The Glass Box

It’s a strange hollow, invisible kind of feeling. As though I could fade away just sitting there, because my own personal reality has so little bearing on what happens.

There it is again in the after-school period. The hallways have just quit echoing with the tintinnabulation of the class bell, the clanging of slammed lockers, and agitated hollering of teenagers exploding from scholastic confinement. A few minutes after the last student has been scooted off to their busses and the staff members have checked to make sure that “no student is left behind” (in the literal sense), we gather in the hallway to update each other with the necessary news bulletins / gossip about who-did-what. It takes several minutes for the staff to successfully transition from one period to the next, as we work through our concerns about the fallout from the day’s emotional and behavioural problems exhibited by our students.

Once that’s sorted, there’s a lovely 45-minute lull for drinking hot drinks while they are still hot (or cold drinks while they are still cold), and (because we have students in six secondary grades and even more levels of math textbooks) strategizing about who is working with whom on the next day’s assignments. The teacher prepares the assignment pages, and the other paraprofessional and I catch up on the grading.

In the first minutes of quiet, I find to my brief annoyance that some of the noise ringing in my ears is nothing more than my tinnitus, which had been masked by the day-long stream-of-consciousness babbling of ADHD students, the monologuing of Asperger’s students, and the repeated exclamations of the student with Tourette’s. Then there were the other kinds of verbiage, the obnoxious sort, like the cussing and arguing of students just-plain acting out, the ranting of ODD students, and the babbling-followed-by-the-ranting of bipolar students. (Really, I wouldn’t know how to deal with a classroom of twenty quiet kids. Fortunately I don’t think I’ll ever have that problem.)

I sip my mug of hot Earl Grey, take a deep “cleansing breath” to regain my focus, and pull out my grading pen, the appropriate Teacher’s Edition textbook from the stack, and my pale green sheet of paper that I use to mask off part of the page to more easily read the equation answers.

Then the dialog begins. The other two staff members casually pick back up the conversation they have been engaged in off-and-on since before classes began. It’s not a particular topic, just chit-chat between two co-workers that usually has nothing to do with work. Hours earlier I had volunteered a couple of supportive comments during conversational lulls, but neither of them had been picked up. Were my offerings actual captions, the words would have been still laying lost and unwanted on the floor, crumpled and torn by muddy shoe prints, and partially kicked underneath desks.

After recognising that this is more casual conversation that is not related to work and doesn’t include me, I return to the grading.

I don’t consider my jobs to be my major source of social life. Nor do I expect to have a high level of personal connectivity with all the other staff members. Not every conversation needs to include me.

And yet … hours go by with this dialog operating like a tennis match. Somehow it’s a two-player game, but no one is interested in mixing up players. I’ve been there outside the court, fingers curled around the chain-link fencing, staring in. I’ve made overtures to join in – after all, I brought my racket and a can of tennis balls – but they’ve not been accepted.

It’s not a big deal, except that it’s hour after hour, day after day. It’s not that my overtures have been actively refused, or identified as stupid or rude. I’m simply being ignored. Yesterday one person moved from the desk at the corner of the room to a seat between me and the third staff person, and turned away from me to chat.

Perhaps I make much ado about nothing. Not every conversation needs to include me. I can accept that. I neither need nor want to be in every conversation.

Then one day I arrive at the room where the staff members take lunch, and began unpacking my lunchbag. One of those staff members pops into the room, looks around, makes eye contact with me, and announces, “Nobody’s here,” and then leaves. I don’t expect to have a high level of personal connectivity with all the other staff members.

But neither do I expect to be invisible, to be dismissed as a Nobody.

I don’t think it’s malicious; neither of these two people exhibits malicious qualities in their other behaviours. I don’t even know that it’s intentional, that they are both consciously and consistently trying to “extinguish” conversational overtures from me by not reinforcing them with responses. Granted, my conversational style is sometimes idiosyncratic; because of my Auditory Processing Disorder and/or ADHD, at times I have trouble perceiving when someone’s pausing versus when someone’s done talking. Then again, I observe other people running over each other’s words on a daily basis, but they continue to chat with each other.

Other staff members chat with me about things. We ask each other questions, and offer ideas and positive feedback. We talk about school-related issues, and events in our personal lives. I do have conversational skills, and I do have rapport with most of my co-workers.

But I have over the past month become much more wary and reticent. I strain to observe others’ conversational volleys, to identify how they are giving verbal and nonverbal signals to each other, and what those may mean. Doing so requires a lot of active mental effort, especially when there are background conversations going on, as it is difficult for me to sort out and follow and understand the words of just one person’s voice among many. (This is the disabling part of my APD – multiple conversations are like a blender that chops up sentences and mixes them together into an unreconstructable confetti. Background noise means my comprehension is reduced to half of what I hear, leaving me to puzzle out what someone may have said by context.)

I don’t consider my jobs to be my major source of social life. Not being included in the daily chit-chat between two people is hardly a crushing blow to my world. But neither do I expect to be invisible, to be dismissed as a Nobody. It shouldn’t be an issue.

But it is. I am with these two people most of my work day. I’m not in an office “cube farm” where I have loads of paper or computer work to focus on. Instead, I am spending hours in a classroom with two other people, who only speak to me to give directions about the students. The students are there to interact with, but they are not my peers, and my attention with them is directed toward instruction and helping them manage their behaviour.

If they were merely absorbed in discussion for a day or two it wouldn’t be an issue. But I am being ignored, snubbed, for days and weeks on end. Yet how can I complain about people not doing anything to me? My social life is certainly not under our supervisor’s purview.

It’s a strange hollow, invisible kind of feeling. It’s much worse this time for having happened many times before. This time I’m not a “weird” little school girl being snubbed by other school children. I’m an adult who is finally aware of why I have some difficulties. I’m not an incompetant loser who can’t hack the job – I’m a necessary and valuable employee who received top marks in all categories of my last evaluation. I go out of my way to think of extra things I can do for the students, and bring home-made treats to staff meetings.

But there I am sitting there, silently minding my own business. I reply when either person tells me something, and several times a day I provide information they need to know, or enquire if I can be helpful doing this or that. And the conversation goes on, and I am become invisible and inaudible. I feel as though I could fade away just sitting there, because my own personal reality has so little bearing on what happens.

I can’t bear to stay trapped in this invisible box of silence, like an involuntary mime. I must advocate for myself against this snubbing, however volitional or unconscious it may be. Yet how can I complain about people not doing anything to me?

In sociology, an outcast is someone who is stigmatized because they have committed some transgression, or are behaving outside the social norms. The group collectively shuns the outcast with the goal of correcting their behaviour or to remove them entirely (to protect the collective identity of the in-group). Being ignored by two people from a group isn’t shunning – it’s just snubbing. I don’t even know why I’m being so assiduously ignored. It’s not so much a lack of rapport; there are other staff members with whom I don’t chat much, but they don’t give me keep me at arm’s length and give me the cold shoulder when we’re in the same room.

Combatting such lack of action is like fighting fog. There’s nothing good to be gained by negative actions on my part, neither confronting the people nor complaining to others. After much consideration I’ve decided to address the issue by trying to improve my relationship with each individual, by providing more friendly, supportive conversation and actions when it’s just the two of us, or when we are in larger groups. I’m hoping to change the dynamics on a one-to-one basis.

So far my efforts have been rebuffed, and I continue to be ignored. I can’t bear to stay trapped in this invisible box of silence, like an involuntary mime. I must advocate for myself against this snubbing, however volitional or unconscious it may be. Yet how can I complain about people not doing anything to me?

11 Comments

  1. 25 May 2008 at 16:44

    […] You can be snubbed, ignored by some of the people in the group. In this case, you are considered to not even be there as a real person worth interacting with. But “just” being snubbed still hurts. (example: The Glass Box) […]

  2. louphoria said,

    12 May 2007 at 13:50

    “I’m a necessary and valuable employee who received top marks in all categories of my last evaluation. I go out of my way to think of extra things I can do for the students, and bring home-made treats to staff meetings.”

    They sense this and they dislike feeling inferior, they would probably rather you weren’t there to make them feel this way. They may not even know that they feel this way on a conscious level. And I don’t think, from what I’ve read, that you would have in any way rubbed their noses in it. They are also incredibly rude and this is a form of bullying in the workplace.

    Also, if I am right in my assuption about them, being nice and helpful to try to mend the situation probably just tightens up their wizened little hearts further, making them feel guilty for what they must on some level realise they are doing.

    I’m so sorry you’re having to go through this, and I think the individual approach is certainly a good one in many ways, but you do have a right to complain about this treatment to whoever is appropriately senior in the situation.

    In the meantime, for what a complete strangers opinion is worth, you are most certainly not the problem here, their inferiority complex and lack of manners and empathy are to blame. And though it’s hard you must rise above it and ignore it as best you can, I have found that feeling negative about such treatment rubs off on those around you no matter how well you mask it and this can push people further away.

    I’ve actually been told that by a staff member I found myself in a similar situation with, we since became good friends, that she could not cope with what she perceived to be ‘negativity’ on my part, but which was actually just me feeling a little down that I wasn’t interacting well. The turning point was when things in my personal life took a huge turn for the good and my general mood improved dramatically, to the point where I didn’t give a fiddlers, whatsoever, what people in work were thinking about me. I wouldn’t have thought this obvious as I am at all times, regardless of personal issues, pleasant and polite in the workplace as a matter of professionalism. This positivity rubbed off however, though again, I didn’t think it would be that obvious, and my work relationships improved immensely.

    I don’t know if this is in any way useful to you, but on the off-chance I thought I’d say it. I just found your blog today and really identify with a lot of what I’m reading, particularly your most recent blog about school. The best of luck with the job situation,

    Lou

  3. 10 May 2007 at 1:00

    Apparently there are some people who cannot perceive diagonal lines… simply because their environmental setting does not have any (this may be apocryphal… DFKDFC)… so they don’t get used to them.

    This seems to be a similar thing… what I’d couch psychologically in the term ‘perceptual expectancy’ and how some people are not within other people’s perceptual expectancies. Dunno how that works, but this is the sort of thing I’d like to see social-cognitive psychologists and environmental psychologists get into researching: the question of how some people become invisible to others in the same environmental setting.

  4. Rachel Hibberd said,

    29 April 2007 at 23:10

    I am NT, but sort of eccentric in a variety of ways. As a child and teenager I was somewhat socially awkward and had some social phobia. Often I would be ignored as you were describing, especially in high school.
    What was going on in high school, I now realize, was clique-ishness. It seems like what was going on is a mixture of two things:

    1) Both people have a low tolerance for people who interact in a slightly unusual way (aka people who come off as awkward). This is, in my book, a moral failing of theirs, not a moral failing of the awkward person.

    2) Thier relationship is such that they have created their “own little world” of conversation and are not interested in including a 3rd party.

    I really like Bev’s approach to this. What I finally learned to do is make friends who are more tolerant of my wierdness and who are more polite than to exclude anyone from conversation. :)

  5. Jannalou said,

    29 April 2007 at 16:15

    I find myself excluded at times, as well. Not because people are actively trying to hurt me, but because I think it’s just easier for others to not try to include me. I can have a difficult time interacting in a group. My best friend does it to me at times, even. It’s usually not a huge deal, though… I simply find a way to occupy myself until they’re ready to acknowledge me again. But it does bother me sometimes, and I do wish I was better at being a part of things instead of being apart from them.

  6. qw88nb88 said,

    29 April 2007 at 15:07

    That’s a useful perspective, Bev. Thanks for sharing it.

  7. Bev said,

    29 April 2007 at 14:56

    When I was working as a practicum student at a social services agency, a member of the professional staff took a dislike to me and tried to “freeze me out” by ignoring me. She wouldn’t respond to direct questions or even say “good morning” back when I said it to her, unless there was someone else around to witness her behavior.

    At a work related event, she had several glasses of wine and became quite friendly, even asked me to go to an art show with her afterward (and I wish I hadn’t had a prior commitment, I would have gone to see if she revealed more about her day to day attitude).

    The next day, everything was back to “normal” with the snubbing, talking behind my back, trying to turn other staff against me. I never found out why.
    Some people said she was jealous, others said she always had needed to have an enemy or foil in the office, and I just happened to come along at the right time.

    There is a quote I found in a Buddhist book about having respect and gratitude for enemies, because they teach us more about ourselves than our friends can. I tried to take that lesson to heart, and to always treat her the same as everyone else and not talk behind her back at work. It helped me to frame it as an opportunity for personal growth and was a daily reminder that the problem was really hers, not mine.

  8. qw88nb88 said,

    29 April 2007 at 14:39

    It’s the former. Something like 95% of my conversational offerings are simply ignored. My very presence is ignored. (Maybe they really are trying to extinguish my behaviour by not providing me any positive feedback.)

    At any rate, this happening for a day or two wouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s been going on for weeks, and I’m at a loss for how to address it. Ultimately it would be fruitless for me to demand of these people that they socialise with me. There’s only a month left of the semester; if I return next fall, then I shall ask for re-assignment to a different room. But meanwhile …

  9. Unnua said,

    29 April 2007 at 9:01

    Hmm, I’m not sure I’m getting this. You try to make conversation with these 2 people, and they don’t reply at all? They act as though you didn’t even say anything? Or do they give some sort of perfunctory response that doesn’t leave room for further interaction? If the former, that is probably pretty rude of them. Certainly referring to you as nobody is terribly rude. That sort of thing is definitely worth complaining about, even if only on the internet.

  10. 28 April 2007 at 18:16

    […] The Glass Box, Andrea of Andrea’s Buzzing About describes being treated as invisible because of lack of […]

  11. Bev said,

    28 April 2007 at 18:07

    I am often invisible. Sometimes the person behind the counter at Wendy’s can’t see me, even though he or she can see others of about the same size and distance from them. Sometimes a conversation will be going on about gays or autistics and everyone knows I am there, but acts as if I’m not, and at these times I hold a hand right in front of my face and open my eyes very wide to see if I have been rendered transparent, and only occasionally does a person in the group acknowledge this and find it amusing.

    Mostly, I don’t care. I like invisibility sometimes. But once in a while someone will stare straight at me and I’ll look back in what I think is a questioning way. Then the person stares another second and looks away. I am autistic, but I recognize this as hostile. I have no response for that type of action.

    Thanks for the post. I enjoy your blog a lot.


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