The Unwritten Rule

We Filipinos are sensitive people. However we try to disagree, a very influential part of our culture is our inherited compliance to implicit, unnamed rules. Think about it – isn’t utang na loob an unwritten law? Nonetheless, to even think of not conforming to it produces drastic consequences in the form of sama ng loob – again, a uniquely Filipino frame of mind.


It’s not surprising, then, that to be accepted into the community and not to be thought of as rude, unconventional or snobbish, one needs to conform to countless unwritten rules. These are specific codes of conduct that, somehow, everyone must know if they are to work amiably with others and not cause uproar. Having been a victim of the unwritten rule myself, I know how it feels to stumble in the dark wondering what you could have done or said wrong. Worse, because of the rule’s implicitness, we are expected not to ask at all – we are expected to somehow know what we did wrong.

If we’re not on the same page yet, let me illustrate. The unwritten rule is all about little things – because if the matter was serious or dire, there’d be an explicit law about it, right?

Here’s one example – two weeks ago, not for the first time did I experience the annoyance of not being able to get into a school elevator because it’s “full”. Note the quotation marks, because let’s face it, that elevator wasn’t full. Tell me, if you squeezed in just a little to give that one person room, would it be so hard? There’s no written rule for that … it’s just common courtesy and thoughtfulness.

Here’s another. Like a lot of you, I’m a commuter. I take the bus. I’ve seen my share of full buses and had my fill of uncomfortable walks carrying a heavy bag down the narrow strip between seats. I’ve been offered a seat once, and I’m not kidding, it surprised me. Offering your seat to someone else just isn’t common anymore – this isn’t the early 1900s. The least some people could do is offer a seat to the elderly or to pregnant women – in fact, that’s what the first rows are for, aren’t they? Yet here I see people rushing in to the empty bus to snag the front row, without even thinking that there’s a reason those seats are reserved. I guess what I’m getting at is, if people keep ignoring the unwritten rule, given enough time, it fades away.

Rather than making a list of implicit rules we don’t realize we’re breaking, I’m just going to consider this: how could we possibly know where the explicit rules end and the unstated ones begin?

Here’s where I think the problem lies: subjectivity. Some decisions we can justify based on our own opinions, but some can not – should not – depend on each individual’s perspective. So what rules apply only to you, your org or your family, and what rules should apply to … well, the universe? Is there a rule we all agree on, so much that it shouldn’t need to be explicated?

To spell it out and simultaneously take it from Aretha, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. That’s what it comes down to – respect is objective, universal … it’s the unwritten rule. The next time you’re making a decision, before you even think about it with your own subjective judgment, go back to what’s impartial: does your decision show respect to your co-worker? To your superior? To yourself? Odds are if it does, then you have free reign to decide based on your opinion. If it doesn’t … well, you’ve got a problem.

Here’s another reason why it matters. Respect is essential because it’s the first step to being professional. If respect is elementary, then professionalism is the unwritten rule in the grown-up world. It’s the unspecified yet required value of every organization, every community … even every person.

But what’s professionalism, and how did we get there from Aretha? To be professional is to have the skills expected of you, to give what people come to you for, and to do so consistently. It’s where respect expresses itself in concrete examples like punctuality, focus, politeness, and dependability. Let’s face it; no one in the workplace will tell you to come on time, work hard at your job or be nice to others … but if you don’t, you won’t be going anywhere, either. See how the unwritten rule plays out?

(Let me make it clear: I meant Aretha’s song in the previous paragraph. Not … you know, Aretha.)

To conclude, I would just like to say, the unwritten rule is not hard to keep up with. It’s not a secret code meant for only a few. It just takes a little thoughtfulness, empathy and consideration – again, R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Belle Justiniani

By Belle Justiniani

13 replies on “The Unwritten Rule”

Leave a Reply