The Social Contract Gone Too Far

Watch Out World!

There I was, twenty-eight years old with no earthly idea how to communicate under pressure. Fumbling my words at every turn, my face turning beet red, shaking, and sweating, I must have looked like I was ready to snap.

Did you know every time you come in contact with other human beings, you interact with them according to an unspoken agreement? Most people have never heard of the invisible document whose suppositions and requirements are rarely, if ever, mentioned – and yet we are all held to its rules and regulations.

The hidden text to which I refer is called the Social Contract. Generally, this is a political and philosophical pseudo-writ intended to outline the understanding that we willingly relinquish some of our personal rights in order to be ruled by whatever government is in power. It is, in essence, the decree by which one person (or group of people) are allowed to rule another in exchange for various protections. It is what allows us to have governments and prevents the planet from succumbing to seven and a half billion anarchists.

If you think this is bad now, just imagine that for a minute.

For purposes of what I want to talk about today, though, this definition of the Social Contract will differ a bit.

The Everyday Social Contract

Over the years, I have had the privilege of working with people who are neurodiverse. Many of us who do this work use the concept of, “The Social Contract,” as the list of unspoken rules we are required to follow while participating in civil society. The goal of ensure safety. Interestingly, I have found the term and concept useful not only with people who struggle with social cuing, but for just about everyone who has relationship difficulties. After all, we all must interact with people we do not know well or to whom we owe no natural allegiance. Having a term for how we do this (or, are expected to do this, contrary to our wishes sometimes) has been helpful.

Safety First

Whether speaking of interpersonal interactions or of the allowance of government entities to rule, the base reason for the notion of the Social Contract in the first place is first and foremost safety. I would go so far as to say it is the only reasonable purpose for its existence. To be willing to engage in connection and growth with others, there needs to be at least a modicum of agreed upon trust and safety. Without this, fear naturally prevents any alliance. After all, if someone forces you at gunpoint to give them all your money, you will hardly enjoy a meal or an afternoon stroll with them. We need to feel safe so we can interact effectively. We need rules.

What, Then, Are the Rules?

Well, alright. The idea of having a set of rules to make us all feel safe so that we can interact in a calm and orderly fashion makes sense. But what exactly are said rules?

The truth? No one really knows. There are likely as many sets of rules as there are people on the planet. However, I think it is safe to say these are at least some of the more commonly accepted ones:

Watch your Language

Including body language, tone, and word choice. Avoid aggressive language and insults.

Stay Outside the Bubble

Covid-19 and the six-foot rule aside, everyone has a personal bubble of safety. Respect that. Keep your hands to yourself. Ask before you touch a person or property. No violence of any kind unless for self-defense.

Keep your Word

In the words of Don Miguel Ruiz “Be Impeccable with Your Word” – If you don’t do what you say you will do, do not be surprised if others do not trust you. Take the time you need to decide what you are capable of doing before you commit.

Respect Boundaries

No means no. ‘Nuff said.

Take your Turn

Everything is not about you. Some give-and-take and back-and-forth is necessary for healthy relationships. This goes both ways – Give and take. Don’t be the only one talking but neither say nothing at all. Both sides need an appropriate amount of openness so no one person carries the relationship or even the interaction.

Speak Up!

It is no one else’s job to guess what your needs are. Ask for what you want clearly, without being passive-aggressive. Also, if you do not know something for sure, ask…don’t make assumptions.

Hands Off!

Do not take anything that does not belong to you. Ask before you borrow.

This is not a completely comprehensive list, but it is a fairly good start. Follow these rules and you are likely to be at least approachable in most situations.

A Step too Far

All of this sounds well and good, but in many instances, this innate concept has been taken a step too far. The sensible provision of safety is taken too far. At times, society morphs it's need for security into a demand for conformity. In so doing, pressure is applied to require us to look, act, think, dress, and behave in cookie-cutter fashion. For a culture that seems to pride itself on being independent, the second we step out of status quo, there can be consequences. Judging a book by its cover has become the purview of the masses.

It should not be this way.

Same Kind of Different

When you finish reading this, go find yourself a beautiful, peaceful place where you will not be interrupted and spend some time thinking about all of this. What has it been like to be you in this world? Are you living behind a mask so you can “look/act/think” like everyone else? What if, instead of giving up you, you taught the world who you are? What if you made friends with awkwardness and let them stare and stand back a bit until they see the whole of you?

Start small. Pull out those orange tennies. Tell that first date you love underwater basket weaving. Let your hair grow or chop it all off. Find out who you really are – give your behavior and appearance the “Do I look Aggressive/Unsafe” litmus test – and if you come away clear then own you! Go on the quest to find those who are the same kind of different as you. The term for this is coterie. Coteries are “people who get me” – MOPS, AA, Mental Health Support Groups, and Hobby Groups are some examples.

Changing the rigid fear of this world is a process. It will not all change overnight. Go slow. Test the waters around you. Teach people who you are – do not be swayed by first impressions. It is true people will snap judge you, but it is also true that they will settle on a truer judgment over time.

The basis of any resistance is generally fear. If you understand this, it can help. You can choose, however, not to live by fear and you can teach others to do the same by being fully, safely, authentically you.