Five Unwritten Social Rules That Everyone Should Follow

Sean Kernan

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If you served wine in ancient Greece without diluting it 3:1 with water, you’d be considered a rude host. In modern Russia, giving a dozen flowers to a woman is considered ill-mannered. Odd-numbered flowers are for happy occasions and even numbers for condolences.

When we change context, good manners easily tilt and slide sideways without us knowing. We become the headache. Conversely, some rules and customs seem obvious by way of logic. They shouldn’t need to be said or written down on signs. Yet people still walk into the world unintentionally crude and disaffected without ever pausing to examine their actions.

The thing about noise control

Sadly, Walter Shaw, inventor of the speakerphone, died broke. He might have died again if he saw what his invention turned into: a beacon for people to announce their obnoxiousness.

Whether it’s loud video games or speakerphone calls — in a waiting room, airport, restaurant, or crowded hotel lobby — these people are either dull, inconsiderate, or both. I don’t see a long list of alternative explanations.

If you’d like to see true fireworks, put someone with misophonia in the room with them. This condition causes people to have extremely aggressive and emotional responses to annoying and obnoxious sounds. They’ll shout down and make an example of the person being stupid with their phone. Candidly, I probably need to get tested for this condition.

Your question about my marriage and kids

Though I appreciate the intent, it gets exhausting when people ask me and my partner when we are going to tie the knot and have kids. Sure, mom can beat that war drum as she pleases. But the hall pass list is pretty short after that. For example, I’m building a new house right now and I’ve already had three different people say, “Making room for a family?”

Not everyone has the same life plan. Baby inquiries create this weird pressure from absolute strangers. Even worse, it puts the respondent in an awkward position where they have to dance around actually answering the question: “We don’t want kids.” Sometimes, people can’t have kids or had miscarriages. Don’t take fertility, or other people’s intentions, for granted. I’m going to start replying, “We just sacrificed our last one to the Sun God, Ra. If the rain doesn’t stop soon, we will do it again.”

The trick to deal with shared spaces

One of the top things roommates and partners fight about is the condition of bathrooms, sinks, and shared areas where hygiene is particularly important. People leave nail trimmings on the counter. They don’t flush the toilet. They leave smelly clothes on the floor and dirty dishes in the sink for days.

As kids, we were told to leave a room just as nice as we found it. I didn’t always follow this rule as a younger adult. But when I finally evolved, it reduced so many of the problems I had with roommates. Even further, I found that I preferred living like a clean human being.

Take this a step further and leave a room slightly better than you found it. For extra credit, apply this policy to your girlfriends and boyfriends. The world will thank you. Too many people leave their exes damaged and broken rather than a version 2.0.

The problem with digital brevity

Around 2004, a female friend was coming to town. She sent me a big email with ideas of things we could do. I sent a reply.

The next day, she got into town and almost immediately made a joke, “You and your two-word response.” My email reply was, “Sounds good.” I didn’t think anything of it and was just being a club-headed 20-year-old. She was hoping for some feedback from me on her proposals.

This simple interaction highlights how tension is proven to increase via any form of online communication. Where there is any ambiguity, our negativity bias steers our psyche into the red. For example, unless you know the person very well, replying with “k” is not the best response.

Be extra courteous and thorough when communicating and making plans online. You don’t need to write an essay. Just show some signs of life and goodwill. Also, I have a general rule that I don’t argue in any digital format: text, social media, or otherwise. Important conversations can happen over the phone, but preferably in person.

Lastly, please don’t ask this

This one is aimed at men because I’ve shivered with cringe-chills as I saw them ask this very question. I’ll put it like this. Unless you are her doctor, and she is in the hospital, on a table, screaming— never ask a woman if she’s pregnant. Consider what it says to her if the answer is no. I stared in horror at a gas station attendant who asked a woman I know that very question, knowing she wasn’t actually pregnant. I wanted to strangle the guy for his idiocy.

When I was a kid my dad gave me a really random piece of advice that I always remembered. He said, “I don’t care how fat, skinny, tall, short, or beautiful a woman is, don’t ever make a joke about her weight or appearance.” There are grown men with college degrees from good schools who still don’t understand this.

Not all rules are written in stone or preached in grade school. If you all stick to these five rules, we’ll all be better off for it.

Recap for memory: 5 unwritten social rules everyone should follow

  1. Keep your calls and mobile games between you and your phone. Turn off speakerphone.
  2. Don’t ask random couples if they are getting married or having kids.
  3. Leave a room as clean as you found it. Bonus points if it is nicer than when you went in.
  4. Have good texting and email etiquette. Be thorough, kind, and respond in a decent time frame. Handle disagreements offline.
  5. Unless you are her doctor, don’t ask a woman if she’s pregnant.

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