On Being Polite

creative commons image by smithereen11 on flickr

All up in your face!

This is a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a long time. It also refuses to sit around patiently in the back of my mind like other blog topics, instead regularly jumping out to grab my attention. Of course, this is partly because pretty much every day I get hits on my blog from people googling about autism, aspergers, and rudeness. Clearly, this is a thing.

However, it is also a HUGE thing. The more I think about it the more I get intimidated by the prospect of trying to write about it. Politeness is a large and complicated subject matter consisting of a large variety of social dances, and I have different feelings about different ones. However, it does deserve to be written about, and I am reminding myself that it’s ok to do an overview post and go into more detail about different sorts of things in future posts.

So. The autism spectrum and what it is to be polite or rude. I think I’ll just start with the simplest (to me) area, and what first comes to my mind when people talk about this sort of thing. That is: saying “please” and “thank you.”

I have occasionally run across the attitude that these are just more examples of meaningless social noise, but I disagree with that attitude strongly. Much like other forms of social rituals that help to smooth interactions between people, simple expressions like “please” and “thank you” act as a vital social lubricant between people. “Thank you,” for instance, is a simple, shorthand way of saying “I recognize and acknowledge that you have done a thing for me, and I wish to express that I am appreciative of this and it has not gone unnoticed.” It smooths interactions. It helps people feel easier with each other. This is valuable.

I think sometimes part of the issue with this in particular and people on the autism spectrum is that neurotypicals, I gather, often seem to be able to grasp the value of those types of words and phrases intuitively. Or at least, neurotypicals seem to make the connection between using those words and finding interaction goes more smoothly fairly easily. Us autistic people, though, may have a more difficult time with that. And sadly, while neurotypicals may have an intuitive understanding, that does not mean they know how to fully articulate why it’s important or how it helps. So sometimes you wind up with people on the spectrum being rude (or at least impolite) without really understanding why, and neurotypicals being offended or bothered while having some difficulty articulating why.

Of course, there is more to being polite than simply saying “please” and “thank you.” Oh so very much more. There’s knowing when to talk and when not to talk, there’s knowing what sort of questions are appropriate to ask and what sorts are not, there’s learning to recognize and respect other people’s boundaries, how to enter or leave conversations, when it is or isn’t ok to touch people, and so very much more. Way more than I could ever address in a single blog post. And learning these things is more than just a simple lesson on being polite. They are all different skillsets that often need to be learned independently, and people on the autism spectrum often need to keep many in mind very explicitly and deliberately. It can be challenging. By and large, with few exceptions, I do strongly advocate working hard to learn how to functionally do these things, simply because we do live in a society and unless we are going to be hermits, it’s important to know how to navigate in society.

Now, before wrapping this up I want to go over an area of politeness that I actually strongly disagree with. Something where what is polite to most people comes across as ridiculously rude to me. Basically, there seems to be an entire arena of politeness that I describe as “politeness via lying.” There is a whole range of such things, all of which vex me to various degrees, but one type in particular that really gets my goat (I wonder what the root of that metaphor is) is phrasing requests or things that one wants as offers. When someone wants something for themselves, but is phrasing it as though it’s for the benefit of the other person. A very simple example is ending a phone conversation with “well, I’ll let you go now.” This one is actually only minorly vexing to me (I find it annoying, but at least I recognize it for what it is). However, people use this kind of phrasing for many things very often.

I really REALLY intensely dislike it, to an extreme degree.

From my point of view, when someone does that they are putting me in a position of being expected to mind read/recognize that what looks like an offer actually is not, and then obligates me to act grateful or like I am accepting something even if I don’t want it. Even if it’s a problem for me in some way. I cannot figure out the politeness of this; it comes across to me as shockingly rude. I have been informed that at least in this type of case, politeness is about obfuscating who the beneficiary is. That’s… interesting. However, I still don’t really understand it. The best I can manage is that it’s about avoiding vulnerability. Nonetheless, I still can’t quite bend myself to this one, and I get very resentful of people who use it with me.

I may write more about other specific areas of politeness and such in the future. As it is, the area is huge. Being polite is not always simple and straightforward, and decoding other people’s “politeness” is sometimes even more complicated. This does not mean that I believe Asperger’s or autism excuses rudeness, especially extreme rudeness, but it does mean that sometimes it really is hard. Sometimes we really don’t understand things that a neurotypical person thinks should be obvious. And sometimes we’re rude when we don’t mean to be.

Personally, I do try very hard.

And sometimes I mess up.

And then I keep on trying, and hope (once again) that people will meet me in the middle somewhere.


Filed under issue, ramble

6 responses to “On Being Polite

  1. thelifeofwritingandthewritingoflife

    I can relate completely. I too get annoyed and occasionally irritated when some neurotypical types just assume that everyone instinctivley knows the unwritten rules of social decorum. Though I’m not on the autism spectrum I have to work at social interactions because I have a difficult time telling what ‘someone says and what they really mean’ largely due to the paranoid aspects of schizophrenia. I don’t see myself as damaged by any means, I just have to work on some things more than some people.

    Keep up the excellent work. We can all use more people who do what you do.

  2. I totally agree with you about the ‘politeness via lying’ form of politeness – phrasing a demand as an offer. I think it is rude and confusing, it is like a sales man trick and just like you describe, it creates a tricky contradicting vibe. I always feel hurt and stupid if I realise that what sounded like considerations for my feelings and my time actually was a rejection in disguise, and I should accept it as that instead of keep saying ‘Oh, but I have plenty of time!’ 😉

    I also agree that normal polite gestures are vital social lubrication. Politeness phrases may not all make literal sense, but they ensure that everybody have a script for what to say to keep on a good note with people in a wide range of situations, keep things calm and harmonic. That can only be a good thing.

  3. That’s an interesting perspective on social customs, thank you for sharing that!

  4. Pingback: Finding the Boundaries | Aspergers and Me

  5. sorry for my englisch language, I’m from Holland and not speaking fluently.
    I have been really enjoying the stories. Also very good information, thank you for writing. I just started following this site.

    I like to introduce age in connection with this subject.

    I’m so happy being 40 when it is about this subject. I can easily be a bit oldfashioned polite. and when I make mistakes and people dont accept me I don’t bother so much any more. the same people also dont accept me because I do strange thing like wearing always a hat (helps for sunnlight and in winter for a cold head, both I hate because my head feals allways like a bit hurt)

    for my son also has autism, its far more difficult. he is 13 and the group ask him to be cool, his teachers to be polite. And calculating wich coolness is accepted and where politeness is necessary is a kind of calculating for him more difficulting then calculating by math.

  6. Pingback: Boundaries (again) | Aspergers and Me