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The invisible scripts that guide our lives

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I don’t usually watch Bollywood movies, but when your Indian mom asks you to do something — including watching a movie (matinee of course), getting the mail from the mailbox, or buying her a car — you do it. Anyone with an Asian/Indian mother is nodding right now, fearful of the earth-shattering guilt trips that mothers have relentlessly honed over decades of surgical use and rigorous testing — and deservedly so.

Not my mom, but you get the idea. Source unknown.

Anyway, as I was watching this Indian movie, I started realizing how many invisible assumptions it revealed about Indian culture. And then I took a step back and thought about the American movies I watch all the time…movies that also reveal a tremendous amount about our own culture. These invisible scripts are so deeply embedded that we don’t even realize they guide our attitudes and behaviors.

For example, would a fish know he’s swimming in water?

Do Americans realize how many of their beliefs are pre-written by our societal values?

For instance, in Indian culture, parents will sacrifice virtually everything for their son to succeed. In the movie, the poor parents have one air conditioning unit, which they give to their son while he studies. (He goes on to a top technical college and is able to support them.)

Also in the movie, young Indian men put aside their “passions” for a stable job, which they can use to support their families. They have little interaction with women before marriage. Anything non-engineering/medical is looked down upon. And so on.

We all nod, saying, “Ah yes, those passionless Indian automatons” — until we look at ourselves.

What are the invisible scripts that govern our lives?

Would you even be able to identify them?

MYTH: “I don’t have any money…so I can’t go to college”

I’ve recently started watching this awesome show, Friday Night Lights. For someone who hates sports, doesn’t even know what sports season it is, and STILL does not understand how football is scored, I am impressed with myself for watching this show.

Anyway, it depicts a small Texas town and its love of football, blah blah blah. True to form, I ignore the football parts and focus on analyzing the meta-messages. I know, I am really fun at parties.

Friday Night Lights explained a lot of things that have puzzled me about American culture. For example, in one episode, the dad spends his daughter’s college money, prompting her to say, “Now I can’t go to college!”

I was confused. Huh? You don’t have money saved, so you can’t afford college? What?

Unfortunately, this is what most Americans believe: that if you don’t have money, you can’t go to college. This belief is reflected in our culture (TV shows), our educational system (high-school counselors), and even our businesses (banks that promote 529s with fear tactics).

Of course, it’s simply not true. If you don’t have money, you can still go to college. My family didn’t have any money, and I went to one of the top universities in the country via scholarships (how I won $100,000+ of scholarships). But even if I hadn’t done that, there were still MANY options:

  • Student loans (no, they are not uniformly evil, despite what everybody says)
  • Grants
  • Work-study/part-time job, etc.

In fact, the cultural script of “No money = no college” is even more absurd when you actually know how college admissions and financial aid work. If you are poor — but you’re skilled enough to get admissions — most top universities will pay for your entire education. This is why you should apply to the best universities you can, regardless of money.

Yet Friday Night Lights reflects our cultural values, which are so deep-seated that we don’t even blink. No money = no college. Of course!

But that’s just an assumption — like so many of the invisible scripts that guide our lives.

What are 3 invisible scripts that guide you?

Do you see the invisible scripts that guide our lives?

Here are some others:

  • “I should follow my passions”
  • “I should hook up with a lot of people before I settle down”
  • “I work hard, so I deserve this nice apartment”
  • “My kids should take care of themselves after they graduate from college”
  • “Where did you go on vacation this year?”

Each of those is a uniquely American idea. Many other cultures would laugh, ridicule, and be utterly confused by those statements. Yet they’re so deeply embedded in our culture that we don’t even notice that they’re assumptions.

What are the top 3 invisible scripts that have influenced you?

(Hint: If you can’t think of any…answer this: What are the top 3 invisible scripts that have influenced your friends?)

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  1. “I’m going to university/college because it will get me a good job”

    I think the assumption nowadays is that if you want to earn decent money, you have to have a degree, even if it means going into student debt. I’m currently a university student in Scotland, and if I ask any of my peers what they want to do after leaving university, its just a blunt “Get a job.”

  2. For me (American WASP)
    1. Early marriage is preferable to living together. (And I married at 21.)
    2. Working in a profession is important, and one must at least be planning to go to grad school after college, if not actually applying. (I’m a prep school then elite college grad who is not planning on grad school and I work in the trades and feel very uncomfortable with this.)
    3. To go along with that–the best, highest status work is that which requires an advanced degree is as far removed as possible from making actual stuff. So, moderate status: architect. Higher status: accounting. Higher status still: investment banking, academia or being a lawyer.

    For my husband (Chinese immigrant)
    1. Being a Good Man means being able to earn enough to fully support your wife/family to an acceptable degree, even if your wife does work.
    2. School is very, very important, and children should be relieved of household duties to allow more time for study.
    3. Respect to in-laws an extended family is very important, and you should always be on your best company manners around the in-laws. (This confuses my poor parents to no end, and they are a bit hurt that he won’t relax around them.)
    4. A 30% savings rate is normal, 50% highly desirable.

    • And I didn’t realize how ingrained my own cultural scripts were until I encountered my husband’s. I frequently find that the root cause of our disagreements come from differing ingrained ideas about how things “ought to be done.”

    • So good. This is right on (and very similar to Indian culture). Nicely put.

    • Seeing how easy it is to get a divorce nowadays, as long as you set up a proper prenup, getting married early actually is a decent idea, especially if one of you is earning money. Being taxed as a couple beats being taxed as individuals.

  3. 1. Marry someone you love. (Without regards to any other trait.)
    2. Women are supposed to crave and strive for marriage at all costs.
    3. Bitch about work.

    • I didn’t realize until I read them, but your first two are in my head all the time.

    • Lol, I didn’t realize until I read them, but your THIRD one is in my head all the time.

  4. Ramit –

    This is a topic that I contemplate often – it seems as if there is no hard and fast reality, but rather only that which is shaded a certain way via our respective cultural lens.

    We internalize and follow a certain set of internal rules that we’ve been socialized into honoring as truth, when in reality, those rules are not truth, but only our perception of truth.

    However, since reality is not an objective concept, I think we can look at this to be at our advantage:

    Subjectivity implies choice.

    We can choose to follow the scripts as society has pre-defined for us, or we can opt to define the scripts ourselves, based on our own preferences.

    I first wrote about this last year, when I spent Christmas in a Costa Rican village with a local family. Let’s just say there was a violent pig be-heading that really forced me to question my beliefs from a broader perspective. Check out the post & thought processes that went on here if you wish.

    Great post, Ramit. Cheers!

  5. I really couldn’t think of my own invisible scripts, so I had to use the hint at the end to even attempt this exercise (What are the top 3 invisible scripts that have influenced your friends?)

    1. I’ve been working hard all week so I deserve a drink, or three.
    2. I *have* to have a car, even if public transport will get me to work twice as fast, and the occassional taxi is much cheaper than own/maintaining/fueling my own vehicle.
    3. Overspending on people shows them that I really, really care.

    Erm…I think I’ll have to find some cheap, local, non-alcholic ways for me and my friends to hang out for a change.

  6. So what are the top three scripts that influenced you Ramit? (Besides Taco Bell commercials)

    As for me, I have a Jewish mother (just as bad on the guilt trips but with more goulash and less curries). So my scripts (guilt trips) were:

    1. Have kids – Oddly enough, I didn’t want to until a few years ago when I realized I would make a kick ass dad.
    2. Get a good stable job – Mothers are mothers regardless of culture. I followed this one to the letter.
    3. Keep up with the Jones – This one I picked up in the US. The need for ever newer and shinier toys. I still live this script on occasion but this time I’m the one writing it.

  7. Get a car. Seriously, why is there an expectation that if you just graduated from college, you need to have a car!

    • Sachit, I have to agree with you here. There is such pressure to go out and get a new car. Why is that? I do have a very old car, but it’s still in great shape, but there’s a bit of pressure to makes sure I go out and buy something new after I graduate… it seems a bit much!

    • Uh, because in certain places you need one?

    • I agree with that one. Among my recently graduated co-workers, the only three of us not having a car were immigrants. Everyone else could not even begin to understand how we could be professionals with a good slary but no car. The socail pressure was huge. However, instead, I paid off my condo. I followed the Indian / Chinese / Eastern European script of save, save, save; debt is bad.


    • The expectation is there from friends of yours that do have cars. The very friends you’d as for rides and to help you move if you didn’t.

  8. 1. Be happy with your decisions, for things happen for a reason.
    2. Be happy with the friends, you chose them.
    3. Work your ass off.

  9. Typo:

    Be happy with your friends, you chose them.

  10. Ramit,

    I saw a lot of myself in the questions part of this post, and in the assumption that money was needed for college. I did it the stupid way, and I fully expect you to yell at me over it, but I already know what my mistakes were. It took me eleven years to graduate from a middle-tier state school despite top-one-percent scores on the SAT, ACT, and IQ tests, because I worked my way through college after dropping out of one of the federal service academies.

    Now, with my state school degree, I’ve moved home at age 30 to help run my father’s fairly successful farm that he’s no longer physically able to operate himself. I realize I’m helping him out a lot by working at a very reduced wage from what I’m worth, even in this economy, and still I feel guilty about eating with them regularly, and even taking my paycheck, despite the fact that I’m currently working over 80 hours a week to get crops out of the field, then putting in time on a freelance project.

    The one standard script I don’t feel bad about ignoring is not getting a standard office job. I’ve known since I was around 25 that I was more suited to starting and running my own company than to being a cog in someone else’s machine.

    So there’s me.