Three Strange Rules

by Christopher Lovejoy on August 12, 2012

Rules are made to be broken.

Or so we’ve heard.

In researching the difference between “rules followed to the letter of the law” and “rules followed in the spirit of the law”, I came across this distinction: rules as written vs. rules as intended.

This is just another way of saying that rules are open to interpretation.

Take this rule, for instance: be honest.

Now, if you should decide to follow this rule to the letter, then you must, as a consequence, interpret this rule as a categorical imperative, as follows: one should never, ever tell a lie.

That is, where truth-telling is concerned, honesty is not merely the best policy – it’s the only policy.

I don’t know about you, but I can think of at least one situation where telling a lie with a straight face is not only the most prudent thing to do, it’s absolutely, positively the right thing to do.

In other words, honesty is the best policy – not the only policy. The spirit of the rule, “be honest”, is upheld, taken as intended, to promote or safeguard life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

A Prudent Reminder

I have three rather strange rules that I’d like to share with you, but before I do, I feel compelled to make you aware that I’m all too aware that too many people in this world are suffering.

And like you, I’m also aware that those who are oblivious to this suffering are in deep denial about the fact that it exists, as well as the extent to which it affects the world as a whole.

I’m tempted to believe the following: unless this suffering is addressed effectively, the positive aspects of living in this world will no longer be anything to be excited about or inspired by.

But, of course, I suspect that this would be going too far (off a cliff).

This lovely, miraculous world of ours has not (yet) become a veritable, foul-smelling shithole (soulfully speaking); nor has it devolved (yet) into a veritable, blood-letting hellhole (spiritually speaking).

At least for some of us (a small, happy minority?), it hasn’t (thank goodness for that, yes?).

But the mindless abuse, pain, turmoil, torment, and suffering continues, going largely unnoticed, and, like it or not, it’s affecting everyone, at least indirectly, whether we realize it or not.

Shhh, be very, very quiet.

A Most Curious Study

Yesterday, I came upon a study on Science Daily called Strangers on the Bus1.

A serious student of human nature from Yale rode greyhound buses for three years to observe how people accommodate (or don’t accommodate, as it turns out) each other with empty seats.

She arrived at the following conclusions from her experiences with long bus trips across the U.S.:

We live in a world of strangers, where life in public spaces feels increasingly anonymous.

However, avoiding other people actually requires quite a lot of effort, and this is especially true in confined spaces like public transport ~ Esther C. Kim

The hypothetical scenario under consideration runs as follows:

You’re on a bus (or a train, or a plane), and one of the only free seats just so happens to be next to you. How, and why, do you stop someone (“the alien other”) from sitting there?

From her observations and conversations, Esther Kim found that the single most important unspoken rule of bus travel is this: if other seats are available, you should never sit next to someone else.

As her fellow passengers claimed: “It makes you look weird.”

As the rows of seats are filled, and more passengers are getting on board, seated passengers initiate various public performances strategically designed to prevent anyone from sitting next to them.

Esther Kim commented that passengers pretend to be busy, check phones, rummage through bags, look past people, fall asleep, make a face that says “don’t bother me”, or give others the evil eye.

The best advice from her fellow passengers was as follows:

  • avoid eye contact with other people
  • lean against the window and stretch out your legs
  • place a large bag on the empty seat
  • sit next to the aisle, turn on your iPod, and pretend you can’t hear anyone asking for the window seat
  • place several items on the spare seat so that it’s not worth the passenger’s time waiting for you to move them
  • look out the window with a crazy blank stare
  • pretend to be asleep
  • put your coat on the seat to make it appear already taken
  • if all else fails, simply lie and say that the seat has been taken by someone else

All of this changes when someone announces that the bus will be full, and so all seats must be made available. The objective changes, from sitting alone to sitting next to a “normal” person.

What is normal in this context?

Interestingly, Esther Kim found that race, class, gender, and other such markers of identity were not key concerns for most commuters when they discovered that someone had to sit next to them.

They all just wanted to avoid “the crazy person”.

Esther Kim: “One rider told me that the objective is just ‘getting through the ride’, and that I should avoid fat people who may sweat more and so may be more likely to smell.”

What is motivating this asocial behavior? Two things: a concern for safety and a desire for comfort.

She concluded: “Ultimately this nonsocial behavior is due to the many frustrations of sharing a small public space together for a lengthy amount of time. Yet this deliberate disengagement is a calculated social action, which is part of a wider culture of social isolation in public spaces.”

I can’t say I blame these people, but neither can I condone what they do.

What would you do if someone kept you from claiming an empty seat?

Objectively speaking, it’s a bit of a stretch to extrapolate asocial behavior from “travelling in confined spaces for long periods of time” to “a wider culture of social isolation in public spaces”.

Based on my own observations and interactions, however, I can certainly understand and appreciate why this stretch was made. Publicly, we do seem more isolated than ever before.

Which brings me to my three rather strange rules.

Three (Strange) Existential Rules to Live By

Where asocial behavior is motivated by a mix of fear, desire, and concern, the very best social behavior is inspired by love, blooming under the influence of empathy and/or sympathy.

Certainly, I could arrange things, making sure that I travel with someone I know, getting to the bus or train or plane early enough to ensure seats for two, but this isn’t always possible.

If I do have an empty seat (or space) next to me, my preference is to share it with someone with whom I can relate, in ways that stimulate my interests and resonate with my values.

For me, and perhaps for you too, this feels normal, natural, and healthy.

Having said this, I also think there’s a case to be made for sharing space with just about anyone.

(Aside: I respectfully acknowledge this subtle qualification, but we do think it’s necessary, yes?)

The literature on persuasion tells us that people will do almost anything for you if you can …

  • encourage their dreams,
  • justify their failures,
  • allay their fears,
  • confirm their suspicions, and
  • help them throw rocks at their frenemies

In light of this, why not treat (almost) everyone you meet as a potential buddy?

When I meet someone for the first time, it makes sense for me to keep an open mind and put my best foot forward (to employ a rather quaint metaphor) without having it end up in my mouth.

Why not challenge yourself to see if you can persuade someone to believe, accept, even do something that rings true for you inside the heart of your soul? If possible, establish a context of interaction that makes it easy for you (and your potential buddy) to talk about dreams (and goals), failures (and successes), fears (and loves), suspicions negative (and positive), frenemies (and friends).

I think many of us already know that a not-too-playful or nonchalant tone works well (not too intelligent, not too wise, not too confident, not too charming – at least not at first), as does an ironic yet easy-going sense of humor. Start small, with innocuous observations; be a good listener, inviting further small talk with a view towards increasing rapport.

Such a context of interaction is not that hard to establish if you stay fluid and flexible enough to apply the following (admittedly strange) rules for turning a potential frenemy into a bossom buddy:

Rule #1: The Rule of Promise. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Broadcast a vibe of trust. Be courageous: dare to assume (at least for as long as it feels safe and comfortable) that “it’s all good”.

Rule #2: The Rule of Presence. Stay present to your experience and be available to the flow of conversation, especially at the beginning, without putting up resistance – just to see where it goes.

Rule #3: The Rule of Possibility. In the course of your interaction, establish a meaningful rapport by remaining open to sharing likes and dislikes, while allowing your beloved alien other to do likewise.

Obviously, some of us are more loving and tolerant than others. Just do the best you know how. You’re in the best position possible to apply these rules when you’re feeling calm, caring, and content.

With today’s default emphasis on separation, exclusion, and isolation, these rules are strange, but by heeding them, you just might find that there are few if any limits to what you can share and explore.

By all means, keep your center, heed your inner voice, and follow your gut instincts.

Be safe, be comfortable, be ever wise and flexible with your choices, moving and flowing like water from one moment to the next, around and through obstacles both real and perceived.

1 Wiley. “Strangers on a Bus: Study reveals lengths commuters go to avoid each other.” Science Daily, 1 August 2012. Web. 7 August 2012.

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