Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On trust and diversity

First read The Terrible Bargain
Then read Just below my skin

Everyone should read those - both of them. Because they give two different perspectives on what it's like to live in a world defined as heterosexual male, able-bodied, neurotypical, with most everything else a "diversity issue". What's funny for me is, I don't feel like I "fit" even in this sort of story. And I want to give my perspective because it falls somewhere in here - just different enough to, I hope, spur people to keep thinking.

I have never experienced the sense of fear and distrust portrayed in the Terrible Bargain about males. Primarily, I think, because I'm NOT neurotypical, and my enculturation or socialization or whatever you call it, didn't really take. I do remember people (especially my mother) talking to me about my interactions with others, especially males, and I suspect, trying to convince me that I was doing things that might be dangerous somehow. But, honestly, I've rarely had trouble from men, as a woman. I have had occasions where there was overt sexism - the principal at my junior high who was convinced that "wargaming is for boys", the two men who tried to threaten me (one carrying a baseball bat) at night at a busstop, being accused of being a "bitch" on occasion (which I mostly found amusing) I'm not immune to harrassment. But I am, I guess, mostly oblivious. I have never really felt a sense of exclusion or being dismissed for being female when pursuing my interests - whether those were RPGs, firearms, electronics, or computers (among others). And I have never felt the sense of generalized mistrust of males that is described in The Terrible Bargain.

I have , otoh, experienced that sense of mistrust - not about males -but more often about women, and mostly, female neurotypicals. (I was, for example, terrified before my first Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, but had no fears of walking into OSCON, or any "mixed" conference.)

You see - I don't *get* cultural norms. I have a form of what's best described as "culture blindness" - I don't just pick up the "unspoken rules" of behavior. I don't think the same way that "everyone" seems to. I keep learning more about the ways I think differently, by reading and asking and learning. But the biggest problem I've had in life is with neurotypical assumptions (especially from women) of what I "should" just "know". When I do something that ticks someone off and they respond to my query of "what did I do wrong" with "if you have to ask... " then I just can't learn anything about how to fix it. Worse is when they simply decide that I'm deliberately intending to be rude or whatever, because of my phrasing, when I had no idea that it would be interpreted that way, and don't ever bother to *tell* me or *explain* to me that it's taken that way. I've fallen afoul of that sort of thing numerous times in my life.

It's *NOT* that I don't care. It's that my perception of "norms" or of "courteous behavior" or "politeness" or whatever you want to call it is DIFFERENT because of my different brain. Unfortunately, since I grew up in the Midwest of the US, and am white and female, I'm *assumed* to be somehow empathetic and better at socializing and all sorts of things that - I just am not. So when I violate those norms, it's assumed I'm doing it *on purpose*.

When I'm with women, I get this more than with men. Because with men, *generally* (not always but more often than with women) if I *ask* about why they're acting pissed, they'll tell me. Or if I upset them, they'll challenge me on my behavior - and I get to find out what I did wrong - at the time, so that I can avoid it in the future! If they never tell me, I don't know!

I treasure the people in my life who have taken time to explain to me when I've done something that offended them. The African American woman who explained to me that the term "buckwheat" (which I'd been using for my son for a couple of years at that point) was racist, or the person who explained to me why "Indian giver" is a slur. Thank you to those of you who have taken the time to explain to me so that I can avoid unintentionally offending others.

So - what's it like in my world?

What if you had to move as an adult to an alien culture that just happens to speak your same language, but with different meanings for many of the words, with different ways of "being polite". What if, because you happened to speak the "same" language, you are assumed to just know the cultural norms - for example, the holidays, the rules of the road, the little rules of interaction, that are just different enough from your own culture so that you get tripped up regularly. And what if, instead of explaining patiently to you what you did and how to avoid it in the future, everyone assumed you were tripping up on purpose because "everyone knows that" and anyone who does it "wrong" is deliberately being a troll. How comfortable would you feel in that society?

Welcome to what it feels like to live in neurotypical society.

So yeah - I tend to be, I think, more tolerant of those who have sincere questions about things like "disability 101" and "feminism 101" because frankly, most folks don't grok "neurodiversity 101". While I understand being tired of explaining what it's like to be a woman in a man's society, I perhaps have less sympathy than I might if I were neurotypical - because I am different in an invisible way. Because the neurotypical has no idea how many assumptions they are making about everyone - and when they refuse to explain in response to an honest query - they're doing *no one* any good.

No - you don't have to *personally* explain every single thing in great gory detail to every single person. But please provide pointers and a brief, clear explanation: "when you said x, I felt y, because z" and "you can get more info about this at url..." If that's too much to ask, then you have insufficient tolerance, imho, for the neurodiverse who actually *need* that explanation or for those who are simply new to your form of diversity and don't know your cultural assumptions.

Maybe this makes me a bad "ally" for whatever 'ism' you're promoting. Could be. Or, it could be a plea for everyone to please assume the best of everyone's intentions, particularly when we're *asking* for help in understanding. Because there's too much out there for *any* of us to learn on our own. The more you explain (or point to explanations) that help us all understand better why you feel the way you do and react the way you do, the better off we *all* are, and the easier time we *all* have to avoid tripping over landmines that we were unaware of.

So - thanks to the posters of The Terrible Bargain and Just Below My Skin. It *helps* to read these perspectives. Thank you for taking the time to help others understand. Including me.

Now, where'd I leave that asbestos long-underwear...


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing that. It might have been braver than you perceive if I understand your "oblivious" remarks.

I've read a lot about Aspergers and that spectrum, but this was new to me.

I think it was well written and I fell that I got a clear view, or at least glimpse, into part of your world.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this -- I have friends who aren't neurotypical but none of them has put their experience nearly as clearly as this. I really appreciate the explanation.

Grace said...

I really just want to talk about your first point, because this is what I've always thought myself. Until getting online and reading other women's experiences, I never knew that many/most women felt that way because that sort of socialisation just didn't take. No one ever told me directly that I should be afraid of men or afraid to walk alone at night or whatever, so it just...never occurred to me. Whereas other women were most likely not told directly, either, but they picked up on the messages that society was sending and applied them to themselves.

(When I was a kid, I'd read books and watch TV and rather than think "this show is about high school, so this must be what high school will be like", I always thought it was just fantasy. I didn't have a lot of expectations for how the world "should" be that others got from fiction. It was really surprising to learn that it didn't work that way for others.)

Ari Ne'eman said...

Thank you for writing this. Even as a male aspie, I found it helpful in explaining things to a number of friends of mine.

Mary said...

(Note: I am neurotypical.)

I would be curious about what kind of emotional detail is sufficient for you.

When offended or upset I can certainly excerpt the sentence/paragraph that bothered me and describe in abstract or general terms why. For example "this is too sexually explicit for this venue" or "I don't like to discuss my marital status in technical venues, I want to stick to technical stuff".

However, part of the problem with explaining in *detail* is that it causes me to re-live the problem, possibly more than the original reading did. If I have to *describe* the physical/emotional sensations I experience in response to certain sexual discussions for example it's the closest I come to the reaction some people call "being triggered" (experiencing PTSD symptoms).

Do you have any examples of the kind of level of detail you like NTs to be able to provide about their reactions to things?

Anna Martelli Ravenscroft said...


For example "this is too sexually explicit for this venue" or "I don't like to discuss my marital status in technical venues, I want to stick to technical stuff".

I would consider this appropriate levels. What I can't handle is "you should just know" or "if you have to ask" or "you messed up" without any indication of why or how.

Does that help? Or is there something I'm still being unclear about. Please let me know. I appreciate you asking.

Mary said...

Anna, that answers my question, thanks.

The Magnetic Crow said...

I'm an aspie woman, and I completely agree with this. It's a large part of why 90% of my friends were nerdy men up until college--they seemed to be less sold on these invisible social 'rules' that nobody seemed willing to explain to me. I'm not just referring to terminology...I'm referring to the way you're supposed to react in given situations, or how often you're supposed to call friends (I hate phones), or how to tell when others you're speaking with aren't interested in the topic of conversation you've raised without them coming out and telling you, etc.

I went to an art school for college, so I met a lot more social nonconforming ladies, and ones who just didn't want to put with the BS that is "understood social strictures", and so my friend pool is now tilted more in the other direction. I still find this sometimes in the comments sections of even feminist blogs, though--I'll ask a question, being entirely genuine, and get jumped on because I'll have overstepped some social convention (never mentioned in the comment policy, I read those carefully). Then I have to explain that I'm autistic, and then I get told that some people use that as an excuse to be nasty to others on the net, and...etc etc.

I still get anxiety attacks after social situations, though. Afraid that I did, or said, or acted in some way that will alienate people, and they're not telling me because I'm supposed to know.

Sorry for the long ramble, this really hit home for me.

Anonymous said...

Yes. I didn't learn to distrust men any more than I learned to distrust anyone, and they were generally less likely to act like aliens from the planet Zog.

Folletto Malefico said...

Thank you very much for your post and the links. :)

While I understand that many people that don't get it exist, I also think that kind and gentle people exist: they simply don't know about those situations.

Sometimes just knowing it makes the difference. :)