Thursday, September 17, 2009

Etiquette and its Discontents

Christine Rosen has written an interesting Wall Street Journal article, "Lifestyles of the Honest and Awkward," about "Adam" and other signs that NTs at large are starting to recognize Aspies.

Ms. Rosen makes a good case for better tolerance and even empathy for folks who behave eccentrically.

She also says:

As traditional social norms and old-fashioned rules of etiquette erode, we are all more likely to face the challenge that regularly confronts people with Asperger's: What rules apply in this social situation? In a world where people routinely post in excruciating detail their sexual preferences on their Facebook pages, is it really so shocking to have someone note his own sexual arousal in idle conversation?

IMHO, Ms. Rosen has overplayed her hand a tad.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the death of etiquette have been greatly exaggerated - if not exactly unprecedented.

If anything, over the last two decades etiquette has made a strong comeback in America - backed up by the force of law. Think of no-smoking rules in restaurants, sexual and ethnic harassment policies in schools and workplaces and increased discretion on the part of police and other authorities to stop, question and even arrest people whose behavior just gives people the willies.

More broadly, maybe things like ethnic jokes, attacks on homosexuality and insulting women aren't against the law (yet?), and people used to do them all without a second thought. Rest assured that if you utter them in 21st century America your name will be mud.

As for the old etiquette, let's not write the obituary just yet. Last time I checked, saying "please" and "thank you" - and writing thank-you notes as appropriate - are still important. A large majority of people still consider applauding speeches and the like to be just plain good manners. Some people continue to think it's rude to talk to strangers without being introduced.

Sex talk in public? Well, I have a fair number of Facebook friends, and none of us posts our sexual issues. Yes, more than a few folks post about sex, and yes we have talk shows about any imaginable topic. Those are still exceptions to our culture, not the rule. Titillation over sex talk makes better news and hotter water-cooler gossip than, say, trends in home remodeling.

And if you see or hear sex talk on the screen, you can just click on something else, or change the channel or just turn the darned thing off. What if your date casually mentions being sexually aroused? Especially if you're a woman?

No doubt Adam - as Aspies sometimes do - was just giving a running commentary on his feelings at the moment, and didn't intend to act on them. The fact is that rapists commonly "groom" their victims by crossing verbal and physical boundaries, to both desensitize their soon-to-be victims to sexual advances and see how much they can get away with. Many women know this, and everybody should. That kind of talk is considered gross for the same reason we've evolved to consider things like dead bodies, rotting food and feces to be gross - because they're signs of danger.

And suppose you do know that your date is just talking off the top of his head. What else does he do off the top of his head - quit his job, sleep with someone, buy expensive stuff, yell at his boss or landlord - or at you?

A bit more etiquette that (hopefully) hasn't died out - give the benefit of the doubt, live and let live, and when you have to address problems do so privately, courteously, constructively and give the other person a fair chance to respond. And consider possible lack of intent or knowledge on his/her part. Would be nice if more people did this, wouldn't you say?

Etiquette certainly has adapted. It's not about to die...and that's a good thing.

H/T: Ari Ne'eman, The Autistic Self-Advocacy Network.

What do you think?

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