attention to listening effectively ‘turns down the volume’ on input to the visual parts of the brain,” says professor Steven Yantis, one of the researchers. “The evidence we have right now strongly suggests that attention is strictly limited—a zero-sum game.”
3. We wave to people who have the same model car as we do.
You drive a Honda Civic, and you feel compelled to wave (or pleasantly nod) to everyone who rides past you in the same car. You did the same thing to the other VW owners when you had your Passat, and you know it’s totally a Jeep thing that other people just wouldn’t understand.
It appears that to some people, same-model-car ownership is automatic kinship, which comes with its own set of rules. One of these rules—maybe the most important one—is to acknowledge The Family.
4. We wait for everyone at the table to get their food before we start eating.
Nobody cares if you start eating. In fact, if they really loved you, they wouldn’t let your dinner get cold. But we won’t do it. Until every last one of the people at this table gets served, we won’t even pick up the fork.
It just seems like it’s the polite thing to do, even when our dining companions beg us to go ahead. They know we haven’t eaten all day by our regrettable hangry explosions.
“Humans are social animals, and our culture has evolved to maximize that fact, stressing the advantages of organized action and thinking,” explains Margaret King, PhD, who directs the Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis.
She continues, “Table manners are an excellent example—eating is an organized activity, requiring previous agreement, almost a contract, that tells us how to operate with others.”
That makes sense, as far as it goes, but it still doesn’t explain why we have to wait for our siblings’ Hot Pockets to come out of the microwave before we can tear into our own. We planned ahead and got the microwave first. Shouldn’t there be some reward?
“Waiting for everyone to start at the same time relieves possible anxiety about some people getting a larger share of food than others,” says King.
Other bits of dinnertime etiquette, like passing the food around the table instead of reaching, operate on the same principle, King says.
“Serving others shows respect for the group and alleviates grabbing and reaching,” she explains. “The whole table operation is geared to keeping our normal territorial and acquisition (greed) impulses in check. And it largely works—at a subconscious level we don’t think about very often—except when rules are violated.”
5. We always face forward in an elevator.
Try this experiment next time you get into an elevator. Step in and see if you can stand with your back to the door. Go ahead. Make eye contact with your coworkers. Just stand there face to face and stare.
Or, even better, don’t bother scooting as far away from your fellow passengers as possible. Let your elbows brush.
We bet you can’t! It’s way too awkward. But why?
According to sociologist Melissa Hamilton, PhD, we’ve been socialized to feel weird if we don’t follow the unspoken rules of the elevator.
“Proper behavior when standing in an elevator has some interesting permutations,” Hamilton tells Urbo. “Notice how people reposition themselves when additional people enter the elevator and when they leave. This is because there are socially created norms of personal space—how close is it acceptable to stand next to another person.”
Those norms get a bit squishy when you enter an elevator, Hamilton suggests. Somehow, elevator cars don’t quite follow the same rules as other tightly enclosed public spaces.
“In a confined space, we start with the same personal space expectation unless that is not possible because of the number of bodies,” Hamilton muses. “On the other hand, the elevator is unique in that we expect a greater personal space from strangers to the extent that the size of the elevator permits it.”
We’ll take the stairs, thanks.
6. We park in the same spot every day, even though spaces are not assigned.
Your remember the last time you got really steamed that someone took “your” parking spot, only to realize that there’s technically no such thing?
Or say you’re in school, and you like to take the same desk in class or the same seat at the lunch table every day. These are not assigned seats. Why are we so uptight about this?
“The practices of sitting or parking in the same place and walking the same routes may not be as much about social expectations as they represent heuristics,” says Hamilton.
“Heur-what-now?” say we.
“A heuristic is a mental shortcut to decision-making,” says Hamilton. “Following the practice daily is just easier in terms of saving our own time and mental resources in making a decision.”
That explains the frustration you feel when someone takes your space. They just made you have to think a little bit harder about something you weren’t prepared to have to think about, which is a stone-cold move.
So what happens if you throw caution to the wind and break every single one of these social norms?
Why do we all follow these rules? They’re not laws. You can’t get arrested for digging in while your spouse sits there foodless, and you won’t go to jail for refusing to wave at that fellow Passat owner.
What could happen, though, is a powerful corrective force that we’ve seen gaining ground in recent years: You could be socially shamed.
If anyone does break the rules, “that generally means that there is one person who hasn’t been schooled, has a mental or social problem, or is out of the cultural loop,” King says.
In an age in which “you are one single keystroke away from your life being destroyed” (as Sue Scheff writes in her book Shame Nation), social shaming carries heavier penalties than ever.
So while some of these “rules” seem silly, they’re not unrelated to the terrifying power of online mobs. Tread carefully, folks.