There are no hidden rules

Have you ever experienced the feeling that the people around you all know a bunch of secret rules? Moreover, they expect that you know them too and will punish you for not following them, but still won’t ever actually tell you what the rules are? Or sometimes they do tell you what the rules are but it later turns out that they were lying or they forgot to tell you a huge list of exceptions and just assumed that you understood those.

Yeah, me too.

(If you haven’t experienced this feeling, this post is probably not for you. You’re of course welcome to keep reading it anyway if you wish, but you might find it a bit obvious).

A friend was asking about how to figure out what these rules are the other day, specifically in the context of the workplace. I gave an answer, but the more I thought about my answer the more I realised that I hadn’t ever really internalised it or thought through the broader implications.

The answer is this: There are no hidden rules. This entire feeling is an illusion.

The feeling of confusion is real, and is caused by a real problem, but the problem can not be accurately described as there being “hidden rules”.

Why? First, we’ll need a brief digression on the nature of rules.

Rules mostly come in two forms: prescriptive and descriptive. A prescriptive rule is explicit and enforced. A descriptive rule just describes what is observed to happen.

Or to put it another way, when people are observed to violate a prescriptive rule, the people violating it are at fault. When people violate a descriptive rule, the rule is at fault.

When we’re worried about hidden rules, we’re worrying about prescriptive ones – we think that there is some secret rule book that we are bad for not following. It is more or less impossible that this could be the case.

In order for such a rule book to exist, people would have to be getting together behind our backs and conspiring to come up with and enforce these rules, and then not telling us about them. I am reasonably sure that this is not happening.

There is still a rough shared consensus, but it arises more organically than that. People come up with their own ideas of how things work by observing others and talking to them. Sometimes they have explicit conversations about how things are actually supposed to work, but it’s relatively rare, and over time a rough sort of knowledge builds up about how people are supposed to behave. But it is at best a rough consensus – different people start with different conceptions of it, and these mutate and change as they move from person to person.

The result is that everyone is operating with a different – sometimes subtly different, sometimes wildly different – set of assumptions about how people should behave, and the resulting mess does not resemble any sort of unified prescriptive set of rules that people follow. Instead of a single rule book, there’s a vague amorphous mass of roughly acceptable behaviours that contains a mix of vague consensus and massive individual divergence.

So if we want some rules that tell us how to behave, we’re left with descriptive rules – we need to somehow take all of the complex and varied space of human behaviour and boil down aspects of it to a simple set of formulae.

I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned this before, but it turns out that “solving literally the entire domain of social science” is a hard problem.

So there is no rule book. How do people even function?

Well, they mostly just get on with things. They do some complex mix of what they want, what they feel they should, and what they think they can get away with. They reward behaviours that they like, they punish behaviours that they don’t like.

The result is a system where the range of permitted behaviour is more a function of the people you’re interacting with, how they interact with each other, their individual wants and preferences, and a massive amount of context.

Is something permitted? Well, it depends. Who doesn’t want you to do it, who does want you to do it, and what are the relevant balances of power between those people? Or are you individually powerful enough that you just don’t really have to care in this instance and can do it anyway?

And this mostly works. People generally want to get along, so the group roughly stabilises itself into a functioning pattern that is more or less compatible with everyone’s behaviour, and self-corrects when someone goes too far out of line.

There will probably end up being some broad areas of acceptable and unacceptable ranges of behaviour – interactions that have been done often enough that they’re largely understood and people know how to act in them – but if you ask people what they are, they’re still going to have to figure out “the rule” based on observation: It is still a task of description.

Note that this is true even when people think they already know the rule. They just did it earlier.

People are good at not noticing the special cases to the things they think are true, so if you ask someone for the rule and they tell you, you’ll often spot exceptions. If you ask about those exceptions you’ll usually hear “Oh but that was a special case/justified because of this reason”. Often that reason also has exceptions. It is very unlikely that the person you are asking consciously “knew” all these exceptions before you asked, they just took them in stride as they happened and didn’t notice that they contradicted what they thought was true.

And yet, it sure seems like they have some sort of special insight that we lack, doesn’t it?

Well, they do, but that insight isn’t a rule book, it’s more awareness of the social context and better intuition about how other people are going to behave, usually based on the idea that others are going to behave in a broadly similar manner to how they would. If you’re coming into an unfamiliar cultural context (e.g. due to transition or immigration, or even just joining a company with a very different business culture) there is probably also a lot of shared history that you like, and assumptions that have built up over time from that.

But social science is still hard, and better data and intuition aren’t enough to change that, so that doesn’t actually mean they’re going to be right, they just might be a bit more accurate than we are.

Or they might be less accurate. Often when people try to make the implicit explicit they end up whitewashing reality – they give the nice version of the rule that they want to be true, which ignores a lot of the messy special cases they feel bad about. e.g. people will tend to tell you that lying is bad and of course you should be honest. Except for those little white lies and special cases that are required for social niceties. And naturally you exaggerate your performance to look good because everyone else is. Oh and when people say this what they really mean is… etc.

Even if they believe the rule is that you should always tell the truth, the practice does not follow and the more you tease them out on it the more they admit that the “real” rule has endless special cases and caveats and exceptions and actually once you consider all of the things that “don’t count”, people are lying to each other all the time.

The point is that “hidden rules that everybody knows” is not a useful mental model of what people are doing, because they don’t have access to any hidden rules either. They don’t have any sort of general theory or specific knowledge of what’s going on, and as a result any attempt to get them to tell you what the rule is will be futile.

Does this all sounds very bleak and unhelpful to you? It does to me, but I don’t actually think it is.

I think instead it’s bleak and helpful.

The most helpful thing about it is that you can just stop looking for the true hidden rules. It’s a waste of time. There aren’t any.

That isn’t to say rules can’t still be useful, just that it’s important to understand their nature before applying them.

You can think in terms of rules for you if that helps – things that make it easier for you to navigate the social situation if you follow them. As long as you understand that these are yours and under your control, and don’t expect other people to follow them, this can be very helpful.

You can try to come up with descriptive rules for how people will behave, but don’t sink too much time into making them accurate – it’s better to have an easy rule that you understand isn’t perfect than a slightly more accurate complex one that is much harder to work with and still isn’t perfect.

Often these will be quite different from the rules that people tell you if you ask. It can still be worth asking – the answers are useful data and might be worth a try – but you shouldn’t treat the answers as automatically correct.

These can be particularly useful when coming into a new context. When you’re in an unfamiliar situation, having these sorts of approximations to the shared cultural assumptions can be extremely useful for getting a basic handle on the expected behaviour until you manage to acquire a more intuitive sense of this. If you can find other people who have had a similar context switch to you, talking to them and asking what they think the rules are is also often more helpful.

This isn’t the scenario I usually find myself in, so my advice here is necessarily a bit vague. For me the problem, especially historically, is more often that I feel this way in scenarios that I have plenty of cultural context for but remain more than a bit mysterious anyway. I think this is a pretty typical experience for people with autism or who otherwise have minds and personalities sufficiently different from the norm that predicting that other people will behave more or less like you doesn’t really work.

And rules will only get you so far here. The thing to look at when you really want to understand how to navigate a group isn’t rules, it’s people. What they want, how they interact, and how those desires reinforce and conflict with each other.

This is unfortunate, in that people are much harder to understand than rules, but it does have the advantage that it might actually work.

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