Following The Rules

Following the rules allows your brain to switch off.

Elon Musk famously said to his Tesla employees:

“In general, always pick common sense as your guide. If following a ‘company rule’ is obviously ridiculous in a particular situation, such that it would make for a great Dilbert cartoon, then the rule should change.”

Let’s explore this idea of ‘rules’ in the time of Covid where it seems irrationality hit its peak.

Rules are there for a reason. Sometimes it’s for safety, others for efficiency and in most situations following the rules will be the right way to go. But it’s rare that one should follow a rule without being aware of the surrounding context. Sometimes a rule cannot consider the complexities of each situation that it’s supposed to be applied to. This can make following the rules inapt and can do the opposite of what it was designed to do in the first place. Nevertheless, people love to follow rules. They’re a good substitute for thinking.

I was on the train the other day and there was a ‘no standing’ policy that had been implemented during Covid. This stops people being packed in like sardines which would help reduce the spread of Covid - fair enough. I was standing in between the carts like I usually do, in my own space with no one around me. A train guard comes up and informs me that I have to take a seat because that’s the rules. I look around and see that the only place for me to sit is next to someone. This train guard would like me to go from being safe in my own space, to sitting next to someone. Not because that would help reduce the chance of Covid being spread, because what he’s asking of me would do the opposite, but because that’s what the rules say I should do. No thinking here. Just blind obedience.

All gyms have been asked by the government (who of course, as we know, are infallible when it comes to making rules) to set a standard that they must enforce. They have asked all gyms to inform their members that they have to wear a mask upon entry, and while walking around the gym. But they are not necessary while working out. Covid spreads through the air. The heavier that someone exhales the more virus they are going to be putting into the air. So what they’d like us to do is wear a mask while not breathing heavily. But as soon you start to exhale more forcefully, they’re fine with you not wearing one. Now don’t get me wrong, I despise wearing a mask. They are extremely uncomfortable and I won’t wear them unless I really feel the need to. So I wouldn’t want them to implement the ‘wear a mask while exercising’ rule. But enforcing a mask upon entry, while letting people not wear a mask when exercising, becomes completely ineffective. Just do away with all mask requirements all together. It’s like making people wear a seatbelt while the car is stationary, but not while driving.


There are also times when you could technically break a rule, but the context around the rule would make everyone shrug and say ‘eh, who cares’. For instance, I am a volunteer firefighter and when we turn out to a job we usually have 4 people in the back of the truck. During the peak of our most strict lockdown at level 4, they only wanted 2 people in the back to help with social distancing, etc. This is a reasonable request. One day our government informed us that at midnight, we would be returning to level 3, allowing 4 people in the back again. We hadn’t got to midnight yet when there was a call out. We turned up and the person in charge made the decision to only allow 2 people in the back. That was the rules. Had we waited another 8 minutes, 4 people could be in the back. That’s right, it was 11.52pm, 8 minutes until the rules changed and because the rules are the rules, we stuck with them. Personally, I would have allowed 4 in the back in full recognition that I would be breaking the rules. Would people really have been upset at this? Or would they had seen the context of the situation and allowed it?

All of these are examples of letting the rules do the thinking for us.

It pays to look a rule sometimes and realise that yes, technically you would be bending or breaking them. In most circumstances a strict adherence to the rules are necessary. But instead of just looking at the rules and allowing your critical thinking skills to jump off the roof, allow yourself to take in some extra context and see if following the rule is a good idea, or if it would make for a good Dilbert comic. Or maybe in the train guard situation, make the things potentially worse.

But here’s the most sinister part: rules can give weak people power. Rules allow people, who would otherwise have low social status to feel empowered, important and even sanctimonious by enforcing something onto others and having the authority of the rule to back them up. It doesn’t need to make sense, it’s a rule and the legitimacy of it comes from the fact that it’s a rule. Circular reasoning.

They tap the rule book and say ‘doesn’t matter, it’s the rules’, and there’s not a thought behind the mouth who speaks it.