I’ve been watching a lot of Seinfeld recently. All of the characters perfectly straddle the line between normal and insane. Yes, even Kramer. And I’ve found I relate to all of them the most when they are defending the social contract.
The social contract theory is as old as Socrates and has been argued about by philosophers and lay-people alike for centuries. In the Seinfeld world, the social contract boils down to expectations, i.e., what is expected of you by other people and how you expect others to behave in certain situations.
In some episodes, the social contract is to be strictly adhered to, and in other episodes it is something to be ridiculed and ignored. George is the character who vacillates the most.
The Dinner Party
“The Dinner Party” episode is about adhering to the social contract at all costs.
The episode begins with the main characters gathering at Jerry’s before heading out to a dinner party they were invited to. Elaine argues you can’t show up to a dinner party empty handed because it is rude and insists they stop for cake and wine to bring. George, already slightly outraged says, “So me showing up to a dinner I was invited to is rude?,” to which Elaine responds, “Yes.”
I don’t blame George for his frustration, but I absolutely agree with Elaine. This is a prime example of an expectation most of us have learned and accepted as we transitioned into adulthood.
Social Contract 101
To this day, my mother will remind me to bring something if I casually mention I am going to a friend’s house. “Reminds me” sounds subtle, which she is not. She literally asks me what I am bringing and then proceeds to make a judgment about its quality like she’s a queen and I’m displaying various silks for her choosing.
Maybe your mother isn’t as direct and you learned by observing those around you. At some point in your life you were invited to dine or drink at someone’s place and you arrived eager to socialize only to realize that you’re the only one who showed up empty handed. The wonderful thing about the social contract is we’ve all been through the learning process and are pretty forgiving, at first.
Would you be kicked out of the party for not bringing anything? Probably not. Because the social contract goes both ways. It would be unreasonable for the host to kick someone out of a dinner party for not bringing anything particularly if they hadn’t asked for anything specifically. The social contract is simply a way to show you have respect for your fellow humans.
These unwritten rules–to which we have all silently agreed–are what form the foundation of a functioning society. It’s why we aren’t fighting in the streets and setting fire to one another’s homes.
Of course, those are extreme consequences and what it takes to maintain the social contract is much smaller and more nuanced.
The Binding Social Contract
George has many rants regarding the social contract. His most famous is when he and Kramer are trying to pick up Elaine and Jerry from the airport and the flight keeps changing airports. At one point Kramer wants to head back and George says, “Kramer! You cannot abandon people in the middle of an airport pickup! It’s a binding social contract. We must go forward, not back.”
There are many examples of this throughout the show’s nine seasons and 180 episodes.
Here are a few:
In “The Chinese Restaurant” episode, George is trying to use the public phone to call his girlfriend and the man currently on the phone repeatedly ignores George and stays on the phone for a long time. After getting off the phone, he does not alert George and someone else gets on the phone right as George notices it is available and tries to use it.
Rule: When using a public device, if someone indicates they would like to use it next, you should acknowledge them and ideally let them know when you’re done so they can use it next.
Quote: George Costanza – You know, we’re living in a society! We’re supposed to act in a civilized way!
In “The Pen” episode, Jerry and Elaine travel to Florida to visit Jerry’s parents, Helen and Morty. One of their neighbors, Jack, comes over and takes out a pen and notes that astronauts use it in space because it can write upside down. Jerry shows interest in the pen and Jack offers to give it to Jerry. Jerry refuses profusely, but Jack wears him down and Jerry finally agrees to keep it. This single incident wreaks havoc on Helen and Morty’s quiet but rigid life in the Florida retirement community. Soon, calls are coming in from neighbors asking why Jerry took Jack’s favorite pen. Jerry immediately returns the pen, but the damage has been done. One thing leads to another and a fight breaks out between Morty and Jack.
Rule: The polite offer is never to be accepted. Sometimes people will offer you something to be polite and under no circumstances are you to accept.
Quote: Jerry Seinfeld – What is going on in this community? Are you people aware of what’s happening? What is driving you to this behavior? Is it the humidity? Is it the Muzak? Is it the white shoes?
Similarly, episodes like “The Dog” and “The Stranded” are episodes where acquaintances ask Jerry to do things you should never ask someone you don’t know very well to do such as watch your dog or allow you to drop in if you’re in the neighborhood.
Rule: Favors should correlate to the longevity and closeness of the friendship. This is particularly true in the case of picking someone up from the airport and helping someone move.
Quote: Jerry Seinfeld – There’s two types of favors: the big favor and the small favor. You can measure the size of the favor by the pause that a person takes after they ask you to “do me a favor”. Small favor — small pause. “Can you do me a favor and hand me that pencil?” No pause at all. Big favors are, “Could you do me a favor…”
In our daily lives, most of us participate in the social contract in small ways we don’t even think about; holding the door open for someone, a courtesy wave when someone lets you merge. Nowadays we’ve adjusted for covid by crossing the street or stepping off the sidewalk when someone is passing by to maintain a 6-feet-distance. You’ll notice we’re not walking around with tape measures, because it is more about the nod to the social contract than anything else. The idea that we respect each other and can show that by stepping a little out of the way is sometimes all it takes to let your fellow humans know you’re not a lunatic. And if you’re not completely sure what the rules are, the Seinfeld gang is more than happy to help you out.