“All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

Sergeant Joe Friday of the old American cop show, Dragnet, was famous for asking witnesses — in characteristic deadpan delivery, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

Sounds good to me.  Not just facts (albeit they’re tremendously useful, especially when you have them in variety), but also the focus upon transmitting information, without a lot of accessory fluff.

“I don’t know how to put this,” my ex-husband would hedge.  He was always loathe to break negative news, and would put off doing so for long stretches of time before tiptoeing around the subject and throwing up paragraphs of waffling pseudonyms.

“Then just say it.  Spit it out already!”

Bluntness when it’s simply being straight-forward is not a social crime in my world.

Furthermore, I don’t go inventing insults where none are intended. Unless you are calling me (as some of my students with behavior disorders do) a “fucking bitch” or something equally blatant, I’m not going to assume that speaking plainly is meant to be an affront.

I will confess that (even into my late 40’s) I am still sorting out the reasons why people say the things they do:

  • There’s the “social noise” that is meant as non-confrontational space-time filler, to promote social ease in a sort of verbal grooming behavior or stress-displacement behavior.
  • There’s the exchange of opinions and veiled insults meant to establish or maintain odd social status arrangements. (I understand what those are, but I really don’t understand why they exist, aside from the practical necessities of organisational status for allocating responsibilities.)
  • There are the jokes, compliments, and stories meant to promote inclusion and establish group identity by creating a culture of common experiences, affirmation of values, and recognition of effort.
  • There’s the philosophical or creative exchange of ideas, including word play, humor, and problem solving.

Then there are the murkier forms of communication that I have trouble fathoming, even when I can (after a few minutes or days’ consideration), identify what is going on.  These include the more oblique types of flirting, the affective persuasion of political campaigning (including the sort that happens at work and other organisations), and other mysterious interchanges that involve even less emphasis on word choice, and more upon paraverbal and nonverbal delivery.  (“Paraverbal” is how the words are said, the inflections; “nonverbal” is the accompanying body language.)  I’m actually not sure what these are, but sometimes I can sense that something more is going on, and I’m not sure just what it is that I am missing.

At school, I spend all day surrounded by people who are constantly negotiating with each other to get what they want or feel they need at the moment (what in Functional Behavioral Analysis is described in the dichotomy of providing a means to Get/Obtain or Protest/Escape/Avoid).  A lot of the interpersonal transactions are fairly simple to understand, as most of the students lack subtlety.  At the garden center, the focus of my interactions revolve around the transmission of factual information, and the curious scripts of commerce that combine both “cheerful servant” and “autocratic cashier”.  The latter set is usually easier, and I’m even beginning to pick up on the “Thank you,” that really means, “I don’t need any more information now”.

But after interacting with people for twelve hours a day, I find that my brain turns to mush from the burdens of doing my physical jobs with focusing lots of working memory on perceiving, analysing, and replying to all the heavily-coded and loaded talktalktalk.

Sometimes I miss the simplicity of working in a lab, where one could spend their day simply transmitting facts.

Of course, I later found that even that was a misperception.  There was all the office politics going on just at the edge of my radar, and there was the inevitable problem of others assigning meanings to my para/nonverbals that I was not really intending to transmit, and there was the third problem of others being annoyed or dissappointed because I had not picked up on their para/nonverbals and thus missed a large chunk of what they “really meant”.

Life would be so much simpler if people would just mean what they say, and say what they mean!


  1. CybrgnX said,

    22 May 2009 at 19:49

    I am also a ‘lab person’ missing the sutle politics of the work place.
    And just saying what tou mean & mean what you say is a nice idea, but the sutle cues are VERY important because the one type of person I’ve met always seems to do that but the sutle cues show them to be the cons and crooks that they are. So learning the cues to their real meaning is important…..and I’m VERY bad at it.

  2. 22 May 2009 at 14:47

    I suppose in a certain sense, trying to read social signals for a person with Aspergers or Autism must be kind of like how lipreading is for me: at least for some people, it can be done. But there’s always something you’re going to not quite grasp and it consumes enormous amounts of energy even for the bits you do get. But often other people don’t recognize how much you’re missing. (If you don’t complain they assume you understand perfectly. They don’t recognize that there are sometimes good strategic reasons for knowingly allowing more minor nuances to slide by. It may be necessary to put up with, say, 97% comprehension instead of 100% if you have fairly good reason to believe that last 3% is just not important enough to be worth the time and effort … it doesn’t mean that you don’t wish you could have had that last 3% anyway, even knowing it isn’t that vital. And that’s assuming you only miss 3%. People don’t recognize how hard it can be sometimes to speak up when you’re actually missing everything altogether.) And, further, they don’t recognize how exhausting it is for you.

    It is always a relief to work with hearing people who do recognize these things and will take on some of the burden by writing things down or (if near a computer) typing things out. It takes extra effort for them to write, but if we alternate between them writing and me lipreading then at least the effort and energy consumption is divided a little more evenly.

    It can be hard enough to find hearing people who understand how much of a help it can be if they at least reduce my need for lipreading if not eliminate it. But I can imagine it must be harder still to find neurotypical people who are prepared to learn how to communicate in a more direct manner accessible to people on the spectrum.

    People generally do seem to have a somewhat easier time grasping (and, possibly, understanding how to accommodate) “physical” disabilities (person X can’t hear, person Y can’t see, person Z can’t walk) even if in rather simplistic fashion. Differences in neurological wiring seem to be much harder for people to grasp. Maybe partly because they can’t be “seen.” Maybe partly because “physical” disabilities have been seen and recognized for millennia so we have had all that time to evolve a certain language for communicating those experiences–but most neurological wiring differences in the past were either dismissed as personality differences (“Suzy is so forgetful”; “Joe is so literal”) or lumped together under one, very unscientific and politically incorrect diagnostic label (“Terry is sort of missing a few marbles in the head”).

    It’s only in relatively recent human history, mostly post-Freud, that we’ve learned to recognize that there’s a big difference between intellectual disabilities, depression, schizophrenia, autism, or whatever other nuerodiverse labels have been devised in the past century or so. So we have had considerably less time to learn about the differences between these labels–and that, only in certain more-or-less educated classes in richer countries. In many non-western countries they still don’t even have the basic vocabulary for communicating the differences among these labels. And I’ve still occasionally met people even in “rich” countries who seem rather vague on the difference between intellectual disabilities and psychosocial disabilities.

    Then, on top of all that, many people have trouble grasping that it is even *possible* for someone’s brain to be hard wired differently from theirs (“I find it easy to concentrate even when I’m bored, therefore anyone who claims it’s hard to do is obviously just too lazy to try”). And that makes it harder for them to really wrap their heads around, not just the possibility of these variations, but the nuances of how they work for different people and how they can accommodate these variations.

    Because, didn’t you know? Neurotypical people have a theory of mind problem.

    Oh, wait.

  3. Fleecy said,

    22 May 2009 at 12:01

    Yes, it would. I enjoy jokes/humor as much as the next person and maybe sometimes more, but overall I wish people would drop the weird hidden secret code message thing. I have had people be seriously hostile to me and didn’t know why until I thought about it later (sometimes MUCH later) and found they were probably reading some secret hidden code message into me that was NEVER THERE IN THE FIRST PLACE.

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