Blue Line

Unwritten rules for the in-crowd

November 26, 2013  By Dorothy Cotton

1027 words – MR

HEAD: Unwritten rules for the in-crowd

There was a guy in my aquafit class this morning. A young guy, with long hair. What’s with that?!?!?! Everyone knows that this aquafit class is made up entirely of dumpy old women who do not look good in lycra.

We do “allow” men to attend but only if they are old and infirm. If you just had a joint replacement or have a serious heart condition, you’re in. We even make allowances for men accompanying their wives – as long as the wife meets the “old and dumpy” criteria – but they have to stay in the back row. That’s a rule – and you should look uncomfortable, like you know you don’t belong.


There are other rules. You have to stay put for the duration of the class. Even if the instructor makes you move around in the pool, you have to return to your original spot. You face forward or backward but never to the left or right – and some spots are “protected.” There are a few people who have been coming since they built the pool; you do NOT stand in their spot.

Of course these are all secret unwritten rules. You have to know them or you risk being shunned – and getting dirty looks from those of us “in the know” – but of course, no one will tell you these rules. People will even deny that they exist. If you ask, people will say, “Sure – stand anywhere you want.” They lie.

To be frank, my aquafit class is not really very different from the rest of civilization. We have the official rules; these tend to be called “laws” or, in the workplace, “policies” or even “procedures.” You might have a code of conduct in your workplace. Generally, it’s not too tough following these rules. They are pretty clear – but the rules of life are a whole lot less clear and harder to follow.

One of the things that makes unwritten rules difficult is that they tend to be specific to groups – and a group might be defined by age, gender, religion, culture or ethnicity, occupation, location – any number of things. So while dumpy old women in ugly bathing suits might figure out the aquafit rules pretty quickly (because they were made up by people much like them), long haired young men might struggle. It doesn’t help that the aforementioned women are far more likely to tell another similar participant the rules than this young guy.

It probably does not matter in the big scheme of things if the young man with long hair ever comes back to my aquafit class – but if you re-read this column and substitute ‘workplace” for “aquafit class,” you start to see the problem. If you substitute “police workplace,” it becomes even clearer. We talk about wanting more women and visible minorities and people of different sexual orientations and whatever in our organizations – but we want them to “fit in.” There are a couple of problems with this. First, we will not tell them HOW to fit in and second (or maybe this is first), who said they have to “fit in” if that means “be like me?”

In regard to the secret rules, a series of studies a few years back looked at reasons why immigrants and people from “different cultures” have difficulty advancing in many workplaces. The people in charge of selection and promotion will tell you that a very common reason has to do with “soft skills.”

Candidates may lack “people skills” – they may not be prompt for meetings because people back where they came from were not so time obsessed. They may treat underlings badly, dress inappropriately or wear too much cologne. So they apply for a promotion, get turned down and are told, when they ask why, “There was a more qualified applicant.”

As any reasonable person would do, they then go off and become better qualified: take courses, get more experience and obtain more formal credentials. They apply again… and find nothing has changed. This time the better qualified applicant actually turns out to be much less qualified on paper and they complain – all because no one wants to say “You smell bad and are a jerk with the clerical staff.”

Maybe we need to tell people the secret rules – or maybe we should reconsider them.

It was actually kind of nice to be staring at the back of someone who does not look like me in the aquafit class. It would be easier to dismiss the secret rules if they did not have any purposes but they often do. In aquafit, for example, it can get a little crowded at times so it really does help if people return to their original spots and all face the same way.

In many cases, the secret unwritten rules are what binds a group together and defines the “in-group.” That term does not just refer to high school football players and cheerleaders. Any group that you are a member of, whether formal (the Toronto Symphony) or informal (the people who get off the train at 5pm every day), has members – and non-members. If you identify psychologically with a group, you are part of the in-group.

The police group is its own in-group. You have your own language, traditions, “rules” and identity. To some extent, the in-group mentality is healthy and adaptive. Members look out for each other, meet each other’s affiliative needs, derive status from membership – and at a basic level derive part of their identity from membership. However – I’ll bet you can see where this is going – if there is an in-group then there has to be an out-group. If everyone is a member of a group, there is no group. In-group members prefer people who are like them and part of looking out for each other means favouring and even covering up for each other.

It’s normal, human and in many cases even adaptive… but it has its disadvantages. Next time you are trying to broaden your horizons, diversity your workforce or enrich your group of friends, don’t look in the mirror and find the closest match.

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