Each society has some rules of conduct for how a person is supposed to behave in specific situations. In general, the existence of such (often unwritten) rules is beneficial—if gives people guidelines for how to behave and what to expect from others. The problem is that these rules are made by neurotypical people for neurotypical people. They are also consistent only within a specific culture or even a subculture. Thus people who are neurodivergent or simply travelers from another culture often face various problems with social interactions.
I believe that some social rules are good while others are pointless or even outright harmful. “No rudeness,” “no abuse,” “don’t touch other people without their permission,” etc. are good rules. “You are obliged to engage in small talk,” “you have to pretend that you are interested and happy even when you are bored to death by some conversation,” “you have to always smile even if you feel awful,” “you have to lie to other people that you like them or their work even when you cannot stand them,” “you have to tell white lies in order to make others happy and appease their egos,” “you have to invent silly excuses while refusing something,” are all bad rules.
I have no intrinsic and emotionally motivated respect for social rules and customs as a batch. As a matter of fact, I believe that a blind reverence for rules and traditions is harmful. This is how we end up with conservatives who oppose human rights for women or LGBTQIA+ people because of some outdated traditions that feel sacred for them. Personally, I strongly oppose abuse or even blatant rudeness, but I also prefer direct communication, honesty, and frankness. When somebody feels offended by my reluctance to engage in small talk, I get annoyed. This is one problem I occasionally encounter while navigating social interactions. But there’s more.
Imagine driving a car while being nearsighted and not wearing glasses. You do see something, it’s just that everything is a bit blurry, and every now and then you cannot tell for certain what exactly you are looking at. You could temporarily get away with it, especially if driving on familiar roads with little traffic and few obstacles. But it still would be only a matter of time until things go wrong and you crash into something. This is approximately how standard social interactions feel for a person who is bad at deciphering non verbal signals.
Some social interactions are trivially simple, and everything is predictable. For example, I don’t need to correctly interpret the shop assistant’s mood in order to purchase some service. Other social interactions (like maintaining long term relationships with friends or lovers) are much more complicated and less predictable. This is where things are much more likely to go wrong unless both parties have an accurate understanding about what the other person feels and wants. And I’m not going to figure out what the other person wants unless they state it directly. Hints simply do not work for me.
To sum up, here are the problems I routinely face:
1. I am worse than average at correctly interpreting non verbal communication and various hints.
2. I have no intrinsic respect for the rules that govern social interactions, and following some of them makes me uncomfortable—for me all the social niceties feel like lies; being forced to engage in this nonsense makes me feel squeamish and manipulative. Never mind that it is also mentally exhausting.
These are the problems. What can I do about them? Standard therapy for neurodivergent children often focuses on teaching them how to fake “normalcy.” Even if maintaining eye contact or engaging in small talk makes them uncomfortable, they are still ordered to do it anyway. I believe that this cannot be a solution. Forcing neurodivergent people to hide their differences and “act normally” is abusive.
Thus, instead of doing what I was told, I tested the limits and experimented to see how far I can bend various social rules while still getting away with it. In some way, for me social interactions are akin to balancing on a razor’s edge with a different kind of failure on each side. On one hand, I do not want to make enemies or hurt other people. Moreover, unintentionally offending somebody can result in me losing my income. This is one potential failure. On the other hand, I also don’t want to make myself feel miserable. If I bent over backwards in order to please everybody and faked it, acting as if I were neurotypical, then that would make me unhappy. In the first part of this series of blog posts, I already explained how various common behaviors of neurotypical people make me frustrated.
Of course, finding some middle ground that allows me to maintain my sanity without offending other people is only made harder by my worse than average ability to decipher non verbal communication.
Instead of following all the social expectations and rules out there, I pick and choose which rules I want to either follow or break. This attitude of mine stems from my overall disrespect for social norms, authority figures, old customs etc. Me being something other than neurotypical is influenced by my genes and certainly contributes to my disrespect for rules as such, but how I lead my life is mostly an intentional decision. Every now and then I am aware that some social rule exists, but I still deliberately choose to break it. Basically, if I perceive some rule as beneficial, I will follow it. For example, I try not to hurt other people and not to be irritating. But I also intentionally ignore all those social expectations that I dislike.
Occasionally, it is by necessity. For example, I simply cannot flirt. I cannot decipher other people’s non-verbal signals, nor can I use the right body language in order to send some message. Thus I would be involuntarily celibate unless I asked for sex directly. And I do want sex. On many other occasions, I deliberately choose to break some rule, because I perceive said social expectation as silly, and I have no respect for it. For example, engaging in boring small talk would be a waste of my time.
In general, I do theoretically know the rules how to behave politely and what things I am not supposed to say in various situations. I know at least some of those empty phrases people are expected to say, and I have theoretical knowledge about how to appear polite.
When interacting with strangers, I try to follow various social rules at least to the extent that I won’t appear unacceptably rude to them. How I choose to act also depends upon whether I am getting paid. When I am talking with a client or an employer, I will put more effort into acting “normally.” When I am with friends, I am less inclined to follow social norms. Having to do so requires contemplating my words and actions before I do or say something. It requires extra mental effort. For me these things are neither natural nor instinctive.
I choose to be more honest with other people when I trust them. Let’s say a client commissions me to draw their portrait, and they send me an absolutely terrible reference photo with a bad pose and atrocious lighting. If the client is a stranger, I will utilize convoluted linguistic constructions to politely suggest that there might be a better way how to composition a portrait image. If the client is a friend I can trust, I will just say, “This photo is terrible, here’s how we can make a better reference photo.”
Instead of playacting, it is simpler for me to just select friends who are fine with my default behavior and don’t require me to act in some artificial way in order to put up a fake performance for them. When I start to get to know some person better, I will carefully poke them with more direct/honest statements and look for their reaction. If they complain about how I am being rude, I will conclude that I have no further interest in even trying to become friends with this person. If they appear to deal well with what I said, then I will further test the waters and see if this person is somebody I might be interested in spending time with.
Where I draw the line between what constitutes acceptable versus unacceptable behavior differs from other people’s perceptions. For example, I oppose all forms of abuse (including verbal abuse). I also dislike it when people lie to others, for example, saying “I will call you later” in situations where you have no intentions of doing so is nasty and deceptive. But I prefer to skip the mandatory smiles, small talk, and all other irrelevant pleasantries. I’m perfectly fine with direct statements, for example, “I dislike you as a person, go away” is what I would prefer to say (or be told) instead of “I will call you later.” However, phrases like “fuck off, asshole” are something I wouldn’t say unless somebody tried really hard to test my patience.
My overall attitude is that I will accommodate other people’s preferences in some situations. If somebody told me, “I perceive it as annoying when you always place the toothpaste tube in the wrong place,” then I would change my behavior in order to accommodate their wishes. However, if they said, “I want us to marry and have children,” then I would totally refuse to accommodate their preferences. Where I draw the line is something I decide on a case by case basis. In general, if changing my behavior doesn’t harm me or cause me much discomfort, then I try to do it. It also depends on how much I care about the person who is unhappy about something I am doing. But when some person complains that my behavior is hurting them, I do try to at least tone down whatever actions they disliked if their complaint seems reasonable for me.
If something I do or the way I communicate annoys another person, they are always free to tell me. I have no interest in spamming other people with unwanted messages. In such situations, I usually just stop communicating with them. I also refuse to play guessing games, speak in riddles, and communicate via hints. This is something I perceive as annoying (I sometimes get ideas about what the other person could have meant, but I always second guess my impressions, and such sense of confusion and being unsure about what is going on is unpleasant for me), thus it makes simpler for me to just stop communicating with some person whom I struggle to understand.
Of course, it is possible to say that “this is how I am, like it or leave” can be a manipulative attitude, especially when the other person is lonely or in some way desperate. But I don’t think there’s any better alternative. Of course, I will agree to make compromises in plenty of situations, but if there is something I refuse to compromise about, then it is better to be upfront about it. I don’t like wasting my time on a relationship that is doomed to fall apart anyway.
Since I am not skilled at figuring out other people’s wishes from anything other than direct statements, I always insist upon stating all the desires and preferences directly. I refuse to even try to maintain a close relationship with somebody who is overly sensitive, reacts negatively to me saying things directly, and is unwilling to be honest with me and directly inform me about things I do need to know. In order to be able to make informed decisions about what to do next, I need to make sure that our wishes are compatible and that we are on the same page in terms of what we want to happen whenever we are spending time together.
After all, part of being friends means that I can trust the other person to tell me when they feel bad about something. I don’t want to constantly worry about whether my friend is enjoying my company, instead I want to trust that they will tell me whenever something goes wrong.
Social interactions should be enjoyable and desirable for both parties. It doesn’t matter whether it is a relationship between friends, lovers, or family members, it will fail to work unless both involved parties are willing to be honest about their goals and desires. Whenever some preferences aren’t fully compatible, people have to negotiate and agree upon something that will be mutually acceptable. This is why, whenever I choose to spend my free time with another person, I always tell them what I want, why I want it, and what my expectations are. We can negotiate from there.
I have seen plenty of manipulative relationships filled with lies. Such relationships, built upon incompatible goals, lies, and mutual manipulation, are just ticking time bombs bound to disastrously fall apart.
Just think about all those relationships in which people pretend to love each other while in reality they only want sex or money or whatever. It’s all just lies and manipulation, yet people still fell surprised when things finally fall apart. For example, my mother’s sister got pregnant in order to manipulate the guy and force him to stay with her. The result was exactly as disastrous as you might imagine. When both of them finally broke up, neither of the parents wanted to raise the child, but both wanted to receive rather than pay alimony. Last time I heard about my cousin, she had a depression and was struggling to finish school.
I find it frustrating how much some neurotypical people lie. In fact, often lies are considered a mandatory part of some culture. In some countries, people ask others how they are doing as part of the greeting, even though nobody cares about the answer. Alternatively, consider, for example, celebrations like Christmas, during which families are expected to get together and pretend that each person likes all their relatives. It’s not just all lies and manipulation; those lies are actually blatant and completely transparent.
Social expectations can be a pain in the ass. Especially when you have to pretend that you care about somebody whom you don’t even like. Overall, I believe that social interactions don’t have to be terrible, but you have to work in order to make them enjoyable for yourself. This is why I discarded standard scripts for social interactions and developed my own ones instead, so that the result is something that I can live with and enjoy. And I’m mostly getting away with it. If somebody perceives me as rude or gets offended, oh well, I’d rather sacrifice some stranger’s happiness than my own. The alternative would be locking myself inside my home and never interacting with people, and that’s not a viable solution for me, given how I do get lonely without other people’s company.
Hmm…I’m beginning to wonder whether I, too, don’t quite fit the “neurotypical” description since I also am annoyed when total strangers expect me to engage in small talk. I typically will have something on my mind that’s far more interesting than their weather or sports report. Do they fail to pick up on my body language because they can’t imagine others having anything on their minds? (That’s way too snarky, of course, but it expresses the level of annoyance that I often feel.)
I also enjoy having frank discussions with folk with whom I share a mutual interest. I especially like it when they point out errors in my thinking since that gives me the joy of learning something.
Some cultures place more emphasis on directness than others. It is almost certainly true that some people within cultures do as well.
In England, for example, we tend to abhor directness and forthrightness in general conversation. We perceive it as the behaviour of an arrogant person who feels that their needs and desires ought to be front and centre in everybody else’s business. Just saying what you mean and what you want without hedging it round with the wonderful, softening dissimulations of social propriety is to place yourself above everyone else. To suggest that we ought to attend to your will and your ideas right now, rather than taking the time to stake out a mutually beneficial compromise among all present as to which ideas and which needs we deal with and to what degree of engagement. It is also a reckless and foolhardy social strategy, because it doesn’t leave you with the important protections of plausible deniability and effective obfuscation that allow a safe withdrawal from conversation without hurting anyone’s feelings. The social conventions here are a vital and useful set of rules and expectations because they help us to manage the awkwardness, anxiety and discomfort that come from directness and exposure of our true intentions to people we don’t know very well. I get the impression that you fail to appreciate their vital utility to large numbers of people in helping us to negotiate uncomfortable encounters with people we don’t know very well. Yes, they can be exhausting and opaque. We all find them exhausting and opaque too. That’s the point.
It’s not like that everywhere of course. At university I met Canadians and Dutch people whose cultures of social interaction are very different. What, to me, was a valuable and effective way to communicate both my intentions and my unwillingness to confront them with an ultimatum in case my intentions were not well received, was taken as being “passive-aggressive” or some such nonsense thing. To them I was needlessly vague and circumlocutory, to me they were shockingly rude and unaware of the need to preserve the the helpful fictions that make social interactions tolerable at all. When I met Japanese people through my brother, the situation was reversed. I was the rude and forthright one to them, because I only maintained a relatively surface-level tapestry of face-saving social niceties, theirs was far deeper and more structured – almost ritualistic by my lights.
I’m not so sure this is easily mapped onto the divide between neurotypical and non-neurotypical people. Both groups exhibit significant variation in their approaches to these things. Indeed, I’m not entirely sure which group I fall into myself, given that I often find society very strange and incomprehensible in ways that some people described as non-neurotypical do, but I have never been diagnosed with a specific condition, nor have I really ever sought one. It is an interesting question whether my heightened sense of the terror of exposing my true feelings and desires to others in social interactions is just my culture as an English person, or whether I’m unusual in some way even among other English people for the extremes to which I take that terror.
Ultimately, I don’t think it matters. The issue here is that different people have vastly different approaches to and expectations of social interactions – for whatever reason – and it does not do to simply assume that everyone else will be coming at the problem the same way you do. The best advice, I think, is to stick as much as possible with people who are singing from the same hymn sheet as yourself and be open to the fact that significant compromises are needed with those outside that charmed circle.
Andreas Avester says
Sure. It’s just that for people who struggle with deciphering hints and indirect communication living in a society where direct communication is the norm is much easier. Personally, I find it very easy to get along with Germans. Native English speakers, on the other hand, are much more likely to perceive me as rude.
Technically, it would be possible to argue that beating around the bush is arrogant, because you are wasting other people’s time and possibly even lying to them.
For me this is vice versa. Personally, I feel awkward when I cannot state my true intentions. Consider work for example. When working with a client, I just want their money. I am willing to do a good job so that they are satisfied with my work and give me my paycheck. But I do not really care about my client as a person. And why should I? My client is a stranger for me anyway. Yet I am obliged to pretend that I care more than I actually do.
I also feel silly when other people lie to me. When I am buying some goods or services, the seller will tell me all sorts of bullshit about how they are happy to serve me. Yet I know damn well that they only want my money. Which is perfectly fine with me. After all, why should some stranger care about me anyway?
Another example: I routinely struggle to tell whether somebody is trying to flirt with me or just being friendly instead. How the hell am I supposed to tell the difference? Thus I sometimes get confused, second guess every word they say, and have no clue how to react. If I knew for sure that the other person is flirting, I would respond with telling them that I am either interested or not interested in having sex with them. But what am I supposed to do in all those situations where I have no clue what their intentions are?
I am theoretically aware about the fact that some people benefit from this stuff.
Of course, I also acknowledge that other people have a right to communicate as they want even if it frustrates me.
Yes, I agree. In addition to spending time with people who have similar preferences as you do, there’s one more thing I’d like to add—don’t imagine yourself as normative, don’t perceive others as “rude” merely because they communicate differently, accept that their preferences are also valid.
John Morales says
A couple of notes on terminology, not to dispute the thesis, with which I concur.
(Took me over two decades to realise “How are you?” was precisely equivalent to “Hello.”, for example)
[PS late comment, but I’ve been AFK for over a week]