Implicit and explicit house rules

I was dining yesterday at a very good vegan restaurant, when I overheard something unexpected. Someone was had just arrived to join a large party a few tables over.

Just before he sat down, he said loudly to the waiter “Can I get a cheeseburger?” It was clearly an attempt at cheeky humor.

The waiter didn’t miss a beat. “Yes, we have that,” he replied pleasantly, and accurately (their burger is plant based, and quite good).

But the other people at that table looked uncomfortable. There was an awkward silence.

In my head, I started trying to unpack what had just happened. What exactly was going on here?

Clearly the guy was trying to be funny. But none of the people he knew at that table seemed to think it was funny.

Maybe he felt awkward about the choice of a vegan restaurant. But in that case, what he said was clearly a dig at whoever had chosen that restaurant.

Maybe it was a little more complex. Perhaps the man resented the choice of restaurant but was not consciously aware of his own resentment — until his joke misfired.

I found myself thinking about the “house rules” that kick in when we enter someone else’s space. Some rules are explicit, and others are implicit.

An implicit rule in a kosher restaurant would be not to jokingly order a ham and cheese sandwich. An explicit rule would be not to jokingly shout “Fire”.

The same thing goes for other shared spaces. Implicitly you shouldn’t cough too much during a play. Explicitly you shouldn’t start shouting curses at the actors on stage.

It’s a sliding scale. My guess is that the guy in the restaurant miscalculated, and broke an implicit rule of the house without quite intending to. At least not consciously.

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