As someone who has been in more than one “autistic space” on social media, it is interesting to observe how time and again, ideas, convictions and opinions become convoluted misunderstandings in an always surprisingly short amount of time. I would add the disclaimer: In general, being on the spectrum means communicating is not a strong suit. Be kind and keep that in perspective.
Is communicating effectively even realistic? Is it possible? Is Communicating effectively in the world even possible (whether or not one is a spectrumite.)
A few months ago, I decided to do a little experiment involving words. Backstory: In Girl Scouts we often played the game called Telephone. This game, also called “Chinese Whispers,” is an internationally popular one, in which one person whispers a message to the ear of the next person through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group.
We girls, probably 20 or more, sat in the church’s gymnasium (yes it had a gymnasium; and one church where we often had meetings had a small bowling alley in it- two lanes). We sat in a circle, cross-legged, and the first girl thought up a phrase like, for example,
“The dog and cat fight all the time. Hair flies!”
Or, uh, something original, and the girl who thought up the phrase can’t speak it aloud. It’s easy to see why this game appealed to me:
It was a relatively quiet activity.
It involved words.
It is a quiet, but thought provoking game that lasts as long as it takes for each girl to turn to the one next to her, and WHISPER the phrase into the next girl’s ear. As you can guess, by the time the message gets to the last girl in line, the phrase is ALWAYS completely different than how it started. The girl who thought up the phrase has the immense pleasure of telling the group what the phrase was to begin with. Everyone laughs at the way the end phrase never resembles the original.
So here’s my experiment. I got the idea from a particularly bad book, I forget the name of the book but at least I mined this idea from its ranting pages. I decided to start with this phrase that I often put out to the universe:
“I wish for the world to be at peace, as one.”
I fed the above, chosen sentiment, punctuation and all, into a good language translator. Firstly, I chose French. Then I took the French translation and fed that into Germany translation, and so on and so on. Here is how it went:
English: I wish for the world to be at peace, as one.
French: Je souhaite que le monde soit en paix, comme un seul.
Germany: Ich hoffe, dass der Welt in Frieden, als ein.
Ukrainian: сподіваюся, що в світі в мирі як.
Swedish: Jag hoppas att världen i fred.
Russian: Я надеюсь, что в условиях мира.
Hebrew: אני מקווה כי בתנאים של שלום.
Korean: 내가 하는 조건 안심하고 바란다.
Hindi: मॅँ आशा करता हूं कि शांति की स्थिति है।
Spanish: Espero que la paz.
Italian: Mi auguro che la pace.
Urdu: مجھے امید ہے کہ امن و امان کی ہے.
Greek: Ελπίζω ότι η ειρήνη και η τάξη.
Portuguese: Espero que a paz e a ordem.
Turkish: Umarım barış ve sipariş
English: I hope that the peace and order.
As you can see, I fed the phrase back into English at the end, and similar to the Telephone game (or gossip, altered retweets and spin doctors), my phrase doesn’t ‘seem’ to be too altered. But indeed, it is. The first phrase is a completed thought- an actual wish. See the two:
“I wish for the world to be at peace, as one.”
“I hope that the peace and order.”
I can’t even say the gist of my intention above remains, after the phrase travels the world, because it doesn’t. What’s left is not the juice of what I said, only the pulp. I never used the word ‘order,’ and ‘the world’ disappeared completely. Read them again. The result is a confusing, open-ended, unfinished thought. Not at all what my first sentence conveyed.
For some reason, this reminds me of the 2016 election.When we, as a people, consider how the rest of the world views us, indeed, how the world understands us, make sense of us, we must consider how rumors, gossip, retelling, sound bites, impressions, etc. just- jumble things up. Proactivity instead of reactivity will always be the way to go. Positive actions and kindnesses are not so easy to misinterpret. We all understand that differences abound on this planet. Shouldn’t that be a marvelous thing? None of us will ever visit every niche on earth, nor will we know every other person’s struggles, etc. etc. Actions conveying meaning like, humanness, compassion, even love- are universal. Sound bites that travel and unravel and are interpreted in myriads of ways- are less clearly decipherable. Communication, and in particular, people granted podiums, microphones, and power, have a moral responsibility- an obligation really, to CONVEY, to communicate, in proactive, benevolent ways.
That being said, I had an epiphany about communication, about human behavior, about misunderstanding- in the bathroom yesterday of all places, as I reached for my ACT mouth rinse. This epiphany, like the Telephone Game, requires another backstory.
Back in 1999 to 2000, I had three kids under my roof, a husband of 20 years, a few income producing side jobs, and a few pets. Life was busy. And then something started happening on a regular basis. He’d start yelling at me, from the kitchen, things like:
“Who put the fuckin’ cap on my soda so godd*m tight? I can’t open this!”
Or this oft repeated gem:
“Somebody get in here and unscrew this godd*mned mayonnaise lid! Who’s screwing these on so tight?! Who is doing this to me?”
Well, we didn’t know that he’d be dead in 5 years from Lou Gehrigs disease, that NO ONE was screwing lids and caps on things-very tightly– as some sort of sadistic joke on him. We didn’t know his strong roofer’s hands and muscled arms were slowly becoming paralyzed and in a short period of time he wouldn’t be gripping things
I don’t drink soda and I hate mayonnaise, by the way… But oddly, I did believe at first, before the long process of his diagnosis, that maybe I had inadvertently done these things. While making a sandwich for the kids. While pouring soda for company. I obviously didn’t know my own strength! I was the one who ran to the kitchen and was opening his pickle jar for him on a regular basis (I don’t like pickles) because once again, someone (most likely me) had screwed “the fuckin’ thing on so godd*m tight!” I just wanted everyone to be happy. I did rise to the occasion. I changed my actions to keep him appeased, and I started making SURE I left caps and lids loose. [Even though, it must be said, when I did open the pickle jar, it opened smoothly, with an ease that made me flinch. It wasn’t tight. His grip (we know in retrospect) was fading.]
UPDATE to present day 2016: Al is voicing his opinion from the kitchen. He’s irked, and rightly so, because he’s picked up the Tylenol bottle by the cap (again-this has happened many times) and spilled Tylenol caplets all over the kitchen floor, where some of them have landed irretrievably in the cat’s litter box. The same thing happened weeks before with the coffee (which is expensive, I don’t have to tell you), the kind with a screw on lid, was not properly closed and we lost a lot of coffee when Al picked up the container. By the lid.
And so over the years I’ve been hearing Al:
“If you won’t, or can’t, close the coffee correctly, then let me make the coffee!”
“Do you think you could put the cover on the milk, all the way, instead of partway?!”
And so, the epiphany in the bathroom came when I reached for my mouthwash and didn’t have to unscrew the cap- because as had become my pattern, set in place almost a decade ago—–
I had simply put the cap atop the mouthwash bottle, without screwing it on at all. WOW. Aha moment. As Oprah would say.
And that’s when my late husband’s yelling in the kitchen- about caps so tight he couldn’t open a single thing and who was fuckin’ screwing these on like this!?-came to mind like water breeching its confines and flooding in… I’d changed my behavior back then, even though I wasn’t to blame at all, in an attempt to appease his anger, his frustration, at not being able to open things. And now, here I was 9 years later, still a true creature of habit!
In the Telephone game, it was an example to us little Girl Scouts, about how intention can become distorted over time. I must say, I’m now taking an active role in examining the ways in which long ago- learned behaviors influence me today. Always life is a process of learning. The squeaky wheel does get the grease, as my late husband’s understandable yelling was a reaction (not to ME deliberately setting him up for failure in a sadistic way) to the body he had…which was weakening. Examining our own behaviors (it starts at home whether that’s conservation, living Green, or racism) and being articulate and precise is VERY important. But interpretation of perceived problems is important too. There are so many facets to every single thing. A light? A shadow? A color? An unseen side?
I seek out petitions. Look for proactive communication routes. I don’t want to wake up one day, 9 years from now, and realize that Trump’s one liners and I cringe- his policies and actions- have influenced the behavior of generations in this manner: “it’s okay to shout, to distort facts, to marginalize and separate, to say whatever the hell you want, whenever the hell you racistly, misogynistically want to, because you can.” That’s not okay. I speak from the perspective of someone diagnosed with both Aspergers and selective mutism, and I know firsthand how even ‘simple speech’ can be confusing, hard to understand, harder to convey. Even smart people like me are influenced by ranting confused men and change my behavior accordingly even though I’d done nothing wrong. One thing I am NOT, is a follow-the-heard-go-with-the-flow-conformist. I envision the old Pink Floyd hammers marching off cliffs…
Communication is SO many things! A well worn path, a familiar route to a familiar place, a rutted road, a paved but crumbling side road filled with potholes, a smooth newly paved side road, a four lane highway to other people…
It’s imperfect and so we have to take care with it. If that means choosing the paths we find familiar, and at times changing our behavior accordingly and getting out the sickles and scythes to forge new ones, then so be it. It’s imperfect. Using social media in this way, with careful thought, finding the right fight, remembering how even the best intentions and wishes and wants for a better world can be distorted without articulation and careful word choice….I fail at this a lot. Persons in power just can’t afford to do this to everyone else. it’s hard enough for the differences of the rest of the world to interpret us. I don’t see how brackish behavior drains the swamp, being brackish is in itself the definition of swampwater…
This writing was supposed to be about my mentor Keri Bowers, but it seems I had something to get out of my system, after my epiphany and all. Perhaps I’ll write that post later today.