When I wake up in the morning, sometimes I’ll read through articles on my phone, in the Google news aggregator.
Of course, there are stories from the day, as well as articles about mental health. There are even advice columns, such as the old-school Dear Abby, and the relatively new and similar Dear Annie.
In one of those advice columns, a 65-year-old man wrote in to lament how he has given up on humans. Once I read his letter, I determined that he may be Autistic, like me.
The biggest indicator of his potential Autism was his expressed unhappiness with being honest when people say, “Hi, how are you?”
ON BEING AUTISTIC AND LITERAL
Some Autistic adults do not understand colloquialisms. I’ll provide a few examples.
An Autistic man tells a co-worker that he just won a million dollars in the lottery. When the co-worker declares, “Get out of here!”, the Autistic adult takes it literally and walks out of the room.
Another example comes from my real-life experience with someone whose job it is to “help disabled adults.” I was displeased with how slow and lazy her progress was, because the longer the process took, the more I’d have to wait and suffer. So I let her know, “You’re dragging your feet, but I will be the one to pay for it.”
Her reply indicated that she took this literally. “Pay? Who is charging you money? You don’t pay us anything.”
A neurotypical person would take my statement as meaning that the person providing the “help” was being lazy, but that lazy person would not be suffering any consequences for their laziness, while the person in need of help WOULD be suffering… or “paying for it” with suffering.
HI, HOW ARE YOU?
When people asked me how I was doing, I was always tempted to tell them precisely how I was doing. Sometimes I would do it, and that wouldn’t end well. As a result, I also wondered why the hell people asked me how I was doing when they didn’t really care about the truth.
My disappointment in humans grew from that first time I got this question.
Before this, only people like my mother or grandmother would ask me how I was doing. When they asked, I would answer literally and tell them precisely how I was doing. Most of the time I wasn’t doing well, but I felt better being able to tell someone how I felt.
The man who wrote the advice column letter said that he had given up on people when he’d go home, people would ask him how he was doing, and they made it clear with body language [walking out of the room] that they did not care about the real answer.
To paraphrase his concern, “They ask me how I’m doing, but it’s unacceptable to reply with, ‘I’m lonely’.”
This is in line with my personal experience, in that generally speaking, giving an honest answer to this lame question is socially unacceptable.
WHY WE DO THIS
I had no idea why people talked like this until I ended up discussing it with a therapist just four years ago. Based on what I learned, I know how to accurately describe this.
When someone asks how you are doing, it’s like getting online in the 1990s, when you had to use dial-up. Those noises the modem would make — skkkkksshhhhhhhhhhh pssssssssss dongy-dong ssssshhhhhhhhh — indicate that your computer and the server are “shaking hands.” In other words, they are connecting.
So when someone asks how I’m doing, it’s no different. It’s making sure that I’m listening and paying attention while our two brains shake hands.
I suppose the alternative would be to walk up to someone and just start talking to them without warning. That might be even worse.
MY OLD WORK-AROUND
Depending on the situation, I would sometimes give a long response to the question of how I was doing.
“If you really want to know, then we can talk about it later, but my official response is that I am fine.”
This would let people know that I was probably NOT doing fine, but that I was there and paying attention. In a way, I was also letting them know that I was also playing the same game as them. This was many years before my Level 1 Autism diagnosis.
In some ways, with certain situations, this would only serve to make things worse. Still, it was better than, “I know you don’t give a fuck, so I can’t figure out why you’re asking me this.”
Yes, I would sometimes say that. Yes, I knew it was confrontational, and to be fair I would get really pissed off by the question and the person asking it. And yes, I quickly lost patience and hope with humans.
HAVING SOME FUN WITH IT
At my grocery store, there is this one cashier and she is hilarious. The first time I really talked with her, she complained that her job would be awesome, were it not for the bosses and customers.
I’ve said this before, so we kind of hit it off.
Yesterday, I went to the store and got in her line. Instead of asking me how I was doing, she said, “Welcome back.”
My response was, “Yea, I’m back for more abuse. What you got for me?” Then I get to briefly hear about a swing hammock they have on the floor, how they’ve put FIVE “Do Not Sit” signs on it, and people still sit on it anyway.
My response to that was, “You just want to keep everyone out of your siesta chair.” We have a laugh. It’s a good experience.
WHY CAN’T I HAVE MORE INTERACTIONS LIKE THIS?
This is my latest question that I have for myself.
In order to figure this out, a few key differences must be identified. For starters, this cashier is not asking me how I am doing, and isn’t behaving in a way that is disingenuous. She’s not pretending to care how I am doing. Rather, she’s interested in interacting.
The way our interactions start function the same as the old computer handshake.
But I suspect a big difference in her interactions with me, when compared to others, is that she is being herself. She’s not this stuffy person who engages in formalities without a care about anything that is actually happening.
Finally, and I suspect there are more items than just this, something tells me that I have a tendency to mirror the emotions and attitude of the person with whom I am speaking.
If someone is asking me how I am doing, but they sincerely don’t care, then it shows. I can tell that they’d rather be anywhere else while they’re standing in front of me. They take the small talk seriously, which encourages me to do the same.
But with this cashier, there are seemingly no consequences in the interaction. She’s not taking any of the small talk seriously, as should be the case. I take it way too seriously, and I have learned that I am inspired by others to do so.
This is a major discovery. It means that I should never, ever take it seriously when someone asks me how I am doing in a way that feels flippant and uncaring.
I should have a “fuck it” attitude, but in a carefree way, and not an angry way.
OLD MAN ADVICE
What advice would I give this old man who has given up on Humanity?
First, I’d encourage him to get tested for Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD]. Knowing that you have this going on, and understanding how it impacts your own feelings can be somewhat liberating.
Next, try to accept this question as a computer handshake and nothing more. It’s like the frustration that comes with waiting for your computer to boot up. Yes, we hate it. Yes, it’s annoying. But it seems to be an essential communication requirement, especially when dealing with neurotypicals, or “normies.”
Finally, figuring out who your real friends are can be a truly challenging task. Try identifying 3-5 close friends or family members. Let them know that you’d like to talk with them about something important. Make an appointment, because people sometimes get busy and don’t always have time to enter into a discussion.
Talk with them about the problem of feeling lonely, and ask them what they would do or recommend. A person who really cares about you would be willing to engage in this conversation.
IN THE END
I remember how much I hated this question; this boring thing I would often call “The Dance of the Morons.” I remember how ugly it felt whenever someone would ask me how I was doing, when I knew that they didn’t care how I was doing at all.
And maybe they shouldn’t care. After all, in most situations, these people were merely co-workers. Yes, I wanted to be friends with some of them, and that lead to disappointment.
Did I care about everyone around me? For the most part, yes I did. That is a huge burden that comes with a big energy cost. It is important to be civil and polite, but caring about co-workers, managers, and bosses is mostly a fool’s errand.
Hi, I’m a fool! 🙂
Learning about my Level 1 Autism was helpful, but so was learning about how the neurotypicals function. They will hint at things, engage in innuendo, or even go so far as to communicate between the lines.
No wonder there is so much misunderstanding in the world.
Meanwhile, we Autistic people are direct, saying precisely what we mean, without any hints or other vague utterances. Then, even though we have said precisely what we wanted to say, the neurotypicals will be quick to attempt to read between the lines, and end up misunderstanding us completely.
And yet WE are the ones who need therapy?
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