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Jewish World Review
March 25, 2010
/ 10 Nissan 5770
The Rules of Interaction
So I'm hard at work doing column research at a local coffee shop, my attention focused on a YouTube video of a cigarette-smoking chimpanzee, when a woman at a neighboring table interrupts to ask if I would mind watching her laptop, presumably while she goes to the bathroom.
Of course I agreed. Only a jerk would refuse such a simple request. Plus, I couldn't think of a good excuse before she walked away. This sort of thing has happened to me before, and I'm always left wondering what, precisely, I've agreed to. All I said was that I would "watch" the laptop. Would I be honoring our little oral contract if a thief snatched it up and ran out, as long as I kept my eye on the proceedings?
Her: "Hey, where's my laptop?!"
Me: "Gone. It got stolen."
Her: "What? Did you see what happened?"
Me: "Absolutely. I watched the whole thing."
OK, that wouldn't go over so well. But on the flip side, what are my responsibilities? Having agreed to perform laptop guard duty, what kind of intervention am I required to perform to protect a stranger's property? Do I have to take a bullet for her laptop?
In truth, I understand perfectly well, without having to be specifically told, just what is expected of me in this little transaction - that I will make sure the laptop is still there when she returns, and if it's not, well, then she'll be able to provide the police with a pretty good description of the thief ("medium height, brown hair, easily distracted by dopey YouTube videos, etc.). It's just one example of the countless unwritten but nearly universally understood social codes that govern so much of human interactions.
Admittedly, some of these guidelines are explicitly laid out, such as when we pass along to our children the oft-repeated life lessons we first heard from our own parents. Lessons like "Chew with your mouth closed," "Always say 'please' and 'thank you'" and "If Daddy gets pulled over by the cops, just look straight ahead and keep your mouths shut." You know, the basics.
But for the most part, true socialization occurs when we learn to extrapolate from these explicit rules to understand the countless subtle, unspoken guidelines of proper interpersonal behavior. These are the rules we don't give much thought to - not until someone steps out of line and breaks them, that is. Rules like, "Don't crowd another person who's using an ATM," "Don't take groceries out of someone else's cart and put them into yours," and "At a dinner party, if the hostess excuses herself to go to the bathroom and is gone for 10 minutes, don't greet her return by saying, 'What'd you, fall in?'"
Problems arise, of course, when we don't all agree on the same set of unspoken rules. Cultural factors, personal preferences and changing social norms all collide to form wide swaths of gray, smudgy portions of the social contract. Take, for example, the question of whether it's acceptable to talk during a movie.
"Yes, it's OK," some might say. "As long as you keep your voice low, there's nothing wrong with making the occasional insightful comment to a theater-going companion."
"No, it's not," others might reply. "It's distracting, and it can ruin the movie. You were bad enough about this when we got married, Malcolm, but now I can barely tolerate going to the movies with you any more. Oh, and believe me, your comments are not all that insightful."
So, clearly, reasonable people can disagree. And lord knows we do. When it comes to human interactions, a simple question like "Who should pick up the check on a blind date?" can inspire heated marital arguments and dozens of letters to advice columnists, not to mention impact major world events (many historians now believe that the tide of the 1960 presidential election turned against Nixon when he waffled about whether toilet paper should unroll in the "overhand" or "underhand" fashion).
Despite all the contention, the ongoing struggle to separate out the black and white in the midst of all this gray helps make life interesting, plus it's one things that definitively separates us from the animals. Along with the ability to lick our own privates. Although, lord knows, if we could, that would just provide more fodder for debate:
I've been with my boyfriend for six months, and we love each other very much. I can see myself marrying him one day, except for one problem that keeps cropping up..."
Meanwhile, my fellow coffee shop patron finally appears to be on her way back to relieve me of laptop duty. And just to prove that I've learned my lesson about proper social norms, this time I won't ask whether she fell in.
JWR contributor Malcolm Fleschner is a humor columnist for The DC Examiner. Let him know what you think by clicking here.
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© 2006, Malcolm Fleschner