The behavior we allow is the behavior we get

What do libraries and museums have that prisons and bars don't?

Why are some schools, jails, and emergency rooms more violent than others? Why are some sections of a prison more violent than others, even though the conditions are identical? It may have something to do with social contracts.

No one would be shocked to see a fight in a tavern, at a major league baseball game, or even in an emergency room. But is there anything that could be done to lower the levels of violence in these places? Most likely the answer is yes.

Have you ever seen a fight in a library? I spend a lot of time in libraries and I’ve never seen one. In fact, I’ve never heard so much as a heated argument in a library. I have, however, witnessed loud arguments, loud offensive cursing, and even fist fights in gas stations, grocery stores, department stores, fast food joints, doctor’s offices, hospitals, and taverns. But I’ve never seen such behavior at a museum, a church or a library.

Is it because only peaceful nerdy types go to museums and libraries? Highly unlikely.

The reality is that the very same person who engages in all sorts of anti-social behavior someplace else will be quiet and respectful in a library.

Many library patrons are perfectly capable of resorting to casual violence and threatening behaviors that they would never consider inside a library. The simple reason is that violence is loud and noise violates the social contract of a library. That’s it! That’s the only reason that violence doesn’t happen in libraries—violence is simply too loud.

A raised voice or a ringing cell phone immediately draws disapproving stares in a library. If frosty stares don’t work, then loud patrons will be shushed by a librarian, and possibly asked to leave. If you refuse to leave, the librarian will call the police. And when the police arrive they will remove you and probably ticket you—no questions asked—just because you refuse to keep your voice down. How is that for a social contract?

Within any given social group the amount of control that authority figures surrender directly correlates to how much anti-social behavior is experienced. The amount of bullying you find in a school--or violence in a hospital, or disruptive behavior in a movie theater--can be traced to how much aberrant behavior is controlled and ultimately condoned by professionals and business owners.

In prisons, just like in libraries, if we can control small antisocial behaviors like a raised voice, a threatening tone, or vulgar language we are less likely to experience violence. By ignoring those behaviors we surrender control to the person with the worst behavior in the group. That is simply unacceptable and it doesn’t have to be that way. As we learn from Verbal Judo, if we ask them, tell them why, and give them options, even anti-social people will rein in their behavior.

So if you ever wonder why one part of your facility is more violent than another, start listening. Are the inmates there louder? Are there a lot of curses and threats that go unchallenged by corrections officers? Are officers being too aggressive? Too submissive? Are they using tactical communication to set limits on behaviors and generate voluntary compliance?

Somewhere in the answers to those questions lies a solution.

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