How To Figure Out Social Rules And Norms On Your Own

Some people who have trouble with interpersonal situations don't know many of the unwritten rules and norms everyone else seems to take for granted. In another article I quickly explained how there's no single list of social rules you can refer to to catch up on everything at once. So how do you stand a chance? You won't pick them all up overnight, but you here's what you can do:

Read what written rules are available

It's impractical to formally list every last social norm and guideline, but some of them are written down. There are books that give an overview of the most basic rules. There are guides to manners and etiquette. Perhaps more importantly, there are more detailed articles that cover specific situations (e.g., texting friends, job interviews, concerts, etc.). Also, whatever social situation it is that you're unsure about, odds are someone else has been confused by the same thing. If you do a Google search you may come up with an article, archived advice column, or forum thread that will give you some direction.

Ask other people

Many social rules are unwritten, but if you ask someone for help they'll often be able to explain them for you. Maybe your friends, family, or a counselor can lend a hand, or you could run your questions by the other members of a web forum. However, you won't always receive the amount of detail or clarification you want. Many people are aware of social rules and know to follow them, but can't fully articulate why they are the way they are, or the factors that affect why it would be fine for one person to act a certain way but it wouldn't work if someone else did the exact same thing.

Put in the hours and learn from life experience

This is the main way people acquire an understanding of social norms. It's like learning a new video game or competitive sport. You can get yourself off to a good start by reading some basic tactics and strategies, but there's no manual that can tell you what to do in every minute sub-scenario. There are too many of them for that to be feasible. Instead you just need to play a lot, learn by trial and error, and slowly develop a sense of what approaches work best under which circumstances.

It's true some people catch on to social norms more effortlessly and automatically, but with enough time and observation everyone can get a better sense of how the interpersonal world works. It may be mentally draining, but it can be done. It's fine if you have to put more conscious effort into learning, and need to look at things through a more detached, analytical, anthropologist-like eye. Do what you need to do.

When you're paying attention and trying to puzzle out social rules, be loose and tentative in your conclusions. Don't observe something a handful of times and decide, "Okay, that's an ironclad law. I'll use it exactly like this all the time from now on." If only it were that easy. Instead think, "Okay, so far this is a pattern I'm seeing. In Situation X Approach Y seems to work well. I'll try it out a few times and see how it goes for me. But I'll keep gathering information. There could be alternatives. There might be variables I don't know about that affect which approach is a good one to use."

For example, when someone asks you, "How's it going?" there are all kinds of factors that determine whether the best response is to give a quick, "Fine, thanks" or actually say how you are and begin a conversation. If you just watched a handful of exchanges you may falsely conclude the question is always an empty greeting. There are really lots of nuances to learn.

Asking yourself how you'd want to be treated in a situation isn't reliable

Sometimes you can deduce social rules by considering how you'd like people to behave around you if you were in a certain situation. However, not everyone thinks alike or shares the same values. If you've been talking too long you may prefer it, and not take it personally, if a friend just tells you you're droning on. Someone else may find that the height of rudeness. Or take waiting in line: You may reasonably conclude if you were in one you wouldn't want anyone butting in front of you, so the social norm must be to wait your turn. That is the guideline in some settings, in some countries. But sometimes the rule is, "It's everyone for themselves. If you want to be served you have to fight your way to the front."

Also, some social norms are old-fashioned, arbitrary customs, and you can't figure them out by asking yourself how you'd want to be treated. Like a culture may have an elaborate system for how different types of people greet each other. Maybe you could get a sense of the broad strokes, - "If I was higher status I'd want to be treated with respect" - but you couldn't arrive at the exact gestures and phrasing you'd need to use each time. You'd have to be taught them like everyone else.

Realize no one knows all the social rules

Even if someone knows a lot of social rules, they'll still find themselves in situations where they're not sure how to act (e.g., at a job in a new field where they're not familiar with the workplace culture). They manage by drawing on their prior experience, making a best guess about how to behave, and then making adjustments as the picture becomes clearer.

It obviously helps to know the unwritten guidelines for a social situation before you go into it, but if you're not 100% clear on them don't let that paralyze you. Just give it your best shot. No one knows everything.

Accept socializing is full of uncertainty and no one gets it right all the time

Most social rules and norms aren't immutable laws. It's more that they say, "This will work more often than not." There are always exceptions. Sometimes one altered variable totally changes the way you need to interact with someone. It can make socializing very baffling and frustrating. You should try to accept that you'll never be able to navigate situations with a foolproof map. Don't feel too bad if you make a mistake. They're unavoidable. Just like it's impossible for a basketball player to always make the right move.