Tuesday, September 06, 2011


I was a weird kid. For a week in fourth grade, I wore shoelaces tied around my ears just to prove I was different. My friends were mostly weird kids, too, and we reveled in being nonconformists together. I mostly understood the social rules I was breaking, and I intended to break them. As time has passed, I've gotten more okay with social rules, but I still thought of them as things people shouldn't really have to follow.

Last year I worked with a kid with mild autism. He couldn't really pick up on social rules, and he wanted friends but didn't have any. I realized how different it was to be the weird kid because you didn't know how to be normal. So I taught him social norms.

When someone says hello, they expect you to say hello back.
I know you're excited about dinosaurs, but sometimes you have to ask other people about their interests.
You have to talk to kids your own age, not just your brother.

In college, a similar thing happened with my understanding of cultural relativism. So many things I thought of as universally standard, I realized, were actually cultural. Punctuality, personal space, gender roles - they all vary a lot. I prided myself on not valuing American norms above other cultures' norms.

This summer I've been working with refugees, helping them find jobs. We teach them how to survive in America. And we teach them American cultural rules, which sometimes require breaking the rules they learned in their home countries. It felt bad at first, but not as bad as seeing someone whose cash assistance is about to run out and still hasn't found work.

You must look your job interviewer in the face, even if he is a man.
You have to speak louder.
We say "customer service," not "customer services." It's just one of those things.
You can't go to a job in a teeshirt that says, "I'm available, but don't tell my girlfriend."

I used to hate social rules, but I was smart and privileged enough to get what I wanted without them. Hopefully these people will learn enough and become secure enough that they, too, can choose which rules to break.

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