Know when to take a break

Top tips on breaking the unwritten rules that govern every aspect of our lives

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If the past few years have shown us anything, it’s that rules can be a very good thing indeed. If you need to cough, cover your mouth. Don’t drop litter. No spitting on the street. If somebody holds a door open, say a simple thank you. These are the kinds of rules that make everyday life better for everyone. It’s just about manners, consideration for others and respect.

But what about when my rules of behaviour are different to your rules? What if the rules that some of us think of as simple common sense may not be working for the good of us all?

I started asking these questions eight years ago, when I first became a parent. Overnight, I found myself being judged by strangers. Everywhere I went, people seemed to have very strong opinions: ideas about how I should breastfeed in a way that was acceptably discreet, or how I should be banned from travelling via public transport until my child could reliably be bribed not to cry.

I began to think about how my own in-built ideas about manners and “good behaviour” might be harming other people, in ways that I might not even realise.

This was the seed of On Being Unreasonable: Breaking the Rules and Making Things Better. Writing this book took me back through time and around the world. I began by examining little rules, like the furious debates in places like the UK, US and Japan over whether or not women should be allowed to apply make-up on the train. This led me to consider some of our biggest social issues. I ended up writing about everything from how dedicated curtain-twitchers are using social media to police their neighbours to the way disabled people have often been shamed for using their phones as a legitimate disability aid and the recent uproars over civic protest.

My conclusion? Maybe the question of good behaviour isn’t so simple after all. If we truly want to make the world better for everyone, we might need to start breaking some rules.

In no particular order, here are my top five favourite ways to break the rules.

Walk on the grass.

In On Being Unreasonable, I talk a lot about the need to draw lines. Lines between good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, reasonable and unreasonable. So when I say “walk on the grass” I’m not suggesting that we all act like those awful Instagram influencers who visit nature reserves then destroy fragile ecosystems just to get a pretty shot. No – I’m talking about the way public space has been made increasingly hostile to the public. I’m talking about big developers building massive housing estates with just a tiny patch of outside space, then sticking a No Ball Games sign on top of it. I’m talking about the damage to children – and to all of us! – of having nowhere to run and congregate and play.

Use your phone while your kids are busy.

If I had a pound for every time I’ve been hanging around in a playpark supervising my children and have been forced to listen to someone commenting sadly on how “mothers these days are too glued to their phones to pay attention to their kids”, I would… well, I probably wouldn’t have to write any more books. Do you know what I’m doing on my phone? I’m answering emails, because it’s between the hours of 9am and 5pm, and I have a full-time job. Do you know what I’d have to do if you took my phone away from me? Put my kids in childcare – and then I wouldn’t have time to be in this playpark with them at all, because I’d be in the office instead. You have no idea what juggling act somebody might be managing. So why judge?

Sing along to musicals.

I’m an academic working in a theatre department who has written extensively about what we often call theatre etiquette – so believe me, I know how controversial this one will be! But hear me out. In On Being Unreasonable, I explore the roots of our contemporary audience contract – by which I mean, that common expectation that going to the cinema or the theatre means sitting completely still in reverent silence. I also write about how the total repression of expressions of collective joy, across every aspect of social life, has been slowly destroying community bonds. Instead of demanding that everybody be completely quiet at all times, what if we found ways to embrace a more exuberantly joyful shared experience at appropriate moments?

Jaywalk (safely).

Did you know that the original term was “jay drivers”, used to refer to people in horse-drawn carriages driving on the wrong side of the road? It was then changed to “jaywalking” (meaning walking across the road in the wrong place) following a dedicated pro-automobile campaign to blame vulnerable pedestrians for the damage wreaked by cars? In the US, where jaywalking is illegal, the original law was that “all persons have an equal right in the highway, and that in exercising the right each shall take due care not to injure other users”. 

Over time, though, cars became seen as the rightful owners of the road, and pedestrians expected to walk all the way down the street to a crossing point and then to come all the way back up again, even if where they want to get to is right on the other side. In the UK, though, the Highway Code’s new hierarchy of road users states that those who can do the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they may pose to others – which means that it’s time for those of us on foot to reclaim our streets from the primacy of the automobile.

Strike and protest where needed.

Right now prime minister Rishi Sunak has just announced a new bill to crack down even further on the “unreasonable” disruptions caused by strike action and civic protest. I have a whole chapter on this in On Being Unreasonable, but in brief, protests have to be disruptive to someone in order to be effective. The people who are foregoing huge chunks of pay during a cost of living crisis to go on strike aren’t doing it for a laugh – they’re doing it to show their employers the value of their labour. The people who are going to jail for throwing soup over paintings or blocking motorways are doing it to force politicians to wake up and take the climate crisis seriously – because what good is a road or a picture if our country is under water? Complaining that civic dissent is disruptive is like complaining that an oven is hot – it has to be in order to get the job done.

On Being Unreasonable: Breaking the Rules and Making Things Better is published by Faber & Faber

Photo: Gareth Iwan Jones

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