Social rules: Useful piece of evolutionary development, or stupid and pointless barrier to getting along.


Slightly convoluted title, and a little humour in that but this is both a serious and absurd subject. I was thinking recently about certain social rules and whether or not they made sense or were in fact helpful. Much of my work in managing behaviour is addressing behaviours that are socially unacceptable. A person may take food off others plates, may strip their clothes off in public, and purposefully urinate in their clothes or any number of other things that most of us would view as wrong, or inappropriate. I don’t like the word inappropriate even though I use it often, what is appropriate is highly contextual, which is the main subject here.

Those social rules that I am trying to get people to follow are very much western, very much British, I break social rules constantly. Before we progress into that, I will say that I am leaving behind why those people I work with are behaving that way, this isn’t about people with severe learning disabilities, those people are trying to communicate something or are not in control of their behaviour hence why they may present with such behaviour. Here we’re talking about everyone generally, the people I work with have learned that doing socially unacceptable things will help get a message across. We all do that to an extent but in a very different way.

As I was born in New Zealand, a very much Westernised country with for the most part the same social rules as the UK (there are many differences but the basics are the same) and now living in the UK I haven’t had to make too much of a learning leap when it came to understanding the way people are expected to interact in the UK. As I live in London, the rules are slightly different again, partially due to the vast multiculturalism and partly due to the fact it’s a major city and people behave differently when millions of us are jammed into an urban landscape.

Looking at social rules from the beginning of society to now would be both impossible due to the vastness of the subject and futile due to my lack of knowledge of all of the worlds cultures, but we do need to think about where we started and where we are now. You could easily make an argument that social rules are what helped us to form communities and therefore agriculture, technology, literature and so on which would go a long way to explaining why different communities do have different social expectations. You could also easily argue that social rules are a product of us developing communities, for that community to work properly and thrive we need some rules, spoken or not that dictate or behavioural expectations. I’m no expert in anthropology so I won’t start that debate and it may be that in some parts of the world it’s one, and others, the other… or a mix of the two.

A society is created by a group of hunter gatherers who find a fruitful territory, they decide to stay and figure out some basic agriculture, they begin to grow now they have a spot of land, to ensure sharing and equality for survival they figure out some systems of behaviour, of duties (who plants, who grinds grain, who hunts) and how those roles are respected and how the differences in respect are treated etc.  They maybe decide, let’s not take each other’s moose skin, but in fact kill enough moose for everyone to have a moose skin for the winter months. They may decide it’s not cool to defecate near where we eat, because it smells and we don’t like that. These are kind of normal and basic cause and effect rules that make sense.

Along the journey of human evolution we are now in the 21st century, we made calendars, we made computers, we learn about mental health, we learn about making sauce, photography, pornography, we create language we create poetry but does all this make use more civilised than the moose skin wearing caveman? Sometimes I wonder.


  1. Stupid Fucking rules


I swear frequently, all day every day. If you’ve read any of my previous articles you will have found I am quite comfortable with profanity. I grew up in a house where it was fine and have become an adult who has no issue with almost any word. I believe that the way we use words is more important than what those words actually are.

For example, stating that you “fucking hate Coldplay” is just a way of emphasising your distaste for a band, but telling a person directly “you’re a fucking moron for liking Coldplay” is insulting that person, pretty simple difference. I have no issue with casual swearing but as an adult approaching his 40’s I am very aware that many people get offended and life is easier to just avoid offending people rather than making an issue of them being too sensitive about words. I know the situations in which I shouldn’t swear. For example, I now manage an educational service for adults with learning disabilities. Many of my students think swearing is funny, or have learned how to use it to offend, just like everyone else. My team and I try to teach them it’s not OK to swear because we want to help our students get jobs and get by in life. We recently had a parent’s event, I had to stop myself from swearing for the entirety of this, it was fine, and it was easy. I still think it’s silly to get offended at swear words, but when I was younger I didn’t think any word was really offensive, but as I’ve gotten older I have accepted that certain words are and think they shouldn’t be used, the very clear example is the word “Nigger” even writing it I get a sense of some readers shuddering a little. I can use it in the context of discussing the word, but as white guy, I don’t really have any place actually using the word in my normal vocabulary.

Is it absurd to have words that we can and can’t say in certain contexts? Have we just made a way of limiting our range of expression? It is 2017, is “fuck” or “shit” really offensive anymore? It seems to be. Words like “nigger” which are clearly derogatory, and born form oppression are terrible, but the use of the word in modern music is rife, but the debate about non-black people using it has gone on and one for years. Words change in meaning over time, language evolves rapidly, but some things stick. This offence at words like “Fuck” is purely social, purely about an unwritten rule, or even an old law that states it’s offensive. Surely we intelligent people could all just accept it and decide we are no longer going to be offended?

The other viewpoint, and one I like is that it is important to have offensive words. There are times when people need to be told “fuck off” you need that level of powerful expression to be able to state who you feel about someone or something, and you need it to have the power to offend, that’s how strongly you feel. Certain words are banned by religions, and these are what makes them offensive, blasphemy, taking the lords name in vain. I greatly enjoy the power of words, as a writer, as a manager, as a teacher and as a performer I use them frequently and I play around with what is socially acceptable. Comedy, particularly stand up performance comedy is a rather new form of expression[1] and is therefore currently undergoing a great deal of scrutiny. Personally I enjoy comedy that is intentionally offensive, but I also accept that joking about rape is definitely not to everyone’s taste and it is a very thin line between what is OK and not. Intention is important, and I like being able to laugh at life, even the most horrible aspects, sometimes we need to do that. But there are many people and probably due to the internet these people now have a way of getting their thoughts on the matter out to the world with ease who feel that there are in fact subjects we cannot joke about.

Race, gender, children, rape, paedophilia, cancer, disabilities and so on. A person with a disability can joke about themselves, but a non-disabled comedian would be likely to take a great deal of flak for doing so. In the UK after Jimmy Saville[2] was posthumously revealed to be a sex offending paedophile the UK was shocked that one of their favourite children’s entertainers was a monster, but along with that came vast amounts of jokes about him and his crimes, can we not laugh at that? And the question of whether or not someone is offended does that mean the rest of us can’t laugh at it? Those children now grown up mostly are not going to find Saville jokes funny, rightfully so, but should we all stop laughing at it? Some would say yes. I feel like these issues go through cycles, when offensive comedy will be OK for a time, then will come under fire and then be OK again. I wonder if we spend too much time worrying about offending each other, feelings are important, empathy is important but being able to laugh also is.


  1. Spitting and shitting: cultural variations


Language is complex and what we can say varies wildly between religions, environments. But some social rules or social differences and expectations are a bit clearer in their levels of being OK or not. Spitting is always a point of contention. In most of the western world (America, Europe) spitting is considered unhygienic and/or offensive. Spitting is a way of spreading disease, this is fact, and bodily fluids generally are a way of spreading infections which makes it entirely right for people to feel it is disgusting. In the UK to spit near or at someone would be considered offensive, as a purposeful means of offending and in fact considered assault due to the possibility of infection. We all accept biting is wrong as it hurts, but in fact the biggest risk about being bitten is getting an infectious transmittable disease, spitting holds the same risks mostly (some diseases need to go directly into the blood, which biting increases the risk of) But, in many Asian and African countries, spitting is completely normal, you have some saliva, you gob it out, anywhere.

One of my neighbours, who is African (I will admit to being not sure of which country) spits all the time, however, when he comes outside he will spit onto the neighbour’s side of the fence. He clearly doesn’t want his gob on his own footpath, so understands it’s disgusting but has no issue with inflicting it upon his neighbours even though he’s a only a few steps from a gutter, or rubbish bin.

In many cultures they’ll say it doesn’t matter because we take our shoes off before going inside, it’s those who don’t do that who are uncivilised… they may be right.

Everyone agrees that spitting is unhygienic, but not everyone agrees about when and where to spit is ok. In some cultures showing the soles of your feet is offensive, for many that’s absurd.

One of the big differences is using the toilet, and if you go to countries where the “squat” method is used, you may think “that’s odd, and gross” they will think you’re odd and gross for sitting on a bowl. They would argue their method is better because they don’t actually touch the receptacle they are defecating in… think about it. The squat method is arguably more hygienic, it’s just that we in the “west” aren’t used to it. This will be the case for many social and cultural differences, there will be some Asian habits that are wrong and some European habits that are wrong.

Speaking of bodily functions causing offense, one thing my mum has always had big issues with and I also do is the way people eat. I can’t stand the sound of people eating, I’ve spoken and written about it before, the sound and sight of people eating makes me cringe. My mum has always had issue with people stuffing too much into their mouths, or scraping their cutlery on their teeth, these however are sensory issues which vary greatly for each person. One point of contention in London is people eating on public transport. They banned drinking on public transport, mostly due to the anti-social behaviour but eating can be quite anti-social too. I remember travelling from a gig with a bandmate who was vegetarian, the smell of a pungent meat pasty was quite overwhelming. I could see his distress and even though I would eat such a thing I too found it unpleasant. Once in a while I have eaten on trains or buses, but only due to serious time constraints, and I will choose something neutral smelling like a cereal bar. Everyone I have ever met has stories about being disgusted by food on public transport but people still commit that offence[3].

The other great transport offences, which could be considered offences anywhere are invading personal space which is again something that differs from place to place (think about how “touchy” different greetings are) and displays of affection, couples snuggling and kissing, I have had couples stood a few centimetres from me snogging away like they’re in bed alone, most people would agree this is going too far in public, but the young lovers don’t care they need to constantly show each other how they feel and make sure the world knows. I’ve seen entire train carriages do a shuffling rotation to avoid looking at it. It’s great, I’m happy they have found each other, I just don’t need to see it. Or am I being a prude? A grump? Maybe, I’m not prudish at all, will discuss any subject, have no problem with physical affection or nudity but in public I don’t like it, maybe I should just shut up and ignore it…


  1. Just fucking shut up


Volume is interesting, as a musician I make a great deal of noise. I hope I select good times and places for this, I don’t wish to inflict this upon anyone but occasionally the neighbours will have to suffer. This means I give my neighbours some leeway to make noise too, I won’t play my saxophone at 3 am on a Tuesday and hopefully they won’t have their TV at full volume at 4 am on Sunday. Mostly this has worked OK, I have complained about neighbour’s noise before and we all have those selfish moments where we forget we even live next door to someone.

This is obviously a very modern aspect of social conflict, and largely due to technology, have personal stereos, having TV’s with surround sound and owning electric guitars are modern. The way in which even more recently volume has become contentious is mobile phones. In London and I expect anywhere with teenagers is the scene of a groups of teens at the back of the bus listening to some terrible tinny sounding music aloud on their phone annoying everyone else (like we are impressed by their awesome taste! Teenagers are a whole other issue socially) and quite often a person on the bus, or walking down the road talking very loudly on the phone, so loud everyone can hear their conversation clearly. I’ve had public phone calls where you can’t hear well due to a bad connection, but those don’t last long, whereas I have been on 30 minute and longer bus and train rides where someone will hold a conversation for the entire duration, loudly. Did I mention loudly? As mobile phones are technologically speaking a very new development you might think that we’re still developing the social protocol around them, we now have train carriages where phone conversations and audible music are not allowed (not necessarily enforced) you are expected to not have a conversation when at the Post Office counter (they have signs) and it’s considered rude to text people when talking to someone else (we all do it), all these rules are of course broken constantly.

It’s awfully assumptive of us to think that because we are now able to do something we should, we can have a loud conversation so other bus passengers can’t think, but should we? I am a green belt kickboxer, I can kick people really hard, and does that mean I should? No. Kicking people causes physical harm, but we should also view sensory offences as harmful, we do agree that noise pollution exists, we do agree that certain aromas are offensive. You wouldn’t defecate on the bus, why make horrible noises?

One great aspect of working with people with disabilities and particularly those with Autism who may not understand social rules is by having a lack of a social filter they make social rules questionable. You might work with a person doesn’t realise that burping loudly in a café is wrong, you have to just laugh at it when it happens[4]. Think about what your natural reaction to something is, not your taught socially constructed reaction. Maybe we need sensory rules rather than social rules, maybe we should be taught about how things make people react physically as much as emotionally.

As I have recently quit smoking after 17 years, I have become acutely aware of other smokers around me and think “Would I have smoked there, at that time” I was always conscious about people around me getting a puff of my smoke, particularly kids in pushchairs, even if their parents weren’t. Besides the health issues with smoking a great deal of it is the social issue of the smell of smoke, or the social issue of doing something blatantly unhealthy, not that you are hurting yourself but that others see it and have feeling about it, that’s what people care about.

Much like the way we view smoking has changed, and the way women or ethnic minorities are viewed and the way cultures have mingled our interactions with each other have changed, metamorphosed into new societies with new expectations, children were once to be “seen and not heard” now we listen to children’s views on the world, black people once had to eat in different cafes, women weren’t allowed to show their bodies and so on. We’ll keep changing and rules will keep being questioned and hopefully evolving too.

I think social rules are important, but I also think we should ask why we have them and what they mean. It was once acceptable for white people to call a black person a nigger and own them, people started to say “that’s far from OK”, there have been wars about it and it’s now considered wrong, the idea of owning another person is abhorrent, criminal. The way the world is at the moment[5] might feel like we’re going a bit backwards but the way we react does show the progress many of us have made.


[1] As we know it in the 21st century anyway, the Court Jester has been around for hundreds of years

[2] Much loved TV host and entertainer, after dying it was revealed he had committed sexual offences for decades which lead to many of his peers also being charged with similar crimes and some very intentional cover ups of these offences.

[3] I’ve seen some people proudly stuff a stinky banana in their faces, and people sheepishly eat a yoghurt, you can tell who does and doesn’t know it’s wrong, it’s definitely a minority who feel this is OK. There is a particularly English view of eating at certain times and places an etiquette based social rule, at the table, no elbows on the table… which does seem both absurd and sensible.

[4] Many times at work one of my students or clients has shown a behaviour that is funny and the immediate reaction is to laugh, then suddenly I remember I’m supposed to discourage that.

[5] The campaigns of the like of UKIP, Marie Le Pen and Donald Trump using language which is socially unacceptable and making blatantly racist policies does feel like a huge backwards step, hopefully it reveals people’s strength to stand up for what is right. Politics is a game of manipulating social expectations.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s