Word of Honor

Over at Life in the House that Asperger Built, there’s been a great discussion about what happens in the minds and hearts of those of us on the spectrum when people don’t mean what they say.  One of the examples in the comments section is the ubiquitous line “We should hang out sometime.”

I’ll admit, I used to believe those words.  After all, why would someone say they wanted to hang out and not actually mean it?

Wait … Wait … Don’t tell me … I know this one … Just give me a moment to think and ….

Oh, right!  It’s a social formality.  A mere pleasantry.  A little bit of chit-chat to wile away the precious hours of one’s life.  A curious way that neurotypical people say, “I hereby acknowledge that you have not completely alienated me or freaked me out.”  That’s all.  And yet, I used to think that people actually meant that we should hang out!  Then, one day, I looked at my research and realized that the data did not bear out this conclusion.

I won’t lie.  (For those of you not in the know, that’s a sign that I have a disorder.  More on that later.)  When I realized that I couldn’t take people at their word, it pissed me off, but I knew that the only thing to do was to accept the data and proceed appropriately.  I didn’t much like the idea of giving in and not believing what people actually said, and yet, I understood that follow-through means everything, and that my life would be much happier if, when people said, “We should hang out sometime,” I just heard “Blah blah blah blah blah.” After all, they might just as well have said, “Blah blah blah blah blah” for all the good it was doing my poor heart and mind, right?  Right. So now, I just hear “Blah blah blah blah blah,” and my life is, in fact, much happier.  I don’t complain in tones of high self-righteousness to my husband.  I don’t get angry.  I don’t get disappointed.  In fact, I feel myself just a tad closer to being a full-fledged member of American society.

Now, there are some very good things about American society, don’t get me wrong, especially if you are privileged enough to partake of them.  And then, there are some really, really dysfunctional things about American society, too, as most people in America will tell anyone who will listen.  The problem is that so few people agree with me on the dysfunctionality of saying words you don’t mean that my unhappiness with the phenomenon has become evidence of a neurological disorder.

I’m reminded of an incident that happened a few years back around my daughter’s birthday.  She had invited four friends to go to the movies, then out to dinner, and then back to our house for a sleepover party.  All four kids had said they were coming, and we got the house set up for our visitors.  When the day of her party came, two of the kids didn’t show up at all, and no one called to let us know they weren’t coming.  My daughter had been in school for about a year at this point, and she was completely nonplussed about the whole thing, saying, “Yeah, mom, it happens all the time.”  I was very upset, though, and Bob thought it was pretty rude.

So, later that night, I emailed the mother of one of the kids and asked what had happened.  Well, it turns out that the family was very busy, you understand, with relatives coming in from out of town, and their daughter had to babysit, and well, they were so terribly, terribly busy that they just plain forgot about my daughter’s birthday party, but they’d be ever so happy to reimburse any expenses I’d incurred on behalf of their child.  I told them that I didn’t want their money, and that I was hoping for them to take some actual, um, responsibility.  The response?  “Apparently, we’ve really disappointed you.”  No shit, Sherlock.

A few days later, I spoke about the incident with my counselor, a neurotypical woman who completely agreed with every word I said.  She had come to America from Portugal as a child, and she knew right away that something was very much awry with the society she had entered.  She said that in the culture she came from, your word was your bond, and people had a sense of honor.  If you said you were going to do something, you did it.  Your reputation, your honor, and your sense of ethics all demanded it.

So there.  I have it straight from the mouth of a neurotypical woman that this whole thing is a question of social and ethical norms (or the lack thereof), not a question of neurology, literal thinking, failure to read nonverbals, or any other goddamned thing that other people want to lay on us to excuse their own behavior.

And so, dear readers, if we ever meet up, and I say, “We should hang out sometime,” rest assured that I mean it.  It may not happen right away.  It may not mean that we’ll actually want to hang out a second or a third or a fourth time.  It means that we should hang out sometime.  I say what I mean and I mean what I say.  If you are willing to meet me halfway, we will hang out.  Word of honor.

© 2010 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg blogs at Journeys with Autism.  Word of Honor appears here under the terms of this Creative Commons License.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg’s recently published memoir is The Uncharted Path: My Journey with Late-Diagnosed Autism.

on 10/15/10 in featured, Society | No Comments | Read More

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