Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Playing by the Rules

Rules. Law. Some people might argue they are synonymous. Lawyers, therefore, are usually really good at playing by the rules. The more attention I pay, however, the more I realize how all of us follow the rules, often without even realizing it. This unconscious affinity for the rules that run our lives interferes with our ability to connect to our fellow human beings and causes us to go down the spirals that result from believing in “the otherness” of those outside our “in” crowd.

Recently, I went on a weekend vacation. The thesis writing was getting difficult, and I just needed to get away from my desk. So, I booked a bus ticket and headed an hour north to Oamaru. This post is not about the penguins who restored my sanity; it is about the rules I noticed and what they signify to our lives.

Before I get there, though, let us travel together – in an elevator. How many times have you been in an elevator alone with just one other person? How many times have you talked to that person? Chances are, at least from my experience, that instead of talking to that person, you stand together in that awkward silence, one of you pushing the “Door Close” button hoping to end the awkwardness that much faster. Rule for elevator: no talking to those you do not know.

So what does a weekend bus trip have to do with rules of small talk in an elevator? The bus driver. I booked with one of the smaller bus companies in New Zealand, and along with that came a really chatty and friendly bus driver. As we were driving along, I noticed that there were certain people he acknowledged, those to whom he waved. I also noticed the people he seemed to ignore. So, who was in the “in” crowd? Two main groups: other buses and truckers. Cars got ignored. Rules on the road: acknowledge those whose job it is to drive but not those who are just driving to get from point A to point B.

I have noticed this phenomenon before. My first experience living abroad was in Aix-en-Provence, France. A group of 10 Americans were placed on the other side of the world together. One day, while I (the band geek) and the “other” (a sorority sister) were chatting, we joked that we were like a bunch of kids thrown into a room together; we just got along because there was more that connected us in that foreign place than made us feel different. At home, we would have ignored each other, but on the other side of the world, when we were lonely Americans, we got along great.

While living in France, if I heard anyone speaking English, I would start a conversation. It seemed like a connection, so why not? We could create our own club in an environment where we felt “outside.” Here in New Zealand, almost everyone speaks English, yet I still find myself attracted to the North American accent, or even sometimes any non-Kiwi accent. Over the weekend, I stayed at a hostel, and there I interacted with all sorts of people, including some random French people. Everyone can talk together in a hostel; everyone is officially an outsider in the country. Rule in a foreign country: find other foreigners with whom you can connect, regardless of their home.

After the February earthquake in Christchurch, I was hugging people I had never met. With each aftershock, we held each other closer. Disaster was at hand, and we had little to make us feel steady. Just yesterday, Christchurch suffered another terrible jolt (another 6.3, the same magnitude as the one in February), which I felt over 200 miles away in Dunedin. I was in a room full of people. We all looked at each other, discovered there had been another terrible blow to Christchurch . . . and then went back to our desks, to our work. Rule for non-disaster situation: get back to business as usual.

So, what are the rules? Where can we engage people and where can we not? Where can we look to each other for stability, and where do we push people away? Where do you let yourself interact with strangers? Supermarket? On a plane? Walking down the street? In traffic? Have you ever hugged a stranger?

But, if all these “rules” tell us anything, it should be that the divisions we create are arbitrary. What if we chose to break them? What if we chose to make everyone an insider? What if we consciously chose to find our common similarities rather than awkwardly push the “Door Close” button on our interactions with others? What if we made these decisions before disaster strikes? After all, lawyers prepare for disaster.

Are you willing to break the rules? Are you willing to push “Door Open”? Are you willing to engage with "the other"?


© 2011 Rebecca Stahl, all rights reserved

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