Unwritten Rules

People generally underestimate the important role played by unwritten rules in just about every facet of our lives. From family, to church to work to play, all sorts of unwritten rules (philosophers may refer to them as “norms” or “conventions”) give structure to, and generally civilize, our world. Some unspoken rules are pernicious, of course. In some places still today, there is an unspoken understanding that one part of the beach is for whites and the other part of the beach is for blacks. And in some institutions, there’s an unspoken rule that women don’t get equal consideration for promotion. But in general, unspoken rules make our world safer and more enjoyable, and they reduce the need for explicit rules of the kinds promulgated and enforced by government and other institutions.

In that regard, here’s a very interesting short piece rom The Guardian’s Bike blog: Winning the Tour de France means learning its unwritten rules.

Written ethical codes don’t count for much in cycling. There have been a couple of attempts to make professional cyclists sign charters stating they won’t take drugs, but they have been quietly abandoned, because they didn’t stem the tide of positive tests, and they were viewed solely as window-dressing. The unwritten rules are another matter. They are everywhere, although the Contador-Schleck episode shows that as in Pirates of the Caribbean, the “code” is sometimes merely viewed as a guideline….

So, food for thought: what unwritten rules civilize the world of commerce? What unspoken standards civilize the following:

  • Interactions with your co-workers, or with your boss?
  • Interactions with the businesses you interact with daily, both big and small?
  • Interactions between businesses?

7 comments so far

  1. Megan on

    Norms are such an integral part of our social institution, and I think that in a lot of ways it is these informal rules that compel society to create the formal institutions. When you consider the situations that you listed regarding the world of commerce, where do we draw a line between “guideline” and “rule”? For example, let’s say you go above your boss and maybe the information caused a stir. Is this grounds to be let go? (I realize this is not the best example, but I hope you can decipher my question!).

    Is there a responsibility within the company to make these norms visible to its employees?

    When norms become unethical or irresponsible, is it possible to change the rules?

  2. […] latest work is a piece on unwritten rules and he uses the Tour de France as his example. It’s not a long article but […]

  3. Jack Marshall on

    Chris: Aren’t “unwritten rules” just basic rules of fairness, respect and civility within each culture?

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Some of them are, yes. But not all. The content of unwritten rules is enormously varied.


  4. Lorraine Whellams on

    I have 2 out of the hundreds that are out there…firstly in busines….never use an idea from someone else without giving them credit for the idea….Doing so could sour a very good business/colleague relationship.

    Secondly….as a teacher my students had some very hard and fast unwritten rules…some could draw blood if not adhered to…such as: Never date your best friend’s ex….I guess that goes for ex husband too for those of us who are older…and never date your best friend’s sister/brother. Failure to follow these rules amongst teens could end in fistcuffs…or worse.

  5. nilknarf1940 on

    Before sending out threatening notices to tenants, customers, etc. try to work out the problem in person. I have known people who have become so angry with another company that had a legal right to give notice of default, but did not give the other person the courtesy of a call to try and work out a settlement that they stopped doing business with the other company.

  6. Dan Wheeler on

    It’s important to consider the spirit of the rule rather than the letter of the rul.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: