Tuesday, April 25, 2006



I’ve had occasion recently to think seriously about ‘fit.’

If you haven’t seen Bitch, Ph.D.’s brilliant keynote address, check it out. Although we accent different syllables, I really like her recognition of the clumsiness of fit when you try to squeeze three-dimensional people into a one- or two-dimensional profession.

‘Fit’ has been used, historically, to exclude people according to race, gender, etc., and it’s that kind of pernicious use that gives the concept a suspect scent. But it’s real, even if it usually shouldn’t be used from the top down.

As someone who went directly from working in an ice factory in Northern Town to Snooty Rich Private Liberal Arts College, I became aware of ‘fit’ pretty quickly. As an introvert in an extroverted culture, there’s a chronic lack of fit that, while it can sometimes fade into the background, never really goes away. (Once, and for the record: ‘outgoing’ is not a morally positive trait, and ‘reserved’ is not a morally negative one. They are morally neutral; they are simply different ways of being. I wince every time I hear somebody praised as ‘outgoing.’ Just imagine what a lovely world it would be if more of us, Americans in particular, actually thought before we spoke. But I digress...)

That’s not to say that I don’t sometimes stare in wonderment at people who didn’t get one of the unwritten cultural memos. Male readers will understand this one: at my previous college, there was a high-ranking administrator who violated the sacred rule of the buffer urinal. If I was at urinal five, and the others were empty, he would sidle up to urinal four and try to strike up a conversation! I think he was raised by wolves. Every guy knows this rule. It’s part of what separates us from the animals. I mean, sheesh...

(From what I’ve seen, women have many more unwritten rules like this, and they’re much more complicated. When two women with different conceptions of these rules meet, you can actually feel the charge in the air, like when magnets repel each other.)

But most unwritten rules are subtler than that, and many of them are specific to location.

For example, at my previous college, there was a weird rule about ‘face time.’ Staying late counted in your favor, but arriving early didn’t. Leaving early counted against you, but arriving late didn’t. I don’t know why, and it isn’t as true at my current college, but it was pretty dramatic there. It wasn’t written anywhere, but you figured it out pretty quickly, and there was no court of appeals for special cases. Either you fit or you didn’t.

That’s the tyranny of unwritten rules. At least with written rules, there’s often an avenue for appeal. With unwritten rules, you just have to suck it up. And if the unwritten rule consistently works against you, for reasons you either can’t or won’t change, then you don’t fit. You’re the problem, whether the unwritten rule actually makes any sense or not.

Upon checking out a prospective new job, it’s hard to know what the key unwritten rules are. You can ask, of course, but one characteristic of a really good unwritten rule is that it wouldn’t occur to people to mention it; it just is. You don’t know it’s there until you break it (or you see someone else break it). A site visit helps, but some rules (men wear ties) are more obvious than others (praise must be delivered via coded sarcasm). Some rules only make themselves felt over time, or aren’t initially applied to rookies.

I have to maintain some abstraction here, so I’ll shift the gaze outward. What are some weird unwritten rules you’ve encountered?

Hmmm kinda like... on my first day at work... "that beard... I think you might want to shave it off..."(laughter on my part...) "No, seriously..."

Small wonder to those that know me--I still have the beard.
Where do I begin? :) Actually, I think one of the oddest "rules" I've encountered at my current institution is the very expectation that there are rules. It reminds me of all those movies where some poor kid ends up at a boarding school and doesn't understand who to talk to and who not to, etc.

We have a bit of the upstairs/downstairs syndrome. The staff should remain invisible to the faculty. And one rule that I think is increasingly less true as we get younger faculty is that you shouldn't tell faculty what to do in the classroom. I say it's less true because I actually get asked for advice from many people now.
I've actually yelled at people for breaking the urinal buffer rule. Another buffer zone I've always wondered about is the ATM buffer zone. Where did that come from? I know when we stand in lines we tend to queue up fairly close. Who was that first guy that decided to stand back 15 feet at the ATM? And why did the rest of us follow?
Thanks for the -- no intrinsic moral value to outgoing and introverted -- that helps me this morning as I go into my interview.
The biggest un-written rule that I've seen is the "no matter what the provost says about teaching, it's research that gets one tenure" rule; every discussion of teaching, it seems to me, is held behind closed door so no one will hear you talking...of course, at my previous school, a "teaching college," the unwritten rule was "don't publish too much, it embarasses the old folks who gave up years ago...
There's a good reason for the ATM rule: I don't want anyone shoulder-surfing while I get cash. You shouldn't either.
How can the socially disabled learn thse rules...
I'm delurking, so hello everyone!

I work at an academic press, in journals production. The unwritten rule that annoys me every time it manifests itself is: when an editor has a problem with something I do, they don't let me know what they'd like me to change. They go to their boss, who talks to my boss, who relates some anonymous person's displeasure to me.
My first lab had the exact same "face time" rule. Staying late was the only thing that mattered. Most of my co-workers rolled in around 10am and stayed well past 7pm. "Screw that!" I said. I worked 9-6, and every time the boss saw me leaving, he'd ask where I was going.
God, I hate unwritten rules in the workplace. I resent the fact that doing one's job well and treating colleagues with a modicum of courtesy and respect is regarded as insufficient in most workplaces. One must essentially read minds to figure out what is expected if one is to have any hope of "fitting in".

Generally, my approach to unwritten rules is to ignore them until someone takes me to task for violating them. I do this even if I have an inkling that a particular unwritten rule exists. It's a bit passive-aggressive of me, I suppose, but I am introverted and a bit socially impaired, and I doubt I could pick up on them consistenly even if I tried, so why try? I would just make myself (and likely everyone else) nuts.

Needless to say, I will never win any popularity contests among my colleagues.

I'm going to decline the invitation to name specific unwritten rules that I have come across. Once I get started, I might not be able to stop. Great post, though.
Even though research is what will get you tenure, do not act like you are super absorbed in your research. Make people quietly aware that your research is progressing, but never make it look central. In addition, even though teaching will not get you tenure, even if (however well you may do it -- or not) you do not see yourself principally as a teacher, never declare this out loud. Instead, while papering over your research activities, proclaim loudly and often how teaching is the centre of your existence.
Conversely, if your affection for teaching is sincere, and you proclaim it so frequently, you are still obliged to moan about how thik the students are while everyone else (who claims teaching to be a central cncern) moans about student density (population and intellect, both).
"praise must be delivered via coded sarcasm"

-- YES! That's my boss's management system exactly: all criticism (and praise) is delivered as jokes, so you never know whether you've actually screwed up, or are just being teased. Which saves face, but makes it very hard to know how you're actually doing....
Here is an unwritten rule I learned growing up: don’t ask for anything, because when someone asks you for something, they should get it.

But in my wife’s family, the unwritten rule was that you should ask for what you want. And hearing no is not a big deal.

A clear disconnect in expectations.

Hilarity (and stress) ensued the first time my wife and I stayed with my parents. She got what she wanted, everytime. But they were mad as hell at her nerve in asking for things they did not want to give her (but had to, by the rules). Yet she said no to some of their requests.

I still remember the huff my parents got into when my wife didn't offer to help with the dishes. In her family, which is a bit more reserved, people were asked to help if their help was wanted and otherwise expected to hang out and be friendly but not necessarily contribute.

The big unwritten rule in grad school I've found is, "If you pass your comps, all sins before that are forgiven and you start anew." Saved my bacon, I gotta tell ya.
One of the many unwritten rules at my college is to eschew anything that looks like "self-promotion." Any mention of one's activities or accomplishments is seen as "bragging." This makes it awfully difficult for the faculty to know what each other are doing. I have often wondered if it's a Midwestern thing...
I bet that is a Midwestern thing, MaggieMay.

I'll have to think a little harder about unspoken rules at my university. One for sure is, "Do not bother anyone with a Ph.D. who is outside the building taking a smoke-break. Especially not the head of the department...even if the building is on fire. Adjuncts with MA degrees may be bothered at any time during a smoke break, whether or not the building (or anyone's butt) is on fire." This only applies to smoking breaks and not other breaks; I guess we still have a lot more smokers here in the Deep South than in other parts of the country. I'm lucky that at my U, almost all the full-timers and admin folks are willing to talk with you anytime about problems and concerns.
In military movie theaters, many films play the national anthem before a feature presentation. Entire theaters rise to their feet and stand at attention, even in civilian clothes. I mean, at a baseball game, sure. At a Memorial Day parade? Sure. But when I've sat down, in civilian attire, with a big bucket of popcorn.

*Shrugs* I just find it odd.
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