The power of negotiating boundaries

A thought

Every interaction between people is guided by invisible norms. No matter where it is — at work, at the gym, or at the bar — the words that are spoken between individuals will always be guided by the context that underlies the situation they find themselves in.

If two people know each other sufficiently well, then this context will predominantly grow out the interpersonal culture they have created between them — a place where their inside jokes, their secrets, their shared histories live, a place that forms their bond. But in situations where they are relative strangers, the context will mainly be dictated by the environmental norms around them.

Every successful interaction (which leads to the creation of what we call trust) grows when we move further away from the environmental norms to a deeper interpersonal culture.

When I’m talking to one of my best friends, I can say a lot of things that make complete sense in their world, things that bring us closer, but these things wouldn’t make any sense to someone else. When I’m talking to a new, prospective client, on the other hand, I initially have to be very careful about what I say and how I say it, so that whatever it is I’m saying neatly fits into their existing conception of what someone like me should be saying to them in that particular situation.

Eventually, this may change, but at first, I have to accommodate their conditioned expectations.

Whether directly or indirectly, everything we do is shaped by our relationship to people. Humans live in such a connected world that even then we think we are acting only in relation to some object or structure, quite often, we are still operating in the social sphere, where other people have established norms we are expected to abide by.

A lot of life, as a result, is a matter of interacting with these silent norms in a way that allows us to remold their form to better accommodate our individual wants and needs. Or put differently: Life is a game of negotiating boundaries.

Any time I say something to a stranger, I’m either accommodating the predominant norm that dictates the situation or I am breaking outside of it; I am deciding which side of the boundary I should fall on with each word I say, with each expression I share, with each conversation I introduce.

At the beginning of any relationship, accommodating the norm is what creates trust. It tells the person you respect their social boundaries. If you don’t do this, often, the other person will be suspicious of the interaction because their expectations are being completely reshuffled before they have had a chance to get to know you and what you want. After an initial introductory period, however, the creation of trust shifts from people upholding existing norms to people breaking them to create an interpersonal culture.

Most relationships we form remain in the introductory period, where norms are constantly upheld, and societal boundaries are always respected. We do this for various reasons: it’s comfortable, it’s what people expect, and usually, it’s just not practically necessary to push any further. But one of the main reasons we remain here, one that pretty much everyone struggles with in one context or another, is that we lack courage.

Negotiating boundaries sometimes means breaking boundaries, and that also means we have to expose ourselves beyond norms. When people say that vulnerability is what brings us together, this is what they mean — that we have to risk expressing ourselves in a way that defies expectation so that we can get the other person to break a norm with us to create a new norm, a norm that is personal; individualized to our particular relationship.

An interpersonal culture may widen if two people continue to spend time with each other, adding to their shared experiences, but it only ever deepens when one party or the other is willing to bare themselves against the grain.

When a salesperson tells a long-term client not to buy a particular product from a company that worships revenue, because after listening to the client’s problem, he realizes it’s a poor fit, he’s breaking a norm. When a teenage boy makes an effort to flirt with a girl in his class to create sexual tension between them, hoping to move beyond the vague friendship they have, he is breaking a norm. When a friend tells another friend that she has lied to him in the past about something that is no longer of any practical consequence because she feels it’s the right thing to do, she is breaking a norm.

We often measure our relationships by the length of time we have sustained them. We take more pride in a friendship that has lasted 20 years than one that has been around, say, five years. And there is sense to this: Time is a robust measurement when it comes to valuing the survival of something. That said, time only adds shared experienced to an interpersonal culture, which may make a relationship broader, but by itself, it can never make it deeper.

Depth directly correlates with courage — with the breaking of existing norms to create new, personal norms. And courage is about moments — doing what you ought to do when you ought to do it, even if it risks harm.

Unspoken boundaries define every interaction we have. These boundaries create shapes and forms that enforce the surface area of our movements within the social sphere. To deepen our relationships— to expand this surface area — then, we have to learn to negotiate the rigidity of these boundaries by amalgamating them with our own wants and needs. What lies on the other side of an old boundary is a new world, but this world can only be accessed by a willingness to take risks, to exercise courage, to take bold steps.

A memory

I’m sitting under a cloudy sky. Now that the sun has tucked itself away, it should feel gloomy, a little dark even, but after the heavy downpour earlier, there is a lingering freshness in the air — born out of an augmented smell of greenery and the calm, floating breeze.

I pull out a cigarette.

The bar I’m at is both open and intimate, and any one part in it will put you in sight of every other part. One section is covered by a roof: It has music, and it has a dance floor, and most distinctly, it has a corner to its right-hand side where strangers are getting their bodies tattooed by other strangers for no reason outside the fact that they are there and it’s an option.

But I’m adjacent to this section, beyond the cover of the roof. Where I’m sitting, there is an oval-esque rink that a few skateboarders are diving in and out of. This is the main draw, the reason so many people are here. The crowd is all around it — watching, talking, breathing in the scenery.

“Do you have a lighter?” I ask the girl sitting beside me on the floor.

She smiles and gives me one.

“What brings you here?” the girl says when I return it. By “here” she is partially referring to the bar we are in, but mostly, she’s wondering why I have traveled to this place, a somewhere, a place that clearly neither of us call home.

“I’ve heard good things over the years. I don’t know. I felt like it was time to come see it with my own eyes.”

“It’s a place worth seeing with your own eyes. It’s the third time I’ve been here, and it feels like I find something new to love about it with each visit.”

We continue the small talk for a while longer. She tells me where she’s from and what she does, and I tell her where I’m from and what I do. We make the odd joke, and we compliment the styles of the skateboarders.

“Actually, the real reason I’m here is that I’m looking for connection,” I say after a brief silence.

We make eye contact. I smile lightly. She does, too. Then, she slowly raises her eyebrows as if to ask me to continue my thought.

“There is something about places like this that reduces friction, like there are fewer games to play, fewer hurdles to jump over. Maybe I’m looking for a shortcut, maybe this isn’t it. But there is something about being away from home, from a place of prior expectations, that makes it easier to be with strangers, to see them, to connect beyond the superficial.”

I gauge her reaction with each sentence I utter, not entirely sure where I’m going with it all other than to see where it leads.

“Yeah, it’s like the societal baggage has been left behind, and with it, the bullshit,” she laughs. “No one is home here, which means that everybody is trying to figure it out as they go along. It’s actually one of my favorite things about this place — seeing how people deal with the lack of history.”

“It’s almost like it brings out a purity in us that is otherwise so clouded we forget it exists. Something about honesty, something about openness.”

“Or maybe it just provides a temporary escape from who you really are. Or maybe it gives you a sprinkle of something novel that you confuse for permanence. Or maybe you’re just distracted, looking for something you could just as well find at home. Or maybe, I guess, you’re right.”

She has a look of lightness on her face as she says this, like she’s either teasing or testing me, like this is her way of both showing and uncovering.

I just laugh a little, “I think you’ve pinned me down.”

“I thought I might have,” she says, smiling back.

We talk for another hour before I’m out of both cigarettes and beer, realizing I’ve lost my friends, too. We talk about the places we have been and the places we want to go, the people we have met and the people we want to meet, the books we have read and the books we want to read. Before I get up to leave, we exchange numbers. I don’t expect to ever see her again, and it doesn’t matter.

Our encounter has served its purpose.

The rest of the night is spent similarly: hopping from part of the bar to another, clashing with one person or another, hearing one story or another. Everything is easy, everyone is loose, every moment is unburdened. There are no expectations, no inhibitions. There is just movement and boundaries and the elastic space between the two.

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This article was originally published on Design Luck.