There are unwritten rules. We all know them. Be nice. Chew with your mouth closed. Let others off the elevator first. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Keep your voice down. Replace toilet paper when the roll runs out. Put things back where you found them, especially if they are refrigerated items in a grocery store.
There are unwritten rules for various situations. At work, don’t leave before the boss. Don’t check your e-mail at midnight (unless everyone else does). In New York City, no eye contact on the subway. Don’t fumble for your Metrocard at the turnstile. If you see rats, be cool. Leave celebrities alone. Do not disturb cats in delis, even if they are lying on the item you want to buy.
Bro code: Never take the last beer. Shotgun means co-pilot, which means map reading and lookout. When greeting another guy, if you know him already nod up; if you don’t know him already nod down. Women and dating: Your happiness isn’t men’s responsibility. Give him space. It’s okay to keep dating other guys longer than you think. (See prior two rules.)
Specific social situations have specific rules. Church: If you’re new, you are expected to join a committee. If you’re a longtime member, you become a deacon. Tattoos are an ungodly topic. Whether or not your hands go in the air depends. Law firms: No cufflinks until you make partner. Military: If you want to be First Sergeant, don’t part your hair in the middle. Southern Belles: Pearls and silver must be real, no cleavage until evening, dance the Shag, join the Junior League.
You get the idea. Unwritten rules pervade our lives. Why, then, do I so rarely encounter them in fiction? They are a lost opportunity for drama.
The most powerful unwritten rules, in story terms, are the rules governing social classes. Many classic novels been built around social struggle and conflict: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations, Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, Rebecca, Cry the Beloved Country, The Notebook, The Help. Of course, those stories portray bygone times. In contemporary America, our society is fluid and class conflict is no longer much of an issue, right? [Read more…]