identifying hidden rules

oh my goodness, there are so many! 

Remember, one person's hidden rules are not right or wrong, or better or worse than another's. What matters is that they are unspoken, and trigger discomfort when they are violated, even unwittingly.  So making them more explicit might be helpful in situations where we must interact with folks who have different rules than we do. 

Perhaps simply understanding that hidden rules exist might disarm some of their triggering potential, and we may decide that when in Rome, we'll actively try to determine the hidden rules and do as the Romans do.

Here are some I've noticed in just the past day or so:

It's rude to interrupt.
Talking over me is the best way to let me know that you have something to say.

Don't ask directly for what you need, just hint at it and let me offer.
Ask me directly for what you need, don't make me guess!

It's no big deal to be 5 or 10 minutes late.
Being prompt is a sign of respect.

Don't start eating until everyone is seated at the table.
What are you waiting for?  Eat while it's hot!

When you make plans, you keep them no matter what.
All plans are tentative, and can be cancelled for any reason at any time.

Cancelled plans must be rescheduled immediately.
We'll figure it out as we go along.

Our conversations should be half about me and half about you.
Structured reciprocity feels too repressive.

If you cared, you'd ask me why I am upset.
If you cared, you'd give me my privacy when you see I am upset.


If you respect me, you'll do as I ask.
I'm so glad you respect me enough to say no to my requests.

I am helping you by pointing out the areas where you need improvement.
I will politely look the other way when I see you faltering.

If someone really wants to help you, they will insist after you politely decline their first offer.
No means no, and I won't ask again.

If you don't offer to serve me food and drink, you are not a gracious host.
Because we are so close, my house is your house, so please help yourself to anything. 

You should always knock or ring the bell, even if my door is open.
Why are you making me answer the door?  Just come on in!

Family should never have to stay in a hotel when they come to visit.
I want to stay in a hotel so my visit doesn't make extra work for you at home.

We split the check each time.
We take turns picking up the check.
We get separate checks because it's embarrassing to haggle over the money.
I am insulted when you offer to pay.  Don't you think I can afford to treat you?

And this list is just the tip of the iceberg.  I go back to my original assertion that it's nothing short of miraculous that we manage to get along as well as we do.

navigating the minefield of hidden rules

Last week I attended a Bridges Out of Poverty overview as part of my training for the Circles Campaign.  One of the concepts that has been percolating in my mind ever since is that of hidden rules -- the unspoken signals, applications of language, and behaviors that identify us as a member of a group. Since these rules are unwritten and unspoken, we usually learn them indirectly, by soaking them up from our families and environments while we are growing up.

Dr. Ruby Payne has extensively cataloged the hidden rules of class, and she contends that most of the institutions in our culture operate using middle class rules, including banks, schools, universities, corporations, and our government. 

Workshops like Bridges Out of Poverty and Getting Ahead teach these hidden rules, so that unintentional violations won't become an obstacle to building the relationships and connections that can lead to overcoming poverty.

Here's an example of one of the hidden rules Payne has identified:  the subject of jokes.  In poverty, much of the humor is about people and sex.  In the middle class, it's often situations that we find funny.  In wealth, stories about social faux pas are the most amusing.

So an image consultant might be able to help a man raised in poverty to blend in physically at a cocktail party/fundraiser, but if he tells a joke that makes fun of someone, eyebrows would probably be raised and he'd be outed as 'not one of us."

Likewise, a person raised in wealth who tells a joke about a mispronunciation at a gathering of folks raised in poverty might be met with dead silence.  It might seem obvious that we can change our clothes to avoid standing out in an unfamiliar group, but how many of us would also think to change our jokes?

Since the rules that identify us as in or out are undocumented, they are frightfully easy to violate, especially if we were not steeped in them as a kid.  I think of the rules as being like water might be to a fish - so omnipresent that they disappear into the background and are taken for granted.  We are far more likely to notice when they are violated than when they are followed.

We typically bristle when someone around us violates a hidden rule, and feel uncomfortable ... maybe even angry.  We often do not realize that a rule has been breached, and instead feel a vague sense of  I don't know why, but that person just rubs me the wrong way. And because of this, people who may be intelligent, well educated, and very competent might not be offered opportunities for networking or advancement because other people feel uncomfortable around them. 

So now that the concept of hidden rules has been scanned into my awareness, I am noticing them everywhere.  Here are a few I've noticed in my circle of closest friends:

 ~ Almost every request is prefaced by What do you think about _____ or Would it work for you to_____ or Would you be willing to _____ ?

It might sound like this:  My car is ready to be picked up ... would you be willing to take me into town if you are going that way sometime today?  We would not say Hey, gimme a ride, or I need you to take me to get my car. 

~  Help is always acknowledged with a hearty thank you.  It's never assumed that we owe each other anything.  We don't keep track of favors or keep score.  We don't expect anyone to make sacrifices in order to help us, and it's understood that each of us will prioritize taking care of ourselves and our families first. 

 ~ When someone refuses a request or cancels plans, we don't ask why.  It's just understood that she has a valid reason, and if she wanted to tell us about it, she would have.  Asking why would feel rude and intrusive, as if we were demanding an explanation or justification. 

I was only able to identify these rules recently because I felt uncomfortable when I came in contact with a person who violated them.  Without the hidden rule concept, I probably would have been inclined to limit my future contact with that person, and might have said something like I just don't feel a resonance there

But now, if someone asks me Why, I have some different options available.  I may decide to unpack my hidden rules, sort through them, and see how important they really are to me.  Maybe if I understand that the question was not meant to assess the validity of my refusal, I might decide that it's no big deal for me to talk about my reasons. 

Or maybe it IS a big deal, and I don't want to talk about it.  In which case I might decide to bring the hidden rule into the light by saying something like, "I notice I am feeling a little uncomfortable talking about that, and would love it if we could just leave it at No, thanks. Would that be okay with you?"

There are surely lots of other effective ways to handle this, and since I'm new to it, I'd love to hear what has worked well for you in these kinds of situations.  Please feel free to post a comment below.

When I walked out of the Bridges class, I was in awe that we ever manage to successfully communicate with each other.  No wonder marriages and business negotiations and international relations are often so challenging!  There are so many obstacles to understanding each other; so many innocent assumptions that can severely incapacitate the best of intentions and place great strain on our feelings of goodwill toward each other.  It feels like nothing less than a miracle that we manage to get along as well as we do. 

Maybe that's a powerful testimony to the human spirit and its ability to love and forgive ...