You Don’t Know the Rules? You Are Not Alone!

Are you one of those people who think there must be a ‘right’ way of doing every task, or are you prepared to muddle through making it up as you go along? A reader of my recent post on Being Feisty and Unconventional put a link in their own post to mine. Their post explored how they always felt as if they didn’t know the rules, what was expected of them and how to behave in different situations.

The politics of how and what and when I am supposed to speak to others about their work, about my work, to ask for help, to collaborate – it escapes me. And of course there are no written rules, no induction course, nothing to go by except what observation you can…

I wish there was a little more guidance available on navigating departmental and intra-lab politics….

But what I’d really like is a local female mentor to help me tread the line between ‘difficult’ and ‘impossible’. Between ‘feisty’ and ‘rude’. Between ‘confident’ and crossing boundaries.

The reality is, as far as I can tell, most people feel there must be a correct, uniquely right way of behaving, but the trouble is that they don’t know what it is. What differs is the extent to which individuals let this affect how they cope.

In Victorian days young gentlemen were blooded (ie taken out hunting and had the blood of their ‘first fox’ rubbed on them) to show they knew those particular hunting ropes and later, possibly even introduced to a brothel by some older male relative so they knew how to perform on that front; their debutante sisters spent weeks learning how to put their elbow length gloves on neatly and to curtsy appropriately elegantly and deeply when presented at court (and to walk away backwards thereafter) without wobbling or falling over. We have, I hope, moved on.

However, the feeling that there is some set of rules that everyone except yourself has mastered remains a common sensation. A task as simple as how to introduce yourself when you first attend a meeting can feel like a minefield: how much are you meant to say about who you are and why you are there? If you are the first person asked to speak it is particularly alarming, but even if that isn’t the case you may indeed be thinking ‘why am I here?’ and so be fazed as to how to respond. I assure you that that is a worry from which I can still suffer in passing. The first time I sat on a Cambridge Board of Electors for some Professorship, the Chair thought it was amusing (or so it felt; in all honesty he probably wasn’t thinking about it at all) to ask me to kick off the discussions. I was given no clue as to whether I was supposed to go through each candidate in great detail or merely report that I thought Dr X was the strongest candidate. You can end up feeling stupid if you get such actions wrong.

So why do I think everyone feels like this? It’s because of what other people say to me. I come out of a meeting and someone or other may come up to me and say ‘did I say enough?’  (or alternatively too much) or perhaps ‘was I too forceful?’ Maybe they’ll ask me if they could have done a better job of putting their argument across or tell me how worried they had been in advance because they hadn’t understood the underlying interpersonal dynamics. I know senior professors who confide that they hate poster sessions because they aren’t good at going up to strangers (however junior) and talking to them and would rather be wallflowers. Referring to social but professional situations, there are people who admit that they still get confused as to which is the water tumbler amongst a collection of glasses on the table at fancy dinners or who are anxious about how to introduce guest speakers, including the correct form of address (and, in case you’re wondering, calling me Dame Donald is just plain wrong, though it happens pretty often).

One form in which this anxiety can manifest itself is in assuming that what someone else does is obviously ‘right’. I know I sometimes feel, when listening to someone answer a tricky question or when I watch them handle a difficult situation ‘wow, I couldn’t have done that’. In reality that sentence should probably read ‘I wouldn’t have done that’ and that is of course the point. I wouldn’t do things that way, but I could probably have found a different way of handling the situation that would have worked, but it would have been a way with which I personally felt comfortable. Difference does not mean what person A does is inherently right and Person B is therefore necessarily wrong. It’s too easy to forget that.

It is still the case that, time after time I continue to feel that I don’t know what to do in some specific situation. The difference that comes with age and/or experience is akin to that the feeling, described in the same blog I mentioned above:

a part of me says sod convention, whatever it is around here, and speak…

Unlike Victorian ladies and gentlemen, I don’t expect to be socially ostracised or to lose my job if, metaphorically, my curtsey is inaccurate. There may be a momentary embarrassment if I ask a question out of turn or find I’ve misunderstood my instructions, be they explicit or implicit, but the damage is in general short-lived. My advice is therefore by all means try to find out as much as you can in advance about any situation. There is no need to be afraid to ask for help or guidance. Formal mentors may be in short supply, but many people slightly higher up the food chain are often keen to show off their knowledge and so more than willing to help you, the novice. Sometimes it can come across as patronising, sometimes it’s brilliantly useful – and sometimes both.

The more serious problem is when you don’t know what’s going to hit you until it does. But, remember, most people feel uncertain at least some of the time. We are all in this mysterious world together. There are far fewer rules than you may believe.

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4 Responses to You Don’t Know the Rules? You Are Not Alone!

  1. Owen Dunn says:

    Also, rules are often mutable, and newcomers often have a bit of leeway. It can take a newcomer breaking them to trigger a valuable round of “no, I have no idea why we did it that way either”.

  2. BoB says:

    :O I wasn’t expecting to read this and find my own post linked! Thanks for your thoughts on this topic – it’s great to see that this feeling is normal, and even happens to those who are much more experienced. I think the advice to find out as much as possible in advance is good, and I shall to try to follow it! Especially taking advice from those just a step or two higher than you, I think it’s easy to forget that even those who have only been there a *little* longer than you may have some useful experience.

  3. Richard Adams says:

    Very good to read your thoughts on what can be a worrying experience for many of us. One positive in favour of the rules being unspoken is that with time they can change.

  4. cromercrox says:

    However, the feeling that there is some set of rules that everyone except yourself has mastered remains a common sensation.

    I never felt that sensation when I was an undergraduate at Leeds – but felt it crushingly when I went to do my postgrad work in Cambridge. I felt that in Yorkshire people took one as they found one, but in Cambridge I felt that everyone had access to some book of arcane knowledge which for some reason had never reached me.

    This is related to Imposter Syndrome, which you have covered before. My elder daughter Crox Minor (15) is a high achiever and she is showing signs of this. I came acros a useful meme to combat this on the internet. It might seem trite but I think it has merit. That is, you never see the mistakes and mishaps people make in their own minds – you only ever see other peoples’ Command Performances.

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