When people ask me why I do not write for the mainstream, it reminds me of an incident that happened over a year ago. I mailed Psychology Today’s editor Hara Estroff Marano, saying that I would like to write on Asperger Syndrome. I am sharing this exchange, to illustrate why—much as I would like to—the effort is often not worth it for me. Contrary to what people believe, editors do respond (This is not true of Indian editors. They have poor personal standards.), and are not prejudiced against unknown writers at all.
May I write an article for Psychology Today on why direct communication is a great virtue, in people with Asperger’s Syndrome? As a man somewhere on the autistic spectrum, it was never clear to me why the direct communication style of people with Asperger’s Syndrome is considered harsh and insensitive. Some psychologists like Simon Baron-Cohen think that the people with Asperger’s Syndrome communicate directly because they have an extreme male brain, and hence, low ability to empathize. But, if directness makes people uncomfortable, this is perhaps a problem with people and not with direct speech. People are indirect when they are not fully comfortable telling you what they really think. An Aspie can easily claim that he finds it more exhausting to interpret the indirect demands of people, defend himself against their implicit accusations, and meet the indirect demands others impose on him.
I often notice that people are unable to put themselves in my shoes and understand that my disagreement does not indicate a conflict, or personal enmity. This is a classic case of failure of introspection. I suspect that this means that the neurotypicals are deficient in the cognitive component of empathy. They are also unable to be nice to Aspies despite the disagreements they might have. I suspect that this means that they are deficient in the affective component of empathy. Now, is it the people with Asperger’s Syndrome who lack empathy? If someone is willing to defend true, unpopular positions even when most of his peers disagree with him, I think he is a dynamo of self-responsibility. I think literalism and disagreeableness are the fountainhead of human progress. The triumph of the disagreeable over the agreeable is what the progress of humanity is all about.
dear shanu athiparambath:
As a man somewhere on the autistic spectrum, it was never obvious to me that the people with Asperger Syndrome lack empathy. Simon Baron-Cohen has argued that the people with Asperger Syndrome possibly have an extreme male brain, and hence, low ability to empathize. There are many reasons why he thinks so, but one of those reasons is that individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome have a direct, blunt way of speaking. I think I know what this means.
When I was a teenager, no one could make a loose statement within my hearing distance without me expressing my disagreement, often with detailed arguments. I found it hard to imagine that people would found it offensive because it would not have offended me. For long, I did not even know that it offended people.
When I was fourteen, I remember an uncle of mine turning on his heels and stomping off when I was having a debate with him. I found this puzzling, and did not know what triggered this extreme reaction in him. It took me more than a decade to see that people often saw ideological disagreement as a sign of conflict. Now, I do not doubt that direct speech might offend people. But, it is still not clear to me why direct communication is considered a vice, or at best, just another communication style.
When I was young, it was introspection that failed me. I liked to argue. I did not find it hard to separate the idea and the person, and did not know that people often conflated ideological disagreement with personal conflict. Simon Baron-Cohen observes that people often find it exhausting when individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome go too far in trying to convince them of their point of view. 0It is true that it is pointless to force conversations on others. But, people are so different. When I was young, I did not know that neurotypicals were not interested in such conversations. The neurotypicals who were offended by my argumentative nature did not know that our conversational needs were different either. It is introspection that fails neurotypicals. The failure to understand each other was mutual.
In college, I largely kept to myself. But, I noticed that whenever I had a debate with them, my batch-mates said that I am a recluse because otherwise I would have been beaten up and tortured by people. I found this amusing, but they were not amused for long. When I started working, I often pointed out the mistakes of others because that was the only way I could do my job in the best possible manner. I did not know that I came across as someone who nurses grudges, and enjoyed dominating others. Initially, I did not even know that people resented what I did with the purest of intentions.
I can easily claim that I find it more exhausting to interpret the indirect demands of people, defend myself against their implicit accusations, and expect them to meet the indirect demands I impose on them. People are unable to put themselves in my shoes and understand that my disagreement does not indicate a conflict, or personal enmity. I suspect that this means that they are deficient in the cognitive component of empathy. They are also unable to be friendly to me despite the disagreements we have in ideological matters. I suspect that this means that they are deficient in the affective component of empathy. Is it me who lacks empathy?
If directness makes people uncomfortable, this is perhaps a problem with people and not with direct speech. People are not straight-forward when they are not fully comfortable telling you what they really think. The assumption behind indirect speech is that people will be judged for simply telling you what they think. I think people with Asperger Syndrome prefer direct speech in others. They find it hard to imagine that they will be judged harshly for telling you what they think because they themselves are very direct.
Irrespective of whether you disagree with it or not, I think the central theme of Simon Baron-Cohen’s work on male-female differences might suggest why the people with Asperger Syndrome prefer direct speech:
“People with autism show a broader interest in systems. You’re trying to find the system, and find the mechanism behind how it works. I’m going to explore the idea that autism is linked to minds that are wired for science.”
If the minds of people with Asperger’s Syndrome are perhaps predominantly hard-wired for understanding and building systems, it is not hard to see why they prefer directness. The people who are primarily interested in understanding reality communicate more directly than the people who are primarily interested in how people feel. The people who care too much about how others might judge them are less likely to buy into unpopular truths, because it is hard to be liked by airing unpopular truths. The communication styles of people are largely a reflection of their cognitive style.
If this is true, it is hardly surprising that people with Asperger Syndrome are overrepresented in math, physics, and engineering. The people who are more interested in physical reality than in people flock to hard sciences and math. The people who are more interested in people than in physical reality tend to choose literature or the social sciences. I have also noticed that many social scientists who defend true, unpopular positions have certain autistic personality traits. This is especially true in economics because economists are often more hard-nosed than other social scientists.
Not without some disapproval, Simon Baron-Cohen observes that physicists are often very arrogant, and hell-bent on proving that they are right in believing what they believe in. It is tempting for many to dismiss this as a sign of low empathy or sheer disregard for other’s feelings. But, if the people who are more interested in understanding reality are more vocal about their beliefs, this is perhaps not such a bad thing.
Consider. In her work on male-female communication, Deborah Tannen observes that only the western capitalistic democracies find direct communication a value, even though the west does not practice what it preaches. But, if the prosperous west values direct communication more than the rest of the world, there should be a strong presumption in favor of this view. But, Tannen thinks that there is nothing wrong with indirect communication if everyone knows what you mean. True enough, but not everyone knows what you mean. Indirect communication smothers almost every aspect of our lives. Though not always conspicuous, this is not hard to see.
Consider this. Signing a pre-nuptial contract is very rare, even though half the marriages fail miserably, in the United States. People want marriage to have the veneer of idealism, though this is often a matter of appearance than substance. But, if you are not romantic at heart, you are already enduring the truth. There is nothing unromantic about writing a prenup. But, requesting a prenuptial agreement involves convincing the partner the value of having one.
Men and women are hesitant to request a prenup because such directness in communication might send all the wrong signals. This is a substantive mistake because half of them might regret this, retrospectively.
Every day life is full of similar situations. Men and women rarely adduce the proof that they do not have sexually transmitted diseases before having a physical relationship. It is possible to argue that male-female relationships thrive on implicit, non-verbal mutual understanding, and that drawing up an agreement might destroy romance.
I do not wish to disagree, but nearly two million people die every year because of AIDS.
In all the situations I mentioned, the risks are substantive, but people do not notice. The cost of direct communication is high, but it has to begin somewhere. The people who march to a different drummer are the outliers. It is improbable that they can nudge people in the right direction without wasting words. Anyone who hold unpopular positions in contentious issues know that even getting the issue straight is something of a chore.
When people are not comfortable disagreeing with each other, it is hard to persuade others, irrespective of the merit of your view. If this is true, expressing your views in no uncertain terms is not a sign of intolerance, but the first step towards tolerance. When someone breaks the unwritten rules of interpersonal communication, empathy is about listening calmly, carefully.
If someone is willing to defend true, unpopular positions even when most of his peers disagree with him, he is perhaps a dynamo of self-responsibility. The people who do it might have high expressive needs, but in every other way, it hurts them more than it hurts their peers. Though most people want to believe otherwise, this is not a vice. This is perhaps the rarest of all virtues. Disagreeableness is the fountainhead of human progress. The triumph of the disagreeable over the agreeable is what the progress of humanity is all about.
I did not hear back from her.