The Social Rulebook

I was on the street today, walking past a bar/restaurant.

"Excuse me," said a man sitting at one of the outdoor tables. He was addressing me. "Do you happen to have a cigarette?" he asked.

I didn't.

As I prepared to continue on my way, I noticed that he was working on a basket of intensely delicious-looking chicken fingers. And I was hungry.

So why is he allowed to ask me for a cigarette and I can't ask him for a chicken finger?

If anything, I craved one of his delectable fingers far more than he yearned for a cigarette. So what the hell?

Now, I realize these aren't exactly parallel situations-- for one, he's most likely planning to eat all of his chicken fingers while seated there, while even the most enthusiastic smoker probably wouldn't go through a whole pack in one sitting.

But how about gum? How is asking a stranger for a piece of gum any more inappropriate than asking a stranger for a cigarette? And yet, it is not allowed.

While at first you may think, "Well, you could kind of ask someone for a piece of gum," I want you to actually envision the situation:

You're standing on the street waiting for the little white man to allow you to cross the road. And you decide you want some gum. You turn to the woman next to you on the corner and ask, "Excuse me-- do you happen to have any gum?"

That would be weird.

So cigarettes-- fine. Chicken fingers and gum? Not fine. Society has decided what's fine and what's not fine-- and done so somewhat arbitrarily-- and that's that.

Some examples:

Fine: Asking a stranger for directions.
Not fine: Asking a stranger something less exact, like where "a good restaurant is," or if it's "supposed to be nice or rainy tonight."

Fine: Walking up to a random girl in a bar or party and introducing yourself.
Not fine: Walking up to a random girl in any other situation and introducing yourself.

Fine: Petting a stranger's dog if the dog comes up to you on the street.
Not fine: Patting a stranger's kid on the head if he comes up to you on the street.

Fine: Sitting at a cafe with a friend, talking to them at normal volume.
Obnoxious: Sitting alone at a cafe on the phone with that same friend, talking at that same volume.

Fine: Yelling, "Screw you!" at a nice, 60-year-old woman who accidentally cuts you off in her car.
Not at all fine: Yelling, "Screw you!" at a nice, 60-year-old woman who accidentally bumps into you while walking on the sidewalk.

Fine: Making out with your girlfriend in a dimly-lit bar.
Not fine: Making out with your girlfriend in a dimly-lit restaurant.

Fine: Someone singing or doing magic on the street for money.
Weird: Someone doing stand-up comedy on the street for money.

Fine: Turning to the unknown man next to me in Fenway Park and hugging him ferociously after a walk-off home run.
Not fine in the least:
Turning to the unknown man next to me in any other situation and hugging him ferociously.

Fine: Singing to yourself under your breath in public.
Insane: Talking to yourself under your breath in public.

Fine: Going to a bar with your friend, losing him, and spending most of the night meeting people on your own.
Weird/creepy: Going to a bar alone and spending most of the night meeting people on your own.

Fine:
Spending all day on the beach in nothing but a bathing suit.
Not fine: Spending all day on the beach in nothing but boxers.

Fine:
Getting into a football game so much that you wear a player's jersey to the stadium.
Not fine: Getting into a movie so much that you wear a character's outfit to the theater.

Fine: Kissing your friend's mother lightly on the cheek when greeting her.
Completely weird: Kissing your friend's mother lightly, anywhere else on her head, when greeting her.

Fine: Complimenting someone by asking them if they've lost weight.
Not fine: Complimenting someone by asking them if they've gotten a nosejob.

Fine: Bringing food or wine to a dinner party to help bear the burden.
Not fine: Giving cash to the host of a dinner party to help bear the burden.

Fine: Asking a stranger to take a picture for you (something you can't do without help).
Not fine: Asking a stranger to hold your ice cream cone while you tie your shoe (something you also can't do without help).

Fine: Setting a guy friend up with a girl he might like to date.
Not fine: Setting a guy friend up with a guy he might like to be friends with.

Fine: Two people on a basketball court asking two strangers on the court if they want to play a game.
Weird: Two people on a tennis court asking two strangers on the court if they want to play doubles.

Fine: Walking around the bar at night with a bottle of beer.
Weird: Walking around the bar at night with a bottle of soda or water.

Fine: Taking a sip of a friend's drink at a baseball game, despite potential germs.
Filthy: Taking a sip of a stranger's abandoned drink after they leave the baseball game, despite potential germs.

It's funny how saturated our lives are with strict, specific customs, and how little we think about it. Heading out of the house to do a few errands and grab a bite with a friend, you'll partake in and abide by dozens of cultural customs, most of which are completely necessary to avoid embarrassment, awkwardness, and danger.

Someone who commits certain slight violations of some of these customs might be called "outgoing." Any more than that will lead to adjectives like "shameless," "rude," "offensive," "dickish," "weird," "gross," "creepy," etc. (Curb Your Enthusiasm constantly bases their plots on Larry's questioning of these arbitrary customs. It works because on one hand, he always has a good point-- these societal rules don't make that much sense-- and on the other hand, when he breaks or challenges them, a tremendously awkward interaction ensues.)

Anyway, I never ended up asking for one of the guy's heavenly chicken fingers. I, like all of you, am thoroughly entrenched in our social matrix. And now I'm back at my apartment, and I'm still hungry. And I'm gonna end up eating something that's much less delicious than what that guy was eating. And that sucks.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Funny and true. Arbitrary is exactly what a lot of these rules are, but we tend to think of them as obvious or inate.

matt said...

Hunger and dry mouth can be abided. Asking for a cigarette is more analogous to asking a passing scuba diver for a pull at his tank when yours suddenly runs out before you reach the surface. I've also asked strangers for both gum and food.

Angela said...

funny...but true.

Leonard said...

Where were you when I was taking sociology courses as an undergrad???

chicken finger guy ... said...

Dude,

Those chicken fingers weren't even mine - I just sat down at a vacated table and pocketed the tip. I ate the potato skins but passed on the nuggets. Your loss. Having a cancer stick would have been the hat trick.

same guy said...

and that's what I get for taking California for granted. I flew to Dallas a few weekends ago so I could watch the Rams vs. Cowboys (and Romo run 60 yards for um a first down gain of 3 yards). Anyway - I forgot that people actually smoke in restaurants and bars. That sucked. Nothing like eating something bbq'ed off the grill and downing a cold one next to a table where menthol cigs are clouding over my fricken table like dust around pigpen. Boo that.

Anonymous said...

Girl from Hong Kong.

Absolutely true that we are all living under strict social rule that control our throught tightly..
How can we get out of that?

Edwardo Moreno said...

Fine: Walking around in Austin and saying "Hi" or "How you doing?" to a stranger in the street.

Wierd: Walking around in Boston and saying "Hi" or "How you doing?" to a stranger in the street.

My best friend Joevanny and I tried that two years ago in the BackBay area and nobody responded to us except for an old man who was just a tourist anyway! :-) For the most part, we got wierd looks from the people.

P.S. I've been asked several times for a piece of gum by a complete stranger...hmmm maybe its a southern thang. LOL

Anonymous said...

so i came across this by chance, but now i am glad i did. i knew this all existed but to just hear someone say it makes me feel that much less insane for noticing.

Anonymous said...

True, great eye opener! Thanks :)