Social Norms That Don’t Make Sense

Niklas Göke
Apr 19 · 5 min read

When you’re a child, the whole world is a blank canvas. Every situation you walk into is a sandbox, waiting for you to shape it in your imagination.

As early as kindergarten or elementary school, that sandbox is turned into a cage. Adults pluck metal bars into the ground from above, like Zeus throwing thunderbolts from Mount Olympus. The bars are rules and every single one takes away a little of that blankness.

At first, we laugh. We don’t understand. We bend the bars into a jungle gym and climb on it. But with every slap on our wrist, we dare a little less. Until we’re fully conditioned. Sworn in to society’s code of conduct.

“We spend the first year of our children’s lives teaching them to walk and talk and the next 18 telling them to shut up and sit down.” — Neil deGrasse Tyson

Screw that. I want my blankness back. I want to look at life with fresh eyes and an open, un-opinionated mind. Not do things because “we’ve always done them this way.” Half the time, society’s unwritten rules don’t even make sense.

Just think about the following six things. Try not to scratch your head.


Walking

There are two kinds of walking: strolling and getting from A to B. Why do people always rush in the first scenario, but are struck with sloth-like, slow-motion inertia in the second? That doesn’t make any sense!

Don’t drag your feet when it prolongs your misery and then run through a happy, memorable experience. Don’t stop dead and block other people’s path in the city and then push and shove your grandma through park. When the whole point of the exercise is to be slow, be slow. And when you’re en route to work, an appointment, or precious time with a friend, be fast.

Shopping

Not shopping as in “I need to buy new clothes.” Shopping as in “let’s be perfect victims of consumerism for a few hours,” where you aimlessly wander the streets without any initial intention to purchase anything, yet end up spending $300 that would’ve bought you a full month of rent.

I think what people are trying to do is “looking.” I get it. They want the experience. The bustle of people going places, of searching and finding, of humans engaging in trade. But you can have all of that for free. Just watch. Again, be slow. Sit in a café, order a latte, observe. There’s no need to get lost in it, to be jealous of the rich lady buying a purse, to pulverize half your bank account in a futile attempt to look more important than you are.

Clubbing

Unlike walking, there’s only one reason to go clubbing: to dance. Yet, and this is more of a guy problem, we prefer to overpay for drinks as we lean against the icky bar with one elbow on the counter, right in a spilled shot of tequila. But you can’t talk in a club! It’s too damn loud. If you’re not gonna dance, you might as well stay at home.

If you ask me, that’s often the far better choice anyway. You can play music at home. Any song you want. You can dance there too. And there aren’t any sweaty people. No cover charge. You don’t even have to drink. And you can do it on your schedule. No reason to waste half the night and all of the next day.

Finding Your Place In A Group Of People

I can’t speak for all countries, but in the Western ones I’ve been to, there’s a fascinating dynamic that plays out every time a large group of people enters an empty bus, train, or other means of mass transportation. Within seconds, the collective maximizes the physical distance between each other. Everyone takes one seat of a two-seat row, usually the one next to the window.

Now, whoever enters at the next stop will scan all aisles for an empty spare. They’ll walk all the way to the back, only to realize they have to sit next to another person. My god. What a burden to the sovereign individual. The same happens at talks, the cinema, formal events, group seminars, and sometimes even dinner with friends.

We’ll spend thousands of dollars on visually fitting in (remember shopping?), yet raise all hell not to when it actually matters. If only we could remember we’re all human. Maybe, we’d just take a seat and start talking to each other.

Queuing

This might be my favorite, because most of the time, it makes no sense at all.

We’re waiting for the elevator when no one’s using the stairs. We curse the slow guy with the loaded shopping cart when the store has self-checkout. We hope we’ll get a table even though the restaurant offers online reservations.

We jump to our feet when they call our flight, but the plane still takes off if we’re the last to board. We get up as soon as the plane lands, only to twist our neck standing another ten minutes in the aisle. We’re dying to get off the moving train, but then fall over as it stops.

We queue for 20 minutes at “the most popular Shake Shack” when there’s an empty one just down the block. We camp in front of the Apple Store to pay the same $1,000 for a phone we could pay a week later and get it instantly. We rush into the movie theater, but our tickets have numbered seats.

Worst of all, we choose to waste all this time standing in line, only to then try and cut, skip, pay, or cheat our way to the front if given the chance.

Traveling

Most people travel the same way they wait in line: they frantically shift from one foot to the other, hoping to soon check another item off an impossible-to-complete list. Everything’s a race. The packing. Going to the airport. The check-in, boarding, and cab to the AirBnB.

Where’s our checklist? What’s the weather report? How can we fit the museum between breakfast and the sightseeing tour? This isn’t travel. It’s work. Travel is breathing. Living. Seeing. That requires at least trying to blend in. Soak up the culture. Listen. Take a wrong turn. You might even meet someone on the bus.


Call me crazy, but I think children would have a hard time understanding why we do these things the way we do them. Maybe, there’s some big mystery I’m missing. But maybe, people just don’t ask every child’s favorite question:

It’s also the one that melts our cages away. That cleans out the sandbox. If we ask it often enough, maybe our canvas will be blank again.

Now excuse me, I gotta go hit the monkey bars.

Thanks to Brian Pennie and Danny Forest

Niklas Göke

Written by

I write for dreamers, doers, and unbroken optimists. I’m also working on a book to help you live a balanced life: https://emptyyourcup.substack.com

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