News flash: MY rules ≠ THE rules

When I was young, my best friend would come over to my house and say, "I'm the guest, so I get to decide what we do." When I visited her house, she would say, "It's my house, so I get to decide what we do." At five, her logic puzzled and frustrated me - but hey, it seemed pretty airtight. Later, my parents taught me how to actually behave as both a guest and a host. The basic model is that the guest doesn't ask for or criticize anything, the host makes the guest feel welcome and comfortable, and both parties do their best to be polite, pleasant, and engaged during the visit.

(Before you ask, no, this is not a randomly-placed post on etiquette. I do have a point.)

My point is that this model works beautifully as long as all the people are playing by the same rules. Everyone gets their needs met, a good time is had by all, etc.

What happens, though, when that's not the case?

As a guest, I feel frustrated when my hosts don't stick to the script I learned as a child. When household members argue and criticize each other in front of me; when they disengage and ignore me; when every mouthful that anyone takes is fair game for scrutiny and commentary; I shut down. I become a quiet-but-polite robot, staring into the middle distance, trying to ignore the perceived rudeness going on around me.

Note the word perceived.

When I willingly give control of my comfort to someone else, I disempower myself. When I'm uncomfortable because I feel like someone else should be acting differently, my needs don't get met and I get(!) to stew in martyrdom and self-righteousness (which makes me super-fun to be around, I'm sure). I end up feeling five years old again - it's not fair when I play by the rules and they don't!

Hmm, the rules, you say?

You sure those aren't just your rules?


When I accept the social contract I grew up with as my cultural custom and not "the rules," I find that I have less judgment of those who act differently. I also feel more free to take care of myself in uncomfortable situations. I'm pretty sure I'm never going to get a medal for "Valiantly Sat Through A Family Argument That Was None of Her Business." I have the option of leaving the room or even *gasp* checking e-mail on my phone.

Weirdly, releasing expectations of how someone else should act makes it easier for me to take care of myself in a loving way. Usually I would worry, "What will they think? They'll think I'm so rude / such a bad guest!" But when it's clear that What Will They Think Of Me isn't the game we're playing, I can step into my sovereignty and make my own rules about what's best for me. Reminder to myself: releasing judgment first is key, since otherwise I'd be leaving the room in a huff and hoping that would get them to change their behavior (yeah, right).

Another cool thing that happens when I start thinking of the rules as my rules is that I get to decide which ones to keep. I will probably continue to play by the hosting rules I grew up with, because I think they help guests feel welcome and comfortable. Actively choosing those rules instead of letting them run my life makes them feel more meaningful. As a guest, I'll still probably stay in my default mode most of the time - but not at the expense of my own well-being anymore. Polite Julia doesn't have to equal Martyr Julia.

Now I feel weirdly grateful for those situations, because otherwise I would have never questioned my beliefs around this dynamic. I wonder where else I'm getting needlessly upset because I'm expecting others to play by my rules?