Unwritten Rules

In my writing I’ve been thinking a lot lately about rules.

Not the long lists of rules explaining what to do or not do… there are plenty of opinions from every corner of the writing world on that. I’ve been wondering about the unwritten rules we face as people. You know, the “walk left, stand right” rule, the “let people off the elevator before getting on” rule, or the “don’t take the last cookie without offering” rule.

I suppose these examples reflect a culture or an etiquette. They may be particular to a certain place or group of people. They’re subtle. Simple even. We almost don’t notice them — until someone breaks the rule. Then what?

I believe interesting things start to happen.

In my previous work in progress, my character travels to a new city unlike anything he has experienced before. Figuring out the unwritten rules becomes a major part of the story, as there are cultural differences that he just doesn’t understand, and consequences when he breaks the rules.

In my current project, the slightly cantankerous protagonist has his own set of rules not necessarily shared by others, and so he gets bent out of shape when someone else doesn’t follow them.

These varied practices may be small, but they have a big effect on the characters in my work.

So what are the unwritten rules that you encounter every day? How many are situational, or particular to a certain place? How do you figure them out, and inevitably, when you break an unwritten rule, what are the consequences?

Now what unwritten rules do your characters face?

5 thoughts on “Unwritten Rules”

  1. I’ve been thinking recently about something that intersects with what you’re talking about: how in our (Western) (USAian) culture, you’re expected to say “How are you?” when greeting people, but there are only a few socially acceptable responses (“Fine,” “Great,” “Good,” etc.). Actually telling the truth if you aren’t feeling chipper is considered a faux pas. I’m not really sure where I’m going with this but it is something I’ve been pondering.

    1. That’s definitely true, Rebecca, and I think it has to do with perception. We’re supposed to feel one way: fine, great, good; so that the default conversation with acquaintances or people with whom you don’t have a close relationship is “Hi. How are you?” “Good, thanks. How are you?”

      That exchange is likely very different from a close friend asking you how you’re doing. So in this case, the rule or expectation changes based on the group of people you encounter and the relationship between them.

      1. So then are the “rules” for interacting with strangers predicated on the notion that we’re pretending that we’re all friends (by greeting in the first place) but acknowledging in some backhanded way that we’re not really friends at all (by lying)?

        1. I think calling it lying is a pretty harsh way of thinking about it. The exchange between acquaintances is more of a ritual. I’m not sure you can ascribe an outright intent to deceive on such conversations… But anyway, that’s just one type of unwritten rule (and of course, it may not be true for all). There are many other behaviors and examples that can be puzzling too!

          1. Perhaps ‘lying’ wasn’t quite the right word to use, as while I still think it accurate (in that you don’t exactly tell the truth in such interactions), the word does connote, as you point out, an intent to deceive. I suppose that for the most part I think it’s a bizarre social ritual. At the same time I’ve been sitting here for a few minutes trying to think of an alternative acceptable “start” to conversations, and am coming up empty-handed. You’re right, society is (at the very least) puzzling.

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