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Soft rules

4/11/16: This week we welcome Bryanston's Head of Pastoral, Dr Preetpal Bachra, as he examines the 'soft rules' of social interaction.

The Head recently blogged about the core school rules. I always consider these to be the ‘hard rules’, i.e. those which tell you where you stand. In this blog I want to examine some of what might be termed the ‘soft rules’, especially those relating to social interaction and how these are evolving and changing.

As a general rule of thumb, I try not to forget what it was like to be a teenager and perhaps I should share a few observations from my own teenage years because, as Maya Angelou observed, 'we are more alike than we are unalike.'

At the age of 14, I became attracted to Eastern philosophy, but that may have been because I thought the yin and yang symbol was ‘cool’. John Bellaimy gives a simplistic view of it as the yin being the dark swirl and the yang being the light swirl, and each side has a dot of the opposite colour illustrating the concept that everything contains the seed of its opposite. I used to think the symbol was about balance in life but it is more to do with things not being complete opposites. Rather, things are relative to each other. We can act in certain ways but there is always the seed of the opposite that can extend from it. 

My life and how I saw the world at 14 may not be so different from how pupils see the world today, but there is a difference in how they interact with it. In my teenage years, I had one key aim, one key aspiration, and that was to be Bruce Lee. He starred in one of my favourite films of all time, Enter The Dragon, and there was one particular scene that I wanted to replicate. I would practise with my nunchakus and there were plenty of accidents. In fact, if people had videoed me then my outcomes may have found their way into the litany of ‘YouTube fails’.

The important difference is that my life was private and all those stages that I went through, I explored on my own. There are records of these stages, of course, housed in family photo albums, but none of them are in the public domain. I didn’t, and still don’t, honestly think anyone else would be interested in the goings-on in my life. Banksy, in an interview for Time Out in 2010, summed it up well, “I don't know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in public; they forget that invisibility is a superpower.”

Today so much more of young people’s lives is on public display, and this isn’t without consequences. For example, in 2015 ChildLine conducted over 11,000 counselling sessions nationally with young people regarding online issues. And in a 2013 study for Northwestern University 29% of Facebook users surveyed reported ‘losing face’ from embarrassing content posted by friends. As a school we alert pupils to the dangers of putting themselves and their friends on public display through PSRE lessons, reminders of the support available, lectures about protecting themselves and so on. 

This use of digital communication can lead to embarrassment and humiliation. The distinction between embarrassment and humiliation is that the former we bring on ourselves and the latter is brought on us by others. In 1998 a scandal broke in the US when Monica Lewinsky admitted relations with Bill Clinton, the then president. She did something that embarrassed her, but the response was intense because of how people commented.

From a psychological point of view, the comments Monica Lewinsky endured can be partly understood by the process of disassociation, i.e. the person commenting is separated from the victim and understanding the implications of their comments: they cease to remember that those people have feelings. And here is our soft rule: don’t put yourself out there. If pupils (or any of us) choose to share things that others do not want to be shared then it will humiliate them, and we take a very dim view of that.

Of course there are positives to the use of social media: the messages of support to each other; ensuring people are not left out; sharing happy times with loved ones; contact with family; the sharing of ideas to make us think and broaden our horizons, and we should remember that this is why technology has a place in our lives. It can be an incredible force for good and it should be used as such when appropriate. 

However, we should all be careful what we post, be careful with other people’s privacy and not put ourselves in a position where we or our feelings, or those of others, might be abused. It is these soft, unspoken rules, along with the hard rules, that go some way to ensuring we can flourish and thrive within our own communities and the wider society in which we find ourselves.