Saturday, December 20, 2014

This Is What Narrow-Mindedness Looks Like

This past fall, Context held its annual convention.

According to Jim Hines, who has long taken a hard line on harassment at conventions:

From...public information, it seems clear that:

There were multiple complaints of harassment against a Context volunteer.

This volunteer has not disputed the complaints, and has apologized.

After contentious discussion, it was decided to ban this individual from Context for a minimum of five years.

Multiple individuals who were directly involved feel that others on the concomm [convention/conference governing body] and/or board didn’t take the complaints seriously enough.

Nobody can agree on how to spell concom/concomm.

I don’t know enough to second-guess the convention’s decision. I’m troubled by suggestions that banning this individual for five years was punishment for 'being old' or 'social cluelessness.' (And I said as much to [Sharon] Palmer[, who oversaw the Context Consuite and made those suggestions].) These are excuses that have been used far too often as a way to minimize or excuse harassment. A single incident might be attributed to social clumsiness, but intentions don’t necessarily change the outcome, and it’s clear that there were multiple complaints here.

[Emphasis original]

Now, this is all I know about Context, in fact before I saw this post I didn't even know Context existed. I've seen elsewhere on this post that the volunteer talked to people who didn't want to be talked to, made women uncomfortable and showed off a chainmail bikini (presumably not being worn by him or anyone else). And that's all I know.

And that seems to be all Mr. Hines knows.

And on that basis alone he's willing to not only not second-guess but in fact support the decision.

So...any time you talk to someone who didn't want to be talked to, you've harassed them? Without regard to whether you knew, or should have known, that s/he didn't want to be talked to?

And making people uncomfortable...what exactly does that even mean?

Anything down to and including this (scroll down for sappy's comment):

I actually was in an all-male work situation wherein one of the guys /bragged/ about participating in a gang-rape. His justification was ‘she was the daughter of teachers at the school and she shouldn’t have passed out around us’. I got to hear how they dumped her, naked, in her parents’ yard after urinating and defecating on her. And NOT ONE of my male co-workers said ANYTHING except to DEFEND this. This is after I pointed out that /I/ was the daughter of teachers as well and did that mean that the same should be done to me??
And you know what? I got asked not to return to that job because ‘I made the guys feel uncomfortable’.
I left that job, left that field, left those so-called friends and moved 2,000 miles away. Best thing I ever did.
If people are willing to act on this kind of "making people uncomfortable," it's possible that the Context volunteer legitimately did not expect other attendees to be uncomfortable with whatever he was saying and doing.

Guess what? Some people are better able than others to divine that someone doesn't want to talk to them, and/or is feeling uncomfortable.

You know how, once you find out something, it's tough to remember not knowing it? And you mistakenly think you knew it all along? Well, if we're like that with our own past selves, it's a lead pipe cinch we've got trouble understanding how completely different individuals don't know what we know. In fact, it's called the curse of knowledge.

So please understand -- what may be obvious to you may be obscure to others (and vice versa!). Some of us are, yes, socially awkward or even clueless (full-blown Aspie or otherwise).

Yes, Mr. Hines, it's an excuse for some behavior which should otherwise be considered harassing. Whereas, say, sorcery is not. The obvious difference: social awkwardness can be relevant.

Yes, of course it can be abused, just like any other excuse can be abused. For example, bullies, tough guys and criminals sometimes plead self-defense and hope it works. Does that mean we forbid everyone to strike anyone else no matter what, even if they're being attacked and can't escape...or do we carefully examine every claim of self-defense? Abusus non tollit usum.

Once again, Mr. Hines on the record:

A single incident might be attributed to social clumsiness, but intentions don’t necessarily change the outcome, and it’s clear that there were multiple complaints here.

Wow. Where to begin?

If your kid generally did well in math but messed up one or two homework assignments, would you think it more likely he was just careless that time or two, or that he has trouble in general with math? Now what if he more or less consistently failed his math assignments?

Not to mention that one reason why multiple complaints accumulated over the years against this volunteer was that people waited for years to confront the problem.

I understand why people -- perhaps especially women -- may have been reluctant to complain before. Namely, they may not have been sure they'd be believed or even listened to. And they may well have feared retaliation.

(Hopefully, this problem should be short-lived. Context -- not to mention everyone else -- should make clear that all complaints will be fairly investigated and that  complainants will be protected from retaliation to the greatest extent possible. And a bit of mutual communications training -- assisting men to understand more subtle refusals while helping women to give more direct ones -- may help too.)

But it doesn't change the fact that this was still the first time they were holding the volunteer accountable. It seems only fair to treat this as a first offense, show him the errors of his ways and give him a warning and a chance to reform before he gets severely punished.

Finally...has Mr. Hines not heard of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s famous point about even a dog distinguishing between being stumbled over and being kicked? If you drive -- obeying all the traffic laws -- and someone steps right in front of your car, you can't stop in time and you run over the person, killing her, should you expect to be tried and imprisoned for murder? (Or even vehicular manslaughter, like if you'd been driving drunk or even majorly speeding?) After all, your lack of intent to kill her or even to drive drunk or speed didn't change the outcome.

Not to mention...with offensive behavior the effects are basically emotional. In other words, it's all in the attendees' heads. And I would hope the attendees are open-minded enough to understand that someone can accidentally offend them -- yes, even multiple people on different occasions -- and factor that into how they're affected.

Given this kind of harsh response, I'm not surprised that not everyone in charge was on board.

So...what can we do?
  • Understand that not everyone is like us, and some people in certain kinds of circumstances -- not necessarily of their making -- may miss what seems obvious to us.*

    Of course there's a whole bunch of things that everybody should know. "Should" being the operant term.
  • Understand that people (especially as above) can "make" others uncomfortable without actually having done anything wrong.
  • Don't be so quick to attribute to malice or bad attitude what can better be explained by ignorance or social awkwardness.

    When making this judgment call, let's consider things like whether or not he or she has been previously and specifically warned (especially by us) about the behavior, how sorry he or she seems to be and how willing he or she is to learn how to do better.

    Needless to say, whether he or she should be punished is one thing...whether he or she should be in a role like dealing with the general public or other attendees in general is quite another. For someone who's officially representing us, it may indeed truly not matter whether he or she intends to offend people or just keeps doing it.
  • When holding someone accountable, let's use a versatile approach -- say, varying from "OK, now that you know not to do X, Y and Z any more none of this will happen again, right?" to "Hey, you've been told this before, and/or too many paying customers are offended -- I'm sorry to tell you we can't have you volunteering for us again at least in the near future" to "You seem to be doing this on purpose (especially if you've done this before) -- you're banished entirely for at least the rest of this decade."

    "One size fits all" works much better with clothes than with people.
Basically, let's be a bit more open-minded and helpful with our differences. Think we can manage that?

[*] I'm tempted to suggest: "Let's check our privilege."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Most Important Autism Awareness You'll Ever Use

My good friend Dana Baxt Smith pointed me to this piece by "Dr. NerdLove". First off, it's got some great points:

  • Any individual has the absolute right to socialize with, befriend and date whomever they want -- which may or may not include you. Maybe you've been misunderstood, maybe he or she is being unfair or even bigoted. That and roughly $4 will get you a gallon of gas (in the U.S.). You can like and be attracted to whomever you want -- you just don't get a vote in the other person's decision.
  • Girls and women have reason to be particularly cautious. They're more commonly targeted by predators who want to hurt them in various ways. A typical predator tests potential victims by crossing their boundaries in little ways -- joking about sex, violence, rape and the like, approaching too close and even touching -- and seeing how well they defend themselves. If the victim-to-be doesn't respond firmly, he (or sometimes she) escalates.
  • That's exactly why we have basic social norms include things like what you talk about, when and how you shake hands (your main if not only opportunity to actually touch someone you don't know well) and how you approach someone (whenever possible, no closer than maybe a yard/meter for someone who's not already a good friend or date -- oh yeah, and not from behind or the side either). They're not necessarily written down and may not even be spoken to you in so many words, but you're expected to know and abide by them.

    For example, as personal safety expert Gavin de Becker has pointed out in his The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, not everyone is thrilled with the idea of someone getting their contact or other personal information from any source other than them directly -- not even their own public profiles. (In my experience, people vary widely on this.)
  • There's another set of norms -- how you perceive and respond to things. Since girls and women are especially likely to "let you down easy" by using body language, hints and excuses instead of telling you directly that they want you to leave them alone, rightly or wrongly they're going to expect you to pick up on these signals and act just as if they had been explained in so many words.

    Among other things, if someone -- particularly a girl or woman -- just doesn't respond to you after you've contacted her a couple of times, likely she doesn't want to hear from you. The less you know each other, the more likely that's what it means. (For example, someone you don't know at all, or just met, versus an acquaintance versus a friend versus a boyfriend or girlfriend...but some people will even "ghost" or "Irish Goodbye" a close friend or boy/girlfriend if they feel something is wrong and feel that discussing it would be too uncomfortable. Ask me how I know!)
  • So, the other person -- especially a she -- is going to notice how well you conform to these norms, and will judge you accordingly.

    Yes, she knows that not everyone who follows the rules about boundaries is a good guy, and not everyone who breaks them -- especially the lesser ones, such as stepping too close -- is a predator. Thing is, they are related, a bit like wearing dirty clothes and being a sloppy person, so it's a good place to start. Also, many if not most girls and women prefer to err on the side of safety -- better to risk avoiding a good guy than trusting a bad guy.

    From your perspective, if someone decides they don't like you it's a lot tougher to reverse than if they
    do. Why? Well...if you don't like someone, how much are you going to want to be around them -- and hence give them a chance to change your mind?
Fair enough.

The next question is: Once you (including an Aspie, male or female!) feel your alarm bells going off around a guy, what's safe to assume...and to do?

When discussing socially awkward guys, Dr. NerdLove says [all emphases in original]:

"[B]eing anxious or socially clumsy or inexperienced isn’t the same as being creepy. Someone who is socially awkward will occasionally trip over somebody else’s boundaries by accident because they may not necessarily understand where the line is in the first place."

Well and good!

"A socially awkward person frequently realizes that they [mess]ed up almost as soon as the words are out of their mouth and will often freeze up or try to verbally backpedal; a creeper who is using 'socially awkward' as an excuse on the other hand, [may] rely on others to do their defending for them."


"You can almost always track the exact moment they realize that they’ve done something wrong by the way they desperately try to backtrack, apologize and generally try to reassure the other person that they didn’t mean to and they’re so embarrassed and are kind of freaking out and, and, and…"

Not so much. It depends.

Remember Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's famous mention of "unknown unknowns"? Those are things you don't know that you don't know!

Knowing right after the fact where the lines are drawn isn't so great by any means. But at least then you still get a chance to do said freezing up or backpedaling. Otherwise, if you don't know, you can't freeze, backpedal or give any other sign of regret -- especially if the other person is being subtle and "nice". And if someone else puts in a good word for you, it looks like you're "relying" on him or her to defend you because, after all, you didn't even know any defending needed to be done and hence didn't do any.

So this is much more a matter of case by case judgment.

Here's an example -- and pace Dragnet, not even the names have been changed to protect anyone.

Dana and I met as college freshmen; in fact, we lived on adjoining floors. As she posted on Facebook some months back, at least once she retreated to her room...where I followed her. I even waited patiently outside her door so when she came out, we could resume our conversation.

Problematic? Damn straight it was. Awkward? In spades.

And did I freeze or (in this case, physically) backpedal? Nope.

And I've since apologized to her.

Creepy? No, because I never even knew that I shouldn't have done that. I darn sure should have known -- that's what made it so awkward -- but I didn't know. I did not intend to bother her (even though that was the result).

What does this have to do with someone's right to avoid somebody whom she feels uncomfortable around? Nothing.

Thing is, people -- perhaps especially women -- tend not to just think "Oh, I just don't want to be around this guy." Many, if not most, people go on to judge the other person's intentions.

And that's where we come to FedoraBeard vs. Hot Topic Girl. As Dr. NerdLove describes it, a customer visited Hot Topic, saw a clerk he liked, got her name from a mutual acquaintance and then tracked her down on Facebook. He private messaged her -- this part is important -- multiple times despite a lack of response from her. Finally, she blew up, "read[] him the riot act" as Dr. NerdLove put it -- and then copied and posted the conversation publicly*. Including both of their names.

She excoriated him for, among other things, persisting despite not getting a response from her -- even though she also said that her delay in responding was due to moving and not having her new Internet connection right away.

Was she within her rights to ignore and even block him? Of course. Was his behavior questionable, even outright weird? You betcha.

Did she need to blow up at him? Not in my opinion.

My read on his behavior is that it's at least possibly, if not likely, awkward. Among other things, he seemed genuinely confused that she neither answered nor blocked him. A true predator generally would have been quite a bit smoother about it.

In my experience, some people -- of both sexes, incidentally -- seem to believe not only that silence, and/or gentle hints, understatements and other "soft nos," is warning him off...but also that the acceptable next step is screams, curses, threats and the like.

I beg to differ. Have more people not heard of the golden this case simple, direct and courteous communication?

For that matter, this isn't just a matter of courtesy. As self-defense expert Marc "Animal" MacYoung has pointed out in his (and Chris Pfouts') Safe In The City: A Streetwise Guide To Avoid Being Robbed, Raped, Ripped Off, Or Run Over, it's not a good idea to just blow up at someone who makes you uneasy. If he is in fact a violent sort, it just paints a target on your chest -- giving him an excuse to hurt you.

(And any witnesses, who are less likely to have noticed the guy's provocative behavior than your verbal attack, may see his "response" as provoked if not justified.)

Not to mention that it exposes you as someone (1) whose bark is worse than her bite and (2) who doesn't know where the boundaries are -- and thus can't defend them.

There's a better way. As Thomas MacAulay Millar points out, even if a "soft no" is (in his opinion) perfectly well understood by most men, an explicit refusal warns the bad guys off by showing you're a hard target: "Clear communication against the undercurrent that 'no' is rude and should be softened is a sign of the willingness to fight, to yell, to report."

(By the way, Aspies, other socially awkward folks and others should check out Mr. Millar's post: It includes some good, concrete clues to detect "soft nos".)

The key here is, as MacYoung has pointed out elsewhere, to be more like a growling dog than a barking one. No one ever says "your growl is worse than your bite" for a reason. And -- especially if a simple, direct "no" is seen as aggressive -- you can growl and still be courteous.

In fact, de Becker has given us a script that we can utter to people we want to leave us alone:

No matter what you may have assumed until now, and no matter for what reason you assumed it, I have no romantic interest in you whatsoever. I am certain I never will. I expect that, now that you know this, you'll put your attention elsewhere, which I understand, because that's what I intend to do.

That puts you on the record as crystal-clear, firm and courteous...and hence not provocative.

[*] Dr. NerdLove provides part of the conversation...right up until, and not including, said riot act reading itself. Interesting, huh?

Also, he seems to believe she posted the conversation herself...though others have said she might have instead given it to a friend who then posted it.

Bottom line: All of us -- particularly men -- need to tune in to subtle cues going both ways. And yes, that goes for socially awkward guys, too -- and Aspies.

Learning these cues is a topic for another day. However, I've written up a separate guide to help boost other people's comfort level around you. For a free copy, drop me a line!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Et tu, Seth Godin?

Seth Godin, the marketing and entrepreneurship genius -- not to mention the author of about half a dozen books in my library -- has finally said something that I can't fully support.

Let's start with the good stuff. Texting, emailing and for that matter talking on the phone while driving is a stupid and potentially expensive, crippling and even deadly act. It doesn't even rise to the level of selfish.

(And I don't even think it's OK on a hands-free device. Plenty of people drive just fine with one hand. Not so many people can drive well even with both hands while involved in a conversation more complex than placing a pizza delivery order.)

And how common this crazy behavior is says something about our culture -- something even worse than the things Godin lists.

He says texting while driving is woven so deeply into our culture that we'll need a technological fix. Since mobile phones are all tracked by location -- and by extension speed, too -- he suggests two:

(1) Any phone that is moving would automatically include an alert to that effect into every text and email it sends. Godin points out that if you yourself aren't driving, but you know (or have reason to know) that the person you're talking or texting or emailing with is actually driving, you can be held liable in certain jurisdictions. (In fact, he wants it to result in a trip to the Greybar Motel.)

Keep in mind that one can be moving at highway speeds without actually driving.

(2) Phones can be configured to simply not do certain things while they're moving.

Now, I'm OK with people doing this on a voluntary basis with their own (or their teens') mobile phones and/or their cars. People have a right (generally) to restrain themselves, and this might be what it takes for some people.

But he's not stopping at encouraging people to adopt that technological fix one individual at a time as they see fit. He makes crystal clear that he wants it to be the law.

And he only seems to care about one side of the equation:

"People won't die as a result.

"It won't cost the companies a penny in profit.

"And defenders of the status quo will scream about freedom and access and rights and how it used to be. They will worry about people on trains or passengers in carpools.

"But you know what? It's better than being dead. Better than being the victim of the one out of three drivers I see who couldn't wait..."

Let's skip to the second point: profit. He doesn't seem to have given it much thought.

Last time I checked, when costs go up, unless revenue also goes up by at least that amount, profits go down. Also last time I checked, technical fixes aren't free. Finally, a phone that won't make or receive calls or allow reading or writing of texts or emails while in motion is probably going to be less popular (in general, anyway) than a phone which does those things even when in motion.

So demanding those changes probably will cost quite a bit of profit. However important or unimportant you think that is -- and keep in mind that at least within a certain range, things like jobs, investments and pension benefits are tied to profits -- it tells us something about Godin's approach.

Namely, looking at the first line above, saving lives is the only thing that counts.

Not only that, he dismisses petty concerns like convenience, speed and even individuals' freedom and rights. 

Again, at least as of now and probably some time to come, a phone can only "tell" how quickly it's moving and where it is on the map...but not where it is in relation to the driver's seat. So say goodbye to calling ahead if your bus or train or carpool (or plane?) will be late*, or getting some one-to-one communication or even a conference call, blog post or livetweet or three done during your downtime.

It's all worth it 'cause it saves lives, right?

That's why we don't allow left turns, or right turns on red, or anything > 55 mph anywhere, right?

That's why we have zero tolerance buzzed-driving laws...any BAC > 0 and you're automatically legally drunk, right?

Heck, speaking of technological fixes, that's why all cars have ignition interlocks, so you have to blow into 'em (and thus prove you're sober) before you can start the engine, right?

Looking at our own personal lives, that's why we all eat low-carb, high-protein diets, not too much not too little, always exercise plenty every day, always demand HIV/STD testing right before having sex with anyone we're not married to (or maybe just strike those last four words)...right?

Because saving life and limb is so all-important! 

Look, freedom is not the be-all and end-all of life. That's why we have these things calls governments in the first place. And Heaven** knows we need safety regulation. (Heck, Emily gives me a hard time about how slowly I drive.)

What sticks in my craw, though, is being treated like a child. Restrained like someone who can't be trusted not to do bad stuff, just because there are some folks out there who do. Not to mention, should I dare "scream" about freedom being important, getting not a reasoned, balanced response but rather derision bordering on contempt.

Our society has way too many of those types making way too many of our laws and rules these days. I was hoping Seth Godin was an exception.

[*] One time, I was late for work because the bus was slow. The manager insisted I should have called to let them know...even though I didn't have a cell phone. (Of course, she expected everyone to have one.) And that was a decade ago.

[**] After all, St. Peter can easily do the daily head-count!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Long time no see!


If you do the math, you'll see this is the first post here in close to a year and a half. If you wrote off Building Common Ground as dead, I can't say I blame you.

Bottom line: I haven't just been (more) busy. My life has become a lot more complicated. You see, I'm now a SAHD. Kid Deutsch (K.D. for short) is now a delightful one-year-old who stretches her Daddy in ways Torquemada couldn't have dreamed of. =|8-}

Check me out on Facebook and Twitter to see what's on my mind these days. Meanwhile, stay cool!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Constructive Confrontation

One fine day recently on the Metro (DC area commuter train/subway) :

Young "man" and young woman kissing. He seems just a bit more eager than she is, judging from her facial expression.

Young male puts his hand partially around young woman's throat.

I look at them - especially the male - pointedly and ask "Is there a problem?"

It's likely that he's trying to hurt or coerce her - but not a sure thing. All I know is what I've seen in the last couple of minutes. So I don't make accusations I can't prove.

What I'm doing is letting him know that someone else - who may be willing and able to intervene in some way - is watching, and doesn't necessarily approve.

Young man removes his hand from her throat. They begin kissing again, and she doesn't (seem to) feel anxious any more. Things seem better, at least until I get off the train.

You might face such a situation yourself. Do you want to have to choose between standing by as someone's getting hurt and overreacting? Check out this excellent piece by a world-renowned self-defense expert.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On Alert!

Here's another example of why we need to be alert to how our actions could reasonably look to others. (Especially if you're male and the other person is female.)

Just because we're only intending to flirt or compliment someone, doesn't mean she's not going to worry about something much, much worse.

(Btw, the language at this blog is not entirely SFW.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What's Our Most Valuable Asset?

If someone asked you what your - or anyone's - most valuable assets are, how would you respond? Likely by saying "People, of course!" And you'd have a point.

Check out the implications:

This Dilbert cartoon strongly implies that a boss who makes decisions "based on what [he knows] about the people involved," as the cartoon has the boss character put it, is silly. What could be more important than the technical details?

The skills, character and collaborative ability of the people, that's what. As the boss observes, Dilbert is pale and poorly dressed - signals that he's not socially adept and thus may have a hard time cooperating with others. He also apparently doesn't understand others enough to know what impresses them - or he just doesn't care how others feel. And possibly he doesn't even have good enough attention to detail. Those issues can sink any project no matter what the numbers look like.

Have you gotten a bank loan? Perhaps you've noticed that the bankers don't just look at the data you send in like your income, current debts, projected profits (for a business loan), etc...they like to meet with you. That gives them an idea of who you are as a person. And that's an important way for them to know how likely they'll get their money back as agreed.

We ourselves - not our computers, nor our money, nor even our knowledge - are our most important asset. And for that reason, anyone who's considering starting or keeping any kind of relationship with us is most concerned with our attitude, our skill at dealing with the unexpected...and our ability to link up with others. They're what make us unique.

Those things, not our diplomas, technical skills or numbers, will make or break us.