by Wayne Geiger
The DMV. You hate it. But, like most of the population, you make an appearance when summoned in order to renew your driver’s license. You sign in, sigh deeply, and look for a spot to wait. You peruse the room, settle into your chosen spot, and grab your mobile device to kill time.
Out of nowhere, someone’s phone goes off. You smile to yourself, thankful that you weren’t the one to forget to turn it to vibrate—this time. To your surprise, the person right across from you answers the phone and then loudly carries on a conversation as if she was the only one in the room. You’re a little caught off guard.
You look around at others and they are just as shocked as you are. For the next ten minutes, you and everyone else within earshot, learn more about this person, and their mystery friend, than you ever wanted to know. This person has violated a rule.
In the communication arena, experts like to talk about explicit and implicit rules. An explicit rule is a rule that is clearly stated. For example, “Stand behind this line” or “No talking in this room” are both examples of explicit rules.
Explicit rules are always formulated by someone in authority. They are clearly stated and may carry a penalty for disobedience. Not everyone agrees with them.
When my grandson started kindergarten, he informed me that he and his classmates were not permitted, under any circumstances, to talk in the hallway. When I questioned him on this, he looked at me in shock and said, “Because it’s a rule.” I immediately understood. Rules have great power to direct human action.
Implicit rules are a little different. Implicit rules are not openly stated. In fact, they are not really “rules” at all. Instead, they are generally accepted norms of behavior that most of the society accepts. In other words, most people agree with them.
I like to illustrate implicit rules by talking about “elevator rules.” Elevator rules are implicit. There are generally no printed rules to direct us on where in the elevator we should stand, but we do have some mutual understanding.
The first person who gets on the elevator is the operator. It is generally accepted that it is their elevator. They will stand in front of the control panel and, during their stay, they will pray that no one else gets on. They may even hold the “close door” button as a precaution.
But, as fate would have it, the door opens on the next floor to invite another person to board. The second person will stand on the exact opposite side. The elevator operator will ask, “Floor?” The answer should be brief like, “4 please.” Eye contact should be kept at a minimum and any additional conversation should be limited to the weather.
The third person to enter will stand in the center—all the way in the back. The first and second person will now move into the two front corners to allow for maximum space. Conversation, at this point is unwelcome. The fourth person to enter will stand in front of the door. This will make them feel awkward because they will have to adjust to allow the others off, but it’s their own fault.
The fifth person on will cause the first four riders to go to a corner while they themselves are forced to occupy the exact middle. When the door opens for the sixth person, the five strangers will now become friends. Together, they will take a deep breath, cross their arms, and spread themselves out. They then generally give this trespasser “the look” that tells them “we’re full.”
After the sixth person is rejected and the doors close, it is not appropriate for riders to high five one another.
You can see why these implicit elevator rules are not stated. It would take too long to read them, and they can be unfriendly.
Anyway, most implicit rules are pretty clear and generally accepted by everyone. For example, as an organized society, we generally wait in line for our turn. This is often taught as a part of our “manners”. There are many “such” rules that we follow.
A problem arises when some people break the rules. Some are just openly defiant about the rules because they feel the rules don’t apply to them. These are rule breakers. Some of these, perhaps, visit the DMV on a regular basis.
Other people fall into a different category. They are not defiant. They are just not informed. Because implicit rules are implicit, not everyone knows about them. Somehow, when the implicit rules were being drawn up they were out to lunch.
These people just have never been taught. And to be sure, there is no academic environment that teaches the implicit rules. In addition, these rules are not written down in a handy-dandy book somewhere for general consumption.
Since implicit rules are not written down, some of us have our own ideas about these rules. For some of us, they are connected to our sense of morals and ethics and consider others barbaric who do not follow the rules.
For example, you stand patiently in line at the grocery store. You are the fourth person back. If another line opens up to receive customers, there are some people who believe that people who have already been waiting in line should be given the first option to go in that line rather than someone who just walked up. To some, this is a basic, implicit rule. These people often wonder why the grocery store management doesn’t write these down as explicit rules and thus help build the fabric of an organized society.
But they don’t. We’re forced to figure them out by ourselves and play nicely in the sandbox. Perhaps, they just don’t understand. Or, perhaps, we have misunderstood. Either way, there is miscommunication and misunderstanding.
As much as we don’t like it, we need rules. We need both explicit and implicit rules. Not too many, but just enough. The underlying fabric of most implicit rules is simple. It’s just simple kindness, thoughtfulness, and respect.
You may argue, “But people aren’t like they used to be and most people don’t have manners.” Perhaps. But, the best way to live by these rules is to model them and then explain the “why” to the generation behind us.
We spend a great deal of time teaching our grandson some of these implicit rules and why we should follow them. Sometimes, our answers to his “why” are simply because, “It’s what the Bible says” or “It’s important to be nice.” If he asks why, we say, “Because it’s a rule.” As the old proverb says, “One generation plants the tree and the next enjoys the shade.”
Wayne Geiger is the Pastor of First Baptist Grain Valley, an Adjunct Associate Professor of Speech, and freelance writer.