Social Scripts and Social Contracts


Social Scripts are a good way to shape social behaviour and small talk. 

Social Contracts are agreements that you feel obligated to uphold. 

Each of these allow society to be civil with low effort.

Errors in either of these can cause social awkwardness. Additionally, some people exploit Social Scripts and Social Contracts for their own gain.

We are going to define these terms and explore some of the ways they can be exploited, and what you can do about it.


Social Scripts

We have enough to do in society without having to manually come up with a solution for everything. Often we learn a way of doing things that is efficient and good enough, that we then make into a general habit. Consider how you make your favourite hot drink. You will likely have a preferred order that you do the parts, which allows you to make a good enough drink in a specific way without having to experiment further and this means that you expend little effort in making that hot drink.

This idea of efficient habits can be applied to many things that you do. In this case, we are going to look at how communication habits have evolved certain Social Scripts. 

In theatre, scripts were developed so that the actors knew what they were supposed to say, have some idea about how the lines are supposed to be delivered and also what kinds of actions are needed to accompany those lines. When interacting with other actors on the stage, the other people are supposed to follow the same scripts and respond to your lines and actions in an appropriate way. The same script can be interpreted in a number of ways, changing the look and feel. Even so, the script works, and actors who pick up on that look and feel, can use the same script to interact.

Imagine for a moment that you have two actors who are following the scripts that they have learned, but through some comedic error, they have each studied different plays. Their scripts are not going to align and the interaction is going to be very disjointed and erroneous.

When we refer to Social Scripts, what we are talking about leans heavily on this script metaphor. Rather than acting out a scene in Hamlet, we are acting out a scene of the “Greeting Script”. We often refer to this one as “small talk”.

While there is flexibility in how the interaction can occur, there is an expected sequence of questions and responses that still fit within the basic parameters of the Social Script. This allows the people who are meeting to feel comfortable in how the interaction is going without having to put too much effort into thinking about exactly what they are doing. They are just following the script and script response.

When they work, the benefits of having these scripts is that standard communication becomes simple, safe and easy. A problem is that for some, scripts becomes formulaic and boring. 

When people complain about having to do “small talk”, this formulaic and boring aspect is often what they are referring to.

If the scripts misalign too much, then chaos and confusion can occur. This is fine if the intent is a comedy sketch on stage, but far less fun in real life. It is important to notice when the script is failing and stop running on autopilot and take manual control of the conversation. 

Sometimes the script goes off course because the other party is exploiting the script. More on that later, but the brief solution is to again take manual control of what you are saying instead of relying on the automatic script.

Social Contracts

Hopefully we all know what a contract is.

[Aside] A contract is a formal agreement between two or more parties to achieve a specific outcome.

Once both parties have agreed to the contract, then they are bound to complete their part of the contract, and should both do so. In doing so, it is expected that the planned outcome should occur. The nature of this being formal is that all parties explicitly agree to the parts and often there is paperwork or some other record to back that agreement up.

[Aside] Explicit means it is “stated clearly and in detail, leaving no room for confusion or doubt“. Implicit means that it is “suggested though not directly expressed”.

When interacting with people, it is not feasible to formally discuss, negotiate and record every agreement. Nor is there time to make agreements over everything. As such, many of our interactions rely heavily on implied agreements, or informal but discussed agreements. Similar to Social Scripts and Templates, Social Contracts save us a great deal of time and effort in manually working things out.

[Aside] Political philosophy has a social contract that relates to the authority of the rulers over the ruled, and that they need to look after the ruled to avoid them rising up against the rulers. This is not what we are talking about here. 

In this context, a Social Contract refers to the feeling of obligation you may feel to another party because of an explicit or implicit contract you feel that you have made with them.

Much like a formal contract, if you and the other party or parties do the parts you have all implicitly or explicitly agreed to, then the outcome should be good. 

What is concerning is when parties do not do their parts. This can be because they fail to do what they said, they change the terms of the agreement, or some other external thing interferes.

Consider an agreement I make with a Car Yard. I go in to purchase a vehicle. I spot the car I want, and negotiate a price and ask for some modifications to be made, such as added tinting. A contract is written up that states that I will deliver the agreed upon monetary value and in response they will sell me the specific car with the modifications by a certain date – let’s say next Friday.

I go to the Car Yard on the specified date with my cash. I pull out my copy of the contract and ask to pick up my car, ready to hand the cash over. The sales person confirms understanding and organises for my car to be brought around to the pick up point. Up drives the wrong car. Not only is the car not the one I purchased, it is an inferior car.

I point out to the sales person that this is not the car I purchased and humorous as it is, please go and get my car. The sales person informs me they have sold that car to someone else, but they do have a car here, and as I am under contract, can I now hand over the money?

Am I under contract? 

[Aside] Not any more. 

The Sale Yard has breached their side of the agreement, so I am no longer obliged to follow through with my side of the agreement. I can turn around and leave with my cash. They didn’t deliver their end of the deal, and worse, they tried to change the terms. 

[Aside] I could agree to the new deal if I consider it a better deal – but I don’t, and I have that choice. The choice to say “No”.

I hope that is fairly clear on the formal legal contract side.

What is odd is the number of people that I see who are trying to stick to their end of the Social Contracts they have made with people, when the other party has breached their end of the contract. These breaches can be due to changes of terms without notice, failure to do their agreed upon actions, or simply breaking the social etiquette rules.

Bringing it all together

Consider you are walking down a shopping mall, talking to a friend about some deep philosophical questions, such as is choc mint ice cream a good or bad flavour combination. 

[Aside] Mileage may vary.

Into your conversation intrudes a sales person for an environmental outfit asking “Do you care about the environment?”

“Well of course I do”, I respond.

“That is great! We are working on helping the environment and if you care about the environment, you should help us to do so! It’s really easy to help us to help what you love” says the sales person.

The conversation becomes quite awkward at this point as I try to figure out how to escape this logic trap. I want to help the environment, I have just publicly stated that I do care and here is a person showing that if I care, I should help them – financially of course.

I feel trapped, because I’m trying to maintain my end of being civil while the other person is not.

First of all, I’m script like responding to a reasonable question “Do you care about the environment?”, to which the only reasonable answer to the question seems to be “yes”.

The Sales Person has used a common social script to trap me into a conversation and taking a specific position. It would feel rude ignoring them or telling them to shove off.

The Sales Person further exploits the Social Script of being consistent and honest and to aid in pushing me into feeling obliged to fulfil the Social Contract of “help out”.

This is a nefarious trap.

[Aside] Hash tag, not all sales people.

Let us consider the breaches of Social Script and Social Contract.

First – The sales person stepped into my private conversation, intruding themselves into our discussion and changing the topic from ice cream to theirs. I am under no Social Contract Obligation to answer their uninvited first question. My response can be 

[Aside] “Not interested”.

Second – It is not required that I continue on their script – I can break the script too. 

[Aside] “I’m not interested in contributing to your endeavor – I have my own means of supporting the environment that I love. Best of luck with your sales”.

Third – I don’t have to continue the forced behaviour. The sales person, through their tactic of sales, has pushed me to show a behaviour that they are exploiting. I can simply get off the pedestal that they tried to place me on and say something like 

[Aside] “I am not the sale you are looking for” *hand gesture*

Should the person try to persist in breaching Social Scripts or Social Contracts to exploit me, I can now become “more rude”. 

However, I do recommend doing a brief cost benefit analysis. 

Yelling at the salesperson is not really going to help either of your days. Just walking away from a pushy sales person is going to benefit yours. Reporting pushy sales people to the shopping management will make their day much worse.

Lastly, sometimes the contract is breached not by you, or the other party, but by an external circumstance. Consider that the reason the Car Yard can’t deliver the vehicle I purchased because one of the signs in the Car Yard fell on the vehicle and it is no longer in the condition that I purchased it in. This is technically no one’s fault. In similar ways, social contracts may be breached by external things too.


Social scripts are time savers. They allow for simple communication and check ins to occur without too much cognitive overhead. Thoughtless scripts can lead to problems, if either the script goes off track, is not appropriate to the circumstance, or someone else exploits it.

Social Contracts are things that you have explicitly or implicitly agreed to. So long as the agreement was made in good faith, and the other party is doing their part, and no external circumstances have invalidated it, then by default do your part.

However, if the outcome is not what you thought you agreed to, the other party breaches their end of the deal, or the circumstances have changed, you are not obliged to follow your end of the contract. 

Ideally you would renegotiate, but sometimes you should just walk away.

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