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.
- 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
- 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
- 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
I am similarly compelled to be honest, but on a level one away from the actual practices of my life - it is sometimes easy to view my life since high school as a continual quest to train myself out of lying to cover embarrassment or verbal errors. The first one is mostly gone, and the second one is almost the sole remaining legacy of my childhood habit of lying all over the place.*
Given a question and the time to think it through, I will give it my best answer—it's rare for me to refuse to answer something if I have the knowledge, am capable of communicating it, and it doesn't involve other people's secrets. But if I'm caught off-guard, sometimes I make a mistake and say something that isn't true, and sometimes I compound that by pretending that it was for the rest of that conversation. I guess this is a subcategory of embarrassment lies, come to think, but it's separate enough to have stuck around for longer.
*There is also the occasional lie by omission, where I tell precisely the truth in a way that leaves out one or more facts I don't want known that I know are far enough from common default assumptions that people are unlikely to stumble on them by accident. Heck, “almost the sole remaining legacy” in that context was exactly one of those - it made it look, for the space of a paragraph, a little bit like my remaining embarrassment lies were the only other residue. And then I wrote this footnote.
I'd like to think about this and discuss it more in-depth, but right now I have to go to work. I might come back to this post later.
However, I mainly wanted to talk about your thoughts on the socializing/politeness/neurodiversity part. Idk, maybe because I am a girl, but the “try to get along and be nice” was very heavily emphasized by people to me, AND I felt more desire/pressure to be that way. (My social blunders were also constantly pointed out to me when I was younger, so I learned a few things from that...) With me, the thing was (is?) I wanted friends very badly, but was clueless about going about getting them. So, I looked to other people (who DID have friends) for guidance on how to act. I also hate conflict, and, although I hate to/am very bad at lying, if it comes down to it, I will lie in order to avoid conflict.
It really is easier said than done, though - it took me YEARS to learn how to effectively mimic neurotypicals, and I'm still not “perfect” at it (and by now, I'm not even sure I want to be :/ )
It's interesting though, I still don't really know how to tell white lies. For instance, say my friend is wearing an ugly skirt. If she explicitly asks me “do you like my skirt”, it has gotten to the point where I can automatically say “yeah!” I am certainly not going to tell her that her skirt is ugly - I'm just not going to say anything at all. I cannot just say “I like your skirt!” of my own volition.
I'm glad you mentioned that people don't fit neatly into the categories of “placator” and “truth-seeker” - I guess at this point, I would fall more into the former category, by your definition, but by no means am I shallow or a liar. I'm just trying to learn how to make the world easier to navigate for myself.
And about empathy ... I know that it is seen as unusual for “people like me” but I am overly empathetic - the sound of someone crying is distressing to me, and I feel things so much, that I actually have to shut myself down emotionally a lot, as a sort of defense mechanism.
Well, enough of my text wall. I hope this isn't too rambly/disjointed - I'm kind of tired - it is way past my bedtime :p
So, I'm “Friend 1” in the first scenario, and this is probably what we talked about at the time, but I'm going to say it again for other people reading: In terms of privileged people saying things about the world and less privileged people saying things about themselves, I've experienced that firsthand. Not just with other people's behavior, but I noticed a huge change in the way I talk about things once I was in a situation where I had less privilege/social power. I used to make blanket statements about things - if I personally loved something, I would just say, “This thing is awesome!” and I would keep repeating that even if someone told me that it was not awesome for them. I made a lot of generalizations and wasn't good about listening to people.
Then I entered a really bad situation, a situation that was a dream come true for most of the people in it, but a living nightmare for me. When I tried to tell people how bad things were for me, they invalidated my feelings just like I used to invalidate other people's feelings. They would make blanket statements about something being awesome or fine or at the very least acceptable for everyone, and I was *constantly* correcting them, saying, “No, that's not true for everyone because it's not true for me,” but I apparently did not count as a real person because they would continue to believe these universal statements.
Ever since that happened, my own language changed completely. Not at first - when I was in the center of the storm, I tried to fight back by pushing my own reality back on people as a universal truth. And I will still do that a lot when someone is pushing their reality on me. But when that's not going on, when we're just talking, I am a lot more aware of not making universal statements about things. Now I will try to say, “Thing A was awesome for me because I love Thing B,” and acknowledge the fact that everyone does not like Thing B. I used to make universal statements, but ever since I experienced what it was like to not be in the majority, I've started doing the opposite. I'm currently working on a book about validating people's feelings/experiences, and I talk a lot about trying to make statements about yourself rather than the world. (Which is what returned me to this post in the first place!)