Book Thoughts: Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships

I’ve finally finished _Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships* by Dr. Temple Grandin and Sean Barron. I like the book, although it could benefit from some copy-editing: there are grammatical errors, strangely worded sentences, and sometimes the same stories were repeated multiple times.

Still, it’s got sound advice, both for those on the spectrum and their caretakers.

Grandin’s theory is that there are two types of Autistics kids: the super-logical ones, and the super emotional ones.

While neither type quite fits in, the logical-thinkers have a better shot as they don’t get so wrapped up in emotional pain, and useful talents are respected among kids (just as they are among all groups). So, with skill building things, she had both the self-esteem of the skills themselves, but was able to make friends with kids with whom she could utilize those skills. At least up until adolescence, when neurotypicals switch from shared-activity friendships to new social structures; she sees this is a hard period as autistic kids are sort of left behind.

The emotional-thinkers feel their emotions intensely, but lack the social skills and understanding to fit in. They try, but when they look at the world around them, it’s like looking at a [pixelated image][]: they don’t see the fine details, just the large grains. They try to emulate, but can’t get it right, and then handle their frustration with that in the same clunky, wrong way.

It sounds like both categories use a lot of black-and-white thinking, which is probably related to seeing the world in pixelated form, and that may be related to emotional volatility (“off” and “on” emotions, rather than sliding scale).

I think I fall more in the emotional-thinking type, except that once I got involved in computers that became a skill I pursued like anything. I may not have fit in with peers, but I was good with machines and it pleased the adults because they thought it would be a good future career. And best off, it let me avoid painful social activity with peers that I was poor at. The book makes an interesting observation: “nerd” or “geek” cultures tend to be shared-interest based, like those of childhood.

Anyhow, all their rules are pretty useful, and it’s surprising how often I find the their rules parallel something I’ve figured out. For example, a few years ago I wrote that “That things go wrong is not important; things go wrong for everybody all the time. How you handle difficulties is what matters.” Their variation on this is “Everyone in the World Make Mistakes. It Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your Day.”

Their rules that stand out to me have to have to do with importance and truth. “Not Everything is Equally Important,” is something I realized about 2 decades ago, when I realized I couldn’t fit all the things into my life that I wanted to. I had to decide what was important enough to keep, and let go of other goals. Accepting this made it easier: it still felt awkward to let go, but it was easier than feeling bad after-the-fact when I dropped things that didn’t fit. But I’d never applied this to errors: all mistakes are bad, and I shouldn’t make them. But, although it’s obvious, I’ve never integrated error priorities. It’s as if missing a New Jersey item on the sort as work is just as bad a denting a package car, and that’s as bad as running someone down in the road. So I’m working on integrating this idea, and it’s going smooth.

Then there’s truth. Their rule is, “Honesty is Different than Diplomacy.” I’ll add to that, “It’s not just what you say, but how you say it.” And “how” is composed of at least wording and tone, and I’ll add that location, timing and context matter too.

Honesty and truth… I don’t think I’ve ever been good at lying, although I tried a few times when I was young. I always felt bad trying to lie (which often followed egging-on of chums after being pressured into participation of some rule-violations), and I think I was bollocks at it. I think this was mostly around 5th, 6th, and 7th grade, by which time I was getting deeper into programming and spending less time with friends.

I intensely avoid lies. I don’t even like “white lies”: I remember at times growing up, a few times people told me one thing, and then I heard them whispering or talking quietly with someone afterward and contradicting themselves. I never trusted compliments from them again. And I suspect it’s colored my ability to accept any compliments at face-value. If put in a situation, I try to find some compromise: if you ask how I like the ugly-ass new hat you seem proud of, I might say, “It’s interesting” or “That’s very unique.” I won’t gush on about how I love it.

I also know it’s a social faux pas to talk about bad or troubled moods, so sometimes when asked about mood, I will dodge the question by responding with what I’ve been up to.

There is one special circumstance where I can and will lie: confidentiality. Breaching confidentiality is bad. So is lying. But between the two, breaking confidentiality is worse, and sometimes you can’t even state you’re under confidentiality without that breaching something. So in this special circumstance, I can and will lie as best I can, ideally disavowing knowledge but outright lying if I have to. And in this very special circumstance, I don’t feel bad.

But any other time? I feel terrible about lying. And what Sean Barron talks about in this book, is growing up with the inability to distinguish individual instances from permanent attributes. So, if he made a mistake, then he is a mistake. I think I had a similar thing growing up, and this lingering: lying is bad, so if I lie, then I’m bad (note how logical that seems to be, in a way).

I talked about this a little with a therapist yesterday, and his theory is that I lack rationalization, which I’ll qualify to forward-rationalization. (Rationalizing after-the fact for mistakes made I know I can and have done at times). But it makes sense I wouldn’t like forward-rationalization: it’s a form of deceit, like lying, and if the whole purpose is to justify a lie… this is just bad, bad stuff.

Except the world is broken. To get a massage certificate, I’m required to learn bullshit, i.e., lies, about shiatsu and eastern “medicine.” I slammed up against that when I went to massage school in 2005, and worries about it (among other things) have prevented me trying again.

Even applying to jobs. Why even try, when I’m confined by being honest and I have to complete with people who I know are padding up their credentials and experience? I haven’t been able to, because it means lying, which is bad, which makes me bad.

Except I can now see the error in my thinking. I think this is so engrained it’s going to take a little time to process. But for the first time in my life, it feels like I’ve found a chink in this restriction’s armor.

Lying isn’t good. But in our broken society, there are times it’s unavoidable if you want to navigate some piece of the system. Maybe I’ll finally be able to.