In my last post I talked about some of the things I wished my neurotypical peers could understand and accept about me. The post was intentionally light-hearted, but it reflects an intense desire on my part: the wish that people around me could occasionally see past my “unusual” behaviours, listen to what I have to say, and maybe even catch a glimpse of the person I really am. From what I’ve read, this is a dream shared by many autistic people.
But communication goes both ways. I written before about things I do automatically that might seem rude or hurtful to a non-autistic person. These “odd” behaviours are documented throughout the autism literature, always as negatives or in mildly pitying terms. Officially, they’re encompassed in the triad of impairments – since the majority retains the right to define what is “normal” and what is an impediment. What seems to be less well understood, though, is how rude and hurtful some of the non-autistic social behaviours can be when seen from an autistic perspective.
A thousand examples spring to mind. Lying, for example. The amount of non-autistic communication that’s made up of lies and half-truths just staggers me. How is it not the most offensive thing in the world to be constantly lying to someone? And how are autistics not in constant demand as literally the most honest and trustworthy people in the world? But I’ll leave that for another day.
My current beef with neurotypical interaction is something they call “throw-away remarks”. These are words or phrases that people say which they claim, apparently with complete sincerity, don’t mean anything. Just words. And this I do not understand.
Perhaps it is part of my “deficiency” in small-talk – another form of indirect communication through words that mean little or nothing in themselves. But there is a subtle difference between small-talk and throw-away remarks. Small-talk, taken in context and together with other information, is the padding that supports neurotypical communication and relationships. Throw-away remarks on the other hand, as far as I am told, are only there to fill the silence. The difference in subject matter, I suppose, is just an unfortunate coincidence.
You see, I am not wasteful with words. So when I am described as rude or insensitive, it happens in very specific types of circumstance. Most often it’s in association with an idea I’ve analysed critically, which someone takes as an insult to their intelligence or authority. Sometimes it’s because I’m barrelling on with a monologue or directing the conversation, not recognising that another person is uncomfortable or trying to make a different point. Even asking a question too directly can cause some people to take offence. Making personal judgements, however, is not in my nature, and when I cause offence, it is never because I have made a personal remark that is derogatory towards another individual (joking aside – I can banter as well as the next man!). In what is claimed are “throw-away remarks”, this sort of personal judgement is commonplace.
From my perspective, the difficulty with these offhand phrases is that they do have meaning. It may not be conscious, but the words that people throw out in those careless moments reflect quite starkly their underlying biases and prejudices. In a world which it seems is almost constant in the practise of deceit, those little words are in themselves a window to the soul. And what an ugly thing it seems to be.
I encounter this behaviour with something between amusement and pain. Obviously when someone makes an offhand personal comment about me – particularly about any “work-related social skills” – it can be deeply upsetting. But honestly? I am perplexed. It is faintly ridiculous to me that, in a world that ties itself in such terrible knots about tone of voice and conversational balance, someone actually saying direct, meaningful words that are blatantly prejudiced and offensive can brush them off with an “oh, it was just a throw-away remark – it didn’t mean anything” – and that that’s totally OK! It’s accepted. Those are the social rules.
I just cannot get to grips with this concept. Why would you use those words if you didn’t mean them? Since the only person who gets hurt by my being offended is me, I do try not to take this behaviour personally. But still.
All words have impact. And there are times when I would dearly love to say to these people: if you can’t take responsibility for the consequences of your wasted words, then maybe you should learn to enjoy the silence.