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Mindset & Motivation, Podcast Articles   |   Feb 23, 2020

What are your secret rules for how everyone else should behave?

By Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

What are your secret rules for how everyone else should behave?

By Angela Watson

Anytime you give a paper and pencil assignment, you will have at least one student who does not write their name (or the proper heading) on the paper.

There is no amount of teaching, procedure practice, rewards, or punishment that will ever change that fact. There are things that you can do to increase the likelihood that the majority of students will head their papers correctly. However, there is nothing you can do to eliminate the problem altogether so that all kids do it every time with no reminders.

I don’t know if this fact was lost on me as a new teacher, or I just didn’t have the mindset tools to cope.

But I would get annoyed every time I collected students’ papers and they didn’t have the proper heading. That means I was getting annoyed four to eight times a day, and that’s just over this ONE behavior.

You see, I had a secret rule for my students. A secret rule is an expectation that only you know exists. It’s an expectation you create in your own mind for how other people should behave.

My secret rule was that once I have taught a procedure to students repeatedly, they should remember to do it. They should have all routines and behavior expectations memorized and fully internalized by the third or fourth week of school.

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This secret rule is what created the frustration I felt every time students did not follow the procedure. Because it wasn’t just that I had to remind them to put their names on their papers — reminding them took literally took two seconds. It wasn’t a huge deal, in the grand scheme of things.

But it felt like a big deal, because of my secret rule that “they should know to do it automatically by now.” That’s what created my frustration.

And because of that secret rule, my students not doing what I taught them was no longer a normal and innocuous occurrence.

It was breaking my secret rules for behavior, and therefore it was a disrespect to my authority.

I think it took around seven years of classroom teaching before I began to relax this secret rule. And it wasn’t even a conscious mindset shift at first.

Honestly, I think with each passing year, I just lost more of my willingness to expend energy on the same problem over and over. After issuing 9,742 reminders about the same exact thing, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year … I just lost the ability to get worked up about it anymore.

I did not relax the expectation that students put the proper heading on their papers. I relaxed my own secret rule that all students should have internalized how to follow all my procedures with no reminders.

Letting go of that secret rule did not affect whether my kids put their names on their papers proper, but it reduced my frustration and annoyance quite significantly.

Secret rules exist in all facets of our lives

It’s not just teaching that is affected by our secret rules. My husband has a secret rule that people should not blow their noses at the table when other people are eating.

Judging by the number of times we see this behavior in restaurants, it’s pretty obvious that not everyone is aware that this is a rule.

In fact, it’s pretty obvious that it’s NOT an actual rule because so many people do it without embarrassment. I was not aware of this rule myself, and it was something that I never thought about until he brought to my attention.

Early in our dating, he pointed out that someone was blowing their nose at a nearby table when we were eating at a restaurant, and he lost his appetite completely.

Meanwhile, I hadn’t even heard or seen a thing. I was not attuned to that behavior at all, because I don’t have a secret rule around people not blowing their nose at the table.

You could argue that it’s just common sense or decent or manners — and that’s normally how people describe their secret rules — but I never even thought about it until he had what felt to me like an extreme reaction.

Secret rules are the reason why the exact same behavior can elicit annoyance and stress response in one person, and not in another.

When one person’s secret rule conflicts with another person’s secret rule

One of my rules is that when deboarding a plane, the proper process is to go row by row. So if you’re in row 14, you get to exit the plane before anyone in row 15.

However, there are some people who have an opposing secret rule. Their secret rule is that if you don’t have a carry-on bag to get down from the overhead storage, it’s OK to go ahead of the people who do.

So what happens in those situations is I’m trying to get my bag down, and people in the rows behind me are trying to push past me and making it impossible to grab my bag without whacking them in the head.

I find this incredibly rude. I have a physiological reaction to it — my heart rate speeds up, I’m silently fuming, and having all kinds of stress reactions in my body because they are breaking my secret rule.

Meanwhile, they find MY behavior rude. They’re totally ready to deplane, and I still need to take a bag down, so now they have to stand there and wait for me when they could have slipped past me and gotten out of my way.

Neither one of us is right. These are just our secret rules about how we think the world should work and how others should behave.

We can lessen this frustration by simply being aware that secret rules exist, instead of assuming we’re right and everyone is wrong. We can let go of the idea that we are doing things properly and with manners, and everyone else is just selfish and only thinking about themselves.

Generally, other people are not intentionally being rude or inconsiderate or disrespectful of you. They are just operating by a different set of rules or norms.

These rules are formed based on our personal experiences, cultures, age and generation, upbringing, geographic location, and so on. These rules can change over time as we grow as people, and as our needs and preferences change.

What is the rule amongst one group of people is not necessarily so amongst others. But our natural tendency as humans is to assume everyone has all the same secret rules as us and practices them consistently.

Why no one consistently follows their own secret rules 

If a car cuts you off while you’re driving, you might make the assumption that the person is intentionally disregarding the rules and is therefore a terrible, selfish, reckless driver.

You may not consider that perhaps the person isn’t from the area and didn’t know they needed to get over at the last second, or maybe you were in their blind spot, or maybe they miscalculated how long they had before their exit.

No, they must just be a crazy driver and who doesn’t care about anyone but themselves. Everyone who drives faster than you is a maniac, and everyone who drives slower is an idiot.

In reality, the person who cut you off probably also hates being cut off, but we don’t always follow our own rules consistently.

We’re happy to make exceptions for ourselves, but not quite as eager to do so for others. We readily give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, because obviously we didn’t mean to do it or there was a good reason for us to do it. But when other people do it? They’re just being jerks.

When you are aware that everyone has their own set of secret rules, it becomes far less frustrating when people don’t follow yours.

You realize they are not necessarily being inconsiderate, rude, or breaking social norms. They either have a different type of secret rule, or they feel that they have a reason to be an exception to the rule at that moment.

And we all have times when we feel like we should be the exception to the rule — we don’t follow our own secret rules all the time. Every single thing that we harp on other people about doing, we occasionally do ourselves and excuse it away. And, we also have 100 other habits that don’t break our secret rules but do break someone else’s.

Confrontational styles: Our secret rules around how secret rules should be enforced

Some people have a rule that if you have a problem with something they’re doing, you should come directly to them.

Other people’s rule is that confrontation is rude or makes people uncomfortable, so it’s better to say nothing or to involve an outside authority in enforcing the secret rule.

So let’s say that you have a secret rule that colleagues should not interrupt your class by calling your phone to ask you for things in the middle of instruction. Your colleague, however, has no such rule and feels that teachers should look out for each other so this isn’t a big deal.

The problem is compounded if you have different secret rules about confrontation. You may feel it’s best to go to another colleague for advice on how to handle the situation before saying anything. But the colleague you’re upset with might interpret this as you talking about them behind their back because their secret rule is: come to me if you have a problem with me.

Now you both believe you have been wronged and disrespected, when in fact you were simply operating by different secret rules.

This is how both people can truly and honestly believe they did the right thing, because according to their secret rules which they expect everyone else to follow, what they did was correct.

Can you see how so many of our interpersonal conflicts are rooted in secret rules?

Your secret rules prevent you from being happy unless other people change

Here are some other secret rules that might sound familiar to you:

  • Students shouldn’t say “That’s so easy!” when you give an assignment
  • Toothpaste tubes should be rolled up from the bottom
  • People should not take phone calls when other people are present with them
  • My partner should let me unwind a bit before giving me things to do when I come home from work
  • You should ask the permission of other people in the room before you change the channels on the television
  • Parents shouldn’t take their kids out of school for anything but an emergency, and certainly not for vacations or fun experiences
  • Everyone should read and respond to text messages as soon as they’re sent
  • Houseguests should stay no longer than two nights, and should not request any special meals or otherwise inconvenience you as the host

You likely agree with some of those secret rules and feel like, “Yes, exactly! That’s how things should be,” while others make you have the opposite reaction. And some of these probably create no reaction in you at all–you really don’t care, or just don’t get that bothered when people don’t follow those secret rules.

That’s how we know that these are not just common sense manners that everyone should know and follow — these are personal preferences that we’re projecting onto others.

Remember that your secret rules will always make perfect sense to you. In fact, you will probably tell yourself it’s not a secret rule, it’s just being a decent human — it’s basic protocol and common sense everyone should know.

However, choosing that perspective means that people who have different secret rules than you are automatically wrong. They now believe the wrong thing, they think the wrong way, their preferences and needs are wrong, and they need to change in order for you to be happy.

That’s really the piece that we want to move past, because holding onto a lot of secret rules will cause you to lose your faith in humanity.

When you presume that your secret rules are actually laws of the universe, you will begin to think that “kids these days” just don’t want to learn, parents don’t care, everyone is so rude, and so on.

And that kind of mindset will make you miserable, and drain your energy and enthusiasm.

Even if it were true that polite society is completely collapsing, do you really want to walk around thinking about that all day and feeling that way about the people that you have no choice but to be around?

Do you really want to believe those things about your students and families?

Wouldn’t you be happier if you chose a different story to tell yourself?

How to loosen up your own secret rules

When I realized I had a secret rule that students should internalize all classroom procedures and routines early in the school year and then I wouldn’t have to remind them, I was able to examine that rule from the outside:

Is that really true? Is that realistic to expect? Might some teachers expect that sooner or later in the year? Might some teachers have accepted that some students will need reminders every single day until the end of the school year? The variances are a hint that this is my personal secret rule and not an immutable truth.

I can then ask myself, “How would I feel if I were able to let go of that secret rule and the behavior truly did not upset me? How would I be able to relate to other people without that secret rule?”

The answer for me is, typically, I let go of the secret rule — or just recognize that’s what it is — which allows me to feel much more patient with other people.

I no longer see people as wrong or rude or inconsiderate. They’re just not playing by the secret rules that I have created in my own mind, and they may not even be aware of or may have an opposing rule that conflicts with mine.

I want to feel more at peace. I don’t want to be constantly annoyed by the little things other people do, because then I will be constantly annoyed. I like things quiet and dark and very zen at all times, but if I expect other people to carry that same energy, I’m going to be very uncomfortable a lot of the time.

Instead, I try to examine my secret rules, and imagine what other people’s secret rules might be, and just observe. I’m watching the whole situation play out as a passive, emotionally-detached observer:

There’s a group of teenagers being loud on the subway platform, and there’s Angela who really just wants to listen to calming music in her headphones. Take a look at that. They’re having fun with their friends — look at what a good time they’re having. That’s great for them. When I travel with friends on the train, we can get a little loud or talkative at times, too. I’ve had strangers give ME a look because I’m talking on the train and they want peace and quiet. Now the situation is reversed because they’re with their friends and I’m alone. So interesting how that works, isn’t it?

Remember that curiosity creates momentum, and judgment stops it.  I encourage you to get curious about why certain things bug you so much. Get curious about your secret rules, and what secret rules might be driving other people’s decision-making. Let this process give you distance from the little stuff that’s bothering you so that you can be more at peace within yourself and with others.

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Angela Watson

Founder and Writer

Angela is a National Board Certified educator with 11 years of teaching experience and more than a decade of experience as an instructional coach. She started this website in 2003, and now serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Truth for Teachers...
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  1. Oh my word, I so loved that article, thank you! I had never thought about it like that before, and the “well, obviously they should know that/ do things like this” rang so true. Really gives one something to think about, and I am definitely going to try and see other people’s “secret rules” rather than just my own.
    Thank you

  2. Wonderful article! I often find myself stuck in that kind of thinking, and this is such a good reminder that not everyone is operating under the same rules/”shoulds” that I grew up with.

  3. Just discovered your blog and podcast. This is pure gold. We project so many unnamed, unspoken values and motivations on other people and then are frustrated when they do not respond as we believe they should. Being aware of this will save us so much emotional and mental energy wasted on frustration.

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