On The Vulnerability And Ubiquity Of Implicit Contracts

Recently, I talked about unspoken conversations, and explored some of the reason why it was that so much was said implicitly between people but never actually said out loud because the conditions for those conversations did not exist.  It is perhaps unsurprising that it is not only in our personal world but in other areas as well where such implicit deals exist, with neither party necessarily spelling outright the terms of their friendly and acceptable relations with others but with a lot of unspoken and even unacknowledged deals being made.  For example, a manager may choose to refrain from micromanagement, which takes a lot of effort and creates a lot of bad will among those being micromanaged, so long as communication is kept up about important matters and the work is done in a timely fashion, it not being necessarily important to investigate too closely into how it is done so long as it is done well.  This kind of implicit deal, though, does not always work because other parties might disrupt the circumstances of the implicit deal and keep it from taking place.

The advantage of implicit contracts is that there is no paper trail, nothing to tie down any of the people involved in the deal to what has been tacitly agreed to.  There are a great many things that we are prepared to overlook on an informal basis that we would never agree to if we had to sign on the dotted line that such and such were the conditions that we would have to deal with.  Indeed, frequently we are willing to lie a great deal in terms of written statements because we have a high degree of confidence that our freedom to act in an implicit way will not be restricted.  Yet when things enter into more troublesome waters, it is the documents, and not the tacit and unspoken agreements, that will be seen as evidence.  The unspoken reality is the water in which we swim, the air which surrounds us and which we breathe, but it leaves not a trace in the recorded reality, and indeed will not be recorded because it would have too many costs on the face of those who would be asked to make the deal in the first place.  Indeed, it may even be said that the decline of the state of a given relationship between people can be measured by the degree that things are made explicit rather than implicit.

As might be expected, this is something that many people are familiar with.  If one works and one’s performance evaluation comes up as negative, there is often an explicit written plan that is put in place to help ensure approval, and the existence of this explicit document as opposed to the usual implicit ways that one does one’s job is a sign that things are not going well.  Somehow I grasped this reality even as a child.  Being rather irritated at the lack of respect to me and to my property and to my privacy that was shown by my younger brother, I repeatedly attempted to make explicit contracts as to our dealings that would sanction these negative behaviors that got on my nerves so much, and I would try in vain to find any sort of equal grievance that he had against me.  He disliked the attempt on my part to restrain his conduct in areas that he wanted to engage in but that I did not, but I did not have any particular desire to bother or interfere with his life that he could complain about, and so he resented the inequality of such a contract and likely resented the lack of fond feeling I had for him because of his behaviors.  In light of such irritation and provocation, it is perhaps unsurprising that we have never had a particularly good relationship even as adults.

How are we, if we are students of institutions or history, to account for the larger reality that is not and will never be set down in writing?  Some of these matters are things that may never even be the explicit subject of a single conversation, and so literally no evidence may account for their existence.  Yet the existence of tacit deals is all around us, and the functioning of any government, business, church, or family requires a great many tacit deals and understandings that smooth the relationships between the people involved but that are never set in writing and never even the subject of communications.  If we have any social understanding whatsoever we quickly realize that there are some things that, if we wish to maintain peaceful relations with someone, must simply not be spoken of or communicated because we have a good idea they will cause a great deal of irritation and hostility and it is simply not worth it to complain about.  And people are willing to do quite a lot to keep up the habits of life that they wish to maintain, regardless of the barriers that others place against those behaviors, continually forcing us to ponder whether our irritation at the behavior of others is worth dealing with.  And others, no doubt, have to ponder the same things themselves.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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