In the course of doing my studies at the Centre for Leadership and Learning in Risk (CLLR), I often drive over to Canberra to attend. It gives me time to chill out, even though it is an extremely long drive of 12-16 hours depending on the conditions. I love driving with my favourite music blaring or sneaky readings through audiobook I have been meaning to catch up on. I enjoy the autonomy and the freedom the open road, I am an experienced driver and do not find this a challenge, but actually rather relaxing. The Hay plain can rapidly roll on by when Big Country, Jo Jo Zep and the Falcons or Midnight Oil are keeping you company!
It is on one of these trips that I learned a valuable lesson about ‘social contract’. Of all places this happened at Tooleybuc. Tooleybuc is a cute little town where one crosses the Murray from Victoria to New South Wales. Tooleybuc is a sleepy little town with a population of 300 joined one either side by a single lane bride. If you are driving from Adelaide to Canberra, then the Tooleybuc way to Balranald is the most direct. The single lane bridge is made of beautiful wooden sleepers that form the floor of the bridge and it has a centre raising platform to let Paddle Steamers of old pass under. The Tooleybuc Bridge is heritage listed like several bridges in NSW (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historic_bridges_of_New_South_Wales) and records the ingenuity and history of pioneers who got the job done on a modest budget. On our first semiotic walk at Tharwa I came across my second experience with such a bridge.
When you get to Tooleybuc and want to cross, this is what you see:
Nowhere in my 30 years experience of driving or basic driving lessons was I taught how to handle this encounter. Previous to my trips to Canberra I had never been across a bridge like this. And when I first got there, other cars were on the other side also wanting to cross.
There were no signs at the bridge to tell me the convention or procedure of how to cross. There was no checklist to dumb me down in how to encounter a tussle with another driver at Tooleybuc, how on earth was I going to cross safely? They must have accidents all the time at Tooleybuc? Surely, this must be knocked down and a double lane bridge be installed? No, everyone at Tooleybuc survives just fine with a very simple ‘social contract’ we all learn from being a child. It’s called ‘first in best dressed’ or ‘courtesy courts kindness’. This is what all humans do when there are no rules and no checklists. We engage with the other person with eye contact or by temperament and make a decision. Half to time we make decisions at work this is what we do too. We don’t pull out a checklist we did 3 hours ago to work out how to live and work with other people. This is the nature of the ‘social contract’.
Social contracts are not written but ‘understood’. A social contract is an ethical way of engaging others (https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/social-contract-theory) It’s as simple as how we pass others in the hall way if their hands are full of packages. It’s how we wait for access to the washroom or juggle our place for a car park. A social contract exists through respect, empathy, trust and fairness. Nothing we do by social contract can be measured yet every social contract we enact is critical for living in community with others.
What would have happened at Tooleybuc if I had broken the social contract? How is the social contract known? Where is it written? Even in the social contract we know that tolerance prevails. Maybe the other person has never been on such a bridge before? The locals know and such behaviour is evidenced by hesitancy and anxiety that is easily recognised. When I ‘took my turn’ and crossed over I found out another social contract too, one waves ‘G’day as you pass on the other side, in recognition of the social contract.
Too often we seek to dumb down living safely with others through checklists and procedure paperwork when in reality, a huge percentage of what we do in risk and safety is undertaken through social contract. We keep perfectly safe with no paperwork through the fundamentals of trust, empathy, observation, respect and fairness. Even those who breach a social contract learn intuitively what happens when a social contract is breached. The power of belonging and in-groupness is a hundred times more effective than any penalty. This is how humans learn.
So even if you breach the social contract at Tooleybuc, you better learn quickly how to reverse and back up, otherwise nothing moves.