Some thoughts about expressiveness, socializing, and honesty


I once had a conversation with two friends. At some point, we said something like this (I don't remember the exact words, since this was more than a year ago and I didn't write it down):

Me: This is kind of an oversimplification, but: Privileged people make statements about the world, and oppressed people make statements about themselves.

Friend 1: I hadn't thought about it that way. I can see how that relates to my experiences.

At which point Friend 2 pointed out how I'd made a statement about the world, while Friend 1 had made a statement about zemself! (I'm pretty sure I'm more privileged than Friend 1, so this matches what I said.) The theory goes like this: When you have a lot of privilege, you see your own life presented as “normal”, so you might assume that things work the same way for everyone else. But when you don't have a privilege, and someone else does, it's much more obvious that there's a difference between you.

Now, here's an interesting thing: When I hear someone talking about the world, and not talking about zemself, that's a bit of a red flag for me. I'm automatically a little wary of people who don't talk about their own experiences. It's not a strong feeling, just one of the many things that affect how I feel about someone. But I'm also like that! I usually talk about the world, rather than myself!1 I can have long, abstract conversations that aren't grounded in my own experiences at all, because I'm so sure that I know objective truths.

So, would I be wary of myself? I can't know that for sure, but I think I wouldn't be, because... Well, to tell you that, I'll tell you this first:


On January 4, 2011, I wrote:

If I say “I feel [feeling] about [event]”, it's probably false. Call me out on it. I want to stop pretending so much.

Sometime during high school – ages 15-16, I think – I became much better at communicating and socializing with a lot of people of my own age. I don't know exactly why that happened; it was probably a combination of several things. One of them is that I was changing neurologically as I aged. One of them is that the people my age had started to become mature and intelligent, so I got more interested in talking to them.

One of the trite-but-generally-true things that people say about non-empaths is that we're very good at faking emotions. Or, I'm not sure if faking is quite the right word. The process goes like this: Suppose I'm trying to express an idea. First, I try one way of saying it. Do other people respond in a way I like? If they don't, I'll try a different way next time. When I finally find a way that people like, maybe it's a way that makes me sound excited. Maybe I'll even say the words “this is exciting!”. Am I “faking” being excited? It doesn't always feel like it.

Take a step back again...

In the years before those, the “special-education” people at school seemed to think that I should improve my “social skills”. At that time, I had these very firm beliefs: There is no objective standard of “good communication”. Pushing a particular standard on someone is an injustice. And if I adapted to the system they were pushing on me, then I would actually become worse at some types of communication as I became “better” at the kind of peer-social activities which they thought were important. (And I wasn't interested in many of those activities anyway.)

Naturally, I still believe all of those things. I could ramble on for quite some time about those things, and probably will in a future post. But there's one particular thing I want to focus on:

I am compulsively honest. I cannot lie or intentionally mislead another person.2 If someone asks me a question, I am compelled to either answer it as accurately as I can, or explicitly refuse to answer it.

The “social skills” people don't like that. They think that you're supposed to tell “white lies”. You're supposed to try to play a social game, where you don't make things disruptive or awkward, even if that means saying things that are false and misleading. Now, let's pretend for a moment that I can choose whether or not to be honest, and ask whether I should.

The “social skills” people aren't entirely wrong. There are a lot of people who say they prefer 3 the social system that has lots of lies in it. But there are also a lot of people who say they prefer honesty. So if I go around telling lies, I'm not “having good social skills” – I'm declaring an allegiance to one category of social skills over another. Every time I tell someone they look good when I think they don't, every time I say I liked someone's art when I was bored by it, I'm waving a flag and saying “Hey liars, look, I'm a liar just like you! Call me. We can hang out and tell some lies together.” And if I tell the truth, I'm saying “Hey truth-tellers...”

Those might not be the most charitable descriptions. I think I'll call the categories “Placators” and “Truth-seekers” instead.

I'll conclude the tangent about my schooling by saying, the “social skills” people were placators in positions of petty authority who thought that everyone else should be a placator too, and anyone who wasn't a placator was deviant. Fuck 'em. It's also worth mentioning that most people aren't pure placators or pure truth-seekers, if the descriptions even fit at all.

If I was a placator, and was primarily motivated by making the social game run smoothly, then I would be fine with adjusting my communication style to mimic the style of neurotypical people. But I'm not! So, to go back to the example, when I noticed myself saying things like “I hate it when...”, I had a problem with that. Because, when I said that, I wasn't saying that I had actually experienced hatred. It was just a social gesture. It was me saying something false and misleading in order to make a conversation run smoothly, because I don't actually have feelings like that. I occasionally feel hatred, and I often decide that things are very bad and should change, but those things usually aren't connected to each other.


But a lot of people say those things honestly. And to go back to the beginning...

Most people have a lot of feelings that I don't have. They love people, they enjoy pure social interaction, and so forth; they care a lot about things from their physical lives. And what I realized – the realization that inspired me to write this post – was that when I'm wary of people who talk too much about abstract ideas, it's not just because the conversation is abstract. It's because I've gotten the sense that they're not being honest. Because if you're talking about things that you're mildly interested in, but not talking about things that you really care about, that seems dishonest to me. I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with it, but I get along much better with people who are closer to the kind of radical honesty that I am compelled to practice myself.

And that's why I think I wouldn't be wary of myself: I'd be able to tell that the abstract ideas are the primary thing I care about. That instead of being a mask that hides my feelings, it's a true reflection of them.

– Eli

  1. Although not as much as I used to. Now that I've noticed it, I've been trying not to do it as much – not for a social reason, though, just for a personal reason. I'm compulsively honest, so I don't like saying things that I don't know to be true. It's much more honest to state things in terms of how I know them than it is to state them as objective truths. back
  2. Well, except that I'm a good actor. I think that if you gave me time to prepare, and a really good reason (like lying to someone who's plotting murder about where their intended victim is), I could lie without hesitation. But that's not a very common situation. back
  3. I say “who say they prefer” instead of “who prefer” because, when habitual lying is involved, I can't be sure exactly what other people think. I'm not trying to question their truthfulness, but as I mentioned, I am compelled not to overstate my knowledge. back
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