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?