Social Skills Tips - Hidden Rules

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September 5, 2019

Did you know that ‘hidden rules’ exist in all of the social contexts that we encounter daily? Hidden rules are guidelines that we are expected to follow throughout our day. The environments that we encounter daily all have a set of hidden rules that people are expected to follow. They exist all around us - in our homes, schools, stores, outdoor spaces - everywhere you find people, you will find people following social rules. When we are able to follow these rules, we are able to successfully navigate the social world around us.  

Learning ‘hidden rules’ is a social skill that is typically learned implicitly. We learn this social skill implicitly. We learn from watching others, from our parents’ guidance as younger children, from our friends, and community members. The social skill of understanding hidden rules isn’t taught in class. It’s taught in social contexts - by observing, modeling, and trial and error. As social creatures, we are great at picking up on social cues and following hidden social rules depending on what context we find ourselves in. 

Processing social information is a complex process. The amount of social information we encounter is astounding! And to make matters even more difficult, not only do we have ‘hidden’ rules to figure out, but these same rules change often, subtly, and quickly within and across environments.  Furthermore, this skill requires an incredible amount of flexibility to adapt while maintaining calm and engaging socially.  There are many variables that are involved in these social rules, and by attending to these complex and ever changing variables, we can strive to become competent communicators in all areas of our lives.  When we are able to process and engage in this social skill, we can follow expected behaviors and be positively perceived by others as good social communicators. 

Here are some of the ways that social rules change: 

  • ‘Hanging out’: ‘Hanging out’ with our friends happens at all stages of our lives. When we are young children, we have play dates, play on the playground, or with peers in our classrooms. Typically our teachers or parents arrange these get togethers, and help us by modeling social skill and providing guidance the social rules.  When we are teenagers, we start to plan these get togethers on our own. Our interests change, and we don’t need our parents and teachers to guide our ‘hang outs.’ As adults, we are expected to be independent in our ability to hang out with our friends. And within and across these different social scenarios, the ‘hidden rules’ change. For example, having your parent call to arrange a play date is an acceptable hidden social rule for a young child, but not for a teenager. If a teenagers’ parent called to arrange a ‘hang out’ with a friend, the teenager may not be as likely to be perceived as a skilled social communicator.

  • Humor: The use of humor varies widely across ages, times, and environments. Young children might tell knock knock jokes, but these would be considered immature if told in an office setting to adults. Or if you have an inappropriate joke that might be ok to tell with close friends or family, the same social rule would not apply when getting to know a new friend or talking with a coworker. We’ve all been there - someone tells a joke that doesn’t go over well, or seems awkward for the setting and crowd. Learning the hidden social rules around humor can save you from the embarrassment of awkward social situations. 

  • Gaining attention: Getting someone’s attention seems like an easy task, but it is a social skill that changes depending on the time, setting, and person you are interacting with. For example, it might be acceptable as a young child to yell for your parent from the backyard. This same way of gaining attention would be unexpected for an adult gaining the attention of their boss from across the office. Additionally, a teen trying to gain the attention of their friend might whisper or gently poke them, but this same strategy would be unexpected if they were trying to get the attention of their teacher in the middle of class. 

  • Participation: Whether you are participating in a classroom discussion or a meeting at work, there are hidden social rules around appropriate participation. In a classroom setting, it would be expected to raise your hand, wait to be called on, and listen carefully. And while the same would go for a work setting, the rule may change depending on the person leading the meeting - a coworker, boss, or teacher. 

  • Working independently: You might think that working by yourself doesn’t carry the same social rules as the above social contexts. However, if you’re working by yourself with other people around, hidden social rules certainly apply.  Have you ever been in a library working quietly when someone next to you is loudly shuffling, chewing, or talking to themselves? Or been in class trying to focus on your work when the teacher is talking loudly or continuing to give instructions to others? These behaviors can be significantly distracting to others, and they may not even know it! 

Following hidden social rules is a complex social skill that requires perspective taking, attention, flexibility, and practice. The rules change depending on who you are with, where you are, what time it is, and a host of other variables. Being aware that hidden social rules exist is the first step in mastering this social skill and becoming a competent and effective social communicator no matter where you are. 


If thinking about these skills spins your head and you feel like you need some help, let’s chat today! 

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