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.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Lucky 13!

It's been 13 years now since we met that day at George Mason University, first briefly in the vending machine room and then the nearby computer lab. (At our wedding, her brother paid tribute to said lab.)

13 years of growing pains, molding ourselves to fit each other, each learning what makes the other tick.

13 years of happiness, heartache, love, tears and more than a little screaming. =|8-}

May there be many more.

I love you, Emily!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

What Will They Think Of Next?


You may recall that sometime back I mused on the possibility that people could pre-write text messages to send to their loved ones and others in case their plane was about to crash or a similar disaster was about to strike.

Well, thanks to Occupy Wall Street, we've now got an Android app which, while intended for a slightly different scenario, should do the job here.

What next?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Saturday, September 17, 2011

How To Pass With Flying Colors

One thing I commonly tend to notice is what colors people are wearing. Especially if they're matching. For example, if someone's wearing, say, a matching necklace and earrings, matching earrings and rings, or a complementary shirt and tie, I may tell him or her.

In particular, I tend to like solid colors more than patterns: Tracking patterns takes mental energy - watching and wearing.

As I've mentioned, colors tend to affect me, especially if they're good colors. Pastels and other bright colors - especially in the red and blue families (and yes, purple is one of my favorites; another one is pink) help top off my social fuel gauge. I also feel good when I find complementary pairs.

What do you think of my idea of a well-dressed guy (SFW)?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Who's On First...Or Last?

While at the store yesterday, I got the last four boxes of Chicken Carbonara for Emily. I'm not sure why I got a special kind of satisfaction, but I did. It's as if the shelf is now absolutely clean - and thus perfect.

Many Aspies tend to like being the first and/or the last at something. For example, I'm significantly more likely to comment on a blog post or Like something on Facebook if I'm the first to do so. And I like to be among the first at an event so i have time to relax and collect my thoughts before most people arrive.

Conversely, if there are, say, five boxes of something on the shelf, even if I was going to get four under those circumstances I would probably buy all five this time.

To be sure, if there weren't close substitutes nearby, I'd make sure to leave some for others. And if it were a cafeteria or similar setting where if I took them all it would mean someone else goes hungry, I would make sure to only take one.

But if other people aren't being harmed, I enjoy being on first - or last - whenever possible.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Put It In Writing

One way I like to handle serious situations - especially if they can go negative - is putting things in writing - especially email. Written interactions are, well, documented and one can go back later on and reread what was said instead of trying to remember it.

Besides that, though, I find I can much better express myself sometimes if I can take the time to craft what I'm saying. I can type something, see how it looks on the screen, try something different, move this paragraph this way, split this other paragraph and so forth. I can also take the time to read what the other person has said and figure out which interpretations make sense.

This especially helps because (1) we Aspies take time to process things and (2) we're better off when we can focus on one thing such as writing, as opposed to multiple things at once such as words, tone of voice, gestures, body language, etc.

Unlike, say, with many tests, the first response is often not the correct one, and it can take a little thought to discern just what the other person really meant.

I've learned to understand people, and in turn make myself better understood, face to face. And especially in heated situations with people I know well, we can cool things down sometimes by switching to email.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

But You're So Smart....

If I've heard that once I've heard it a thousand times.

"You know better...."

"You knew that already, you just asked that question to get attention...."

"I shouldn't have to tell you these things, look how smart you are...."

There may be some correlation between intellectual smarts and social smarts. At most. Heck, the brainy but socially awkward nerd is a cliché in our culture.

Please, don't assume that just because someone is an avid reader, talks with a vocabulary well beyond his years and can discuss certain things in depth at the drop of a hat, that he also necessarily knows that you're upset or need a hand with the groceries or don't feel like being stared at.

And no, this is not an opportunity to get small-minded revenge on the person who keeps showing off and showing you up. Even if he corrects you in public on the most petty, lame-ass things doesn't mean he's personally attacking you.

Thank you very much in advance for your understanding.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Feelings Have Consequences

Sometimes what we say and do really matters even when the other person knows otherwise on a rational level.

In salary and other negotiations, suggesting a number will often influence the final deal. That's known as anchoring.

For example, in a simulation, people applied for jobs as administrative assistants and said that their last salary was $29,000 - which often guides the final pay offer. Some applicants joking said they wanted to earn $100,000, while others didn't. The ones who made that joke were offered an average of $35,385 - 9% higher than the average of $32,463 among those who didn't.

Even when the employer rationally knew that $100,000 was so unrealistic that the applicant must have been joking, that number implanted a feeling in the employer's head to focus on high numbers. The employer may have expected that the first set of applicants, while joking about the specific $100,000 figure, would still require higher salaries to come on board. In other words, the employer's feelings went well beyond the objective meaning of the numbers, and shaped their behavior.

When dealing with people, we need to focus on their feelings, not just the facts. In a conflict, feelings often win.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

New Column - Building Bridges!

Autism After 16 is a new site full of resources for adult Aspies and the people who love, work with and play with us. Check out my column, Building Bridges, for ways Aspies and NTs can both accept and be more acceptable to each other.

The founder and editor, Merope Pavlides, a veteran journalist, has an Aspie adult son and does private consulting regarding autism spectrum issues.

Please let me know what you think!

(Folks anywhere near the East or Gulf Coasts or the Blue Ridge Mountains - please stay safe and dry!)

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Appearance Is Worth a Thousand Words

Last week, I took a trip back to Long Island, land of my upbringing, to reconnect with a few people. Including a lady - I'll call her Felice - whom I went to high school with, and the very next time either of us contacted the other was last November (Hint: Rhymes with "Pace Nook").

By prearrangement, I stopped by her family business, and there she was - together with her mother. We introduced ourselves, then got to talking. Felice's mother mentioned wanting to retire soon, and given how young she looked, I remarked that it must be early retirement since she looked like she was in her mid-40s (which she does, at least to me). She laughed and pointed out that if so she must have been two when she had Felice.

Good point. Of course I should have kept that in mind, especially since Felice and I have already crossed the 40 mark ourselves. Thing is, Felice herself could pass for 30 if not younger IMHO. While I knew as a matter of objective fact how old Felice was and thus how old her mother would have to be at a bare minimum, I saw something quite different. And my thinking brain went with appearances, not facts...even though as an Aspie I'm supposed to be wired to pay even more attention than average to the latter.

Maybe I'm just rationalizing my forgetting a detail in the midst of a conversation. And maybe this is an illustration of how NTs so often think and act: By gut reaction based on what they see and hear, sometimes putting aside the statistics.

Something to think about when trying to make a good impression and otherwise persuade people.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Important Date in History

Happy six-and-a-half-year anniversary to Emily (and me too of course)!

Happy 189th birthday to Gregor Mendel, an early discoverer and creator of modern genetics.

Not-so-happy 67th anniversary of the German generals' plot to kill Adolf Hitler. When it failed, World War II only ended many months (not to mention casualties, economic damage and political changes in Eastern Europe) later.

Monday, July 11, 2011



Three years ago today, Building Common Ground was born!

Pop Quiz: In the photo for this news story, can you tell without looking at the caption or any other text in the story, and without knowing the individuals, who's interviewing whom? Bonus points if you can explain how you know.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Conversational Gambit

Last night...

Emily: How do I look?

Your Humble Servant: OK.

Emily: Just OK???

YHS: *facepalm*

YHS: Well yes, because you normally look very good. So I'm just saying everything is normal. If looking very good weren't the norm for you, then it'd be special enough to specifically mention.

Emily: *smiles*

(And yes, she OK'd my posting that.)

You have just finished Building Common Ground's 200th Post - congratulations and thank you for reading with us this far!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Get Busy!

Recently, I was standing on line at an outdoor ATM when a gentleman, also on line, asked me whether the bank itself was still open. I suggested he go to the door itself and see. (He did...to find the bank had just closed.)

So often, total strangers have pegged me as a knowledgeable, go-to person that I set up this label here on Building Common Ground to describe these experiences. One common factor: I have most often not been in a mood to talk when people appproached me. Yet I've been out there and accessible.

To get people to come to you, it sometimes helps not to show how much you want them. It sounds like a paradox, but it's true: people often are much more interested in you when they're not sure whether you're interested in them. If you seem really eager for them, they wonder if you're desperate.

And being desperate drives people away, because - fairly or unfairly - they wonder what you may know about yourself...and what other people may know about you...that they don't know (and would rather not find out the hard way). Is there a reason why people don't see value in you?

Basically, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Get (looking) busy if you want to get busy!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Land of Pork and Honey

Emily and I recently visited Annie's again - we both like the food and the surroundings, albeit in different ways...she enjoys the crabs and the view of the water (let's just say the fish are as fresh as fish can be), whereas I dig the pork and the decor (especially the pink).

The waitress kept calling me "hon". A bit irritating, but I understand where waitresses are coming from. Especially since this area (Maryland's Eastern Shore) is semi-rural like Ocean City even if Annie's is higher-class than many Ocean City places.

So when I paid the check (with a 20+% tip), I told her "It's nice of you to call me hon. Please, just call me Jeff. I appreciate your efforts to make everyone here feel welcome."

And she smiled.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Been There, Didn't Do That - But Still Got the T-Shirt

Last summer, I visited San Francisco, including Alcatraz - the infamous former maximum-security prison. As a memento, I got an Alcatraz T-Shirt.

Yesterday, I visited the local Borders while wearing said T-Shirt. Someone came up to me and said "Those three that went missing - do you think they survived?"

I looked up at him. "Huh?"

"The three who swam out of Alcatraz - do you think they escaped, or did they drown?"

"I have no idea."

"Oh, OK - I thought you were an expert on the subject."

Friday, May 20, 2011

Wisdom Comes Where You Find It

Yesterday, I found out about a job fair at Fort Meade in central Maryland coming up Wednesday. Since I planned to post about it anyway, I decided to check out the announcement. Many of the employers' names were in red and were preceded by red * marks. Given the location of this job fair, the likely clientele and the types of employers, I guessed that the markings indicated that applicants to those firms need security clearances.

(Job-hunting hint: Even if a firm says that they also welcome those who can qualify for security clearances, applicants who already have them enjoy a major advantage. Government agencies may be more willing to sponsor employees to get clearances. All of the above refers to U.S. employers.)

(Job-hunting hint#2: This fair is during the day, so the employers are much more likely to at least consider unemployed people.)

Curious, I called the listed contact person, Jerome Duncan.

Jerome: Oh, that means that's for applicants with security clearances only. It says so at the top of the page.

Jeff: That's good to know. You see, the online announcement, at least, doesn't have that information so I really appreciate your telling me.

Jerome: It certainly should say that - let me take a look.


Jerome: I'm going to have to let them know about this right away. Thank you very much for telling me.

Jeff: Thank you kindly, I appreciate your help.

Jerome: Thank you for giving me a heads-up!

All too many people get so defensive when people point out issues. Even if it's something their co-workers may have messed up, not they themselves, lots of folks shoot the proverbial messenger. So let me be the first to congratulate Jerome Duncan on being open to the facts. Keep up the good work!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Gut Feelings About Justice and Rational Decision-Making

A team of researchers has found that judges are much more likely to grant parole first thing in the morning, and right after lunch/snack break. In fact, the probability that a prisoner will get parole is approximately 65% at the start of a morning or afternoon session - and approximately zero at the end of the session (morning or afternoon).

In fact, these dynamics probably apply to a host of decision-making settings.

That's one more brick in the wall of proof, if proof be needed, that decisions often get made on the basis of non-rational or even irrational factors. After all, what does the exact timing of the hearing have to do with whether or not the prisoner deserves parole?

What's more, this is yet another reason why it's important to get people to like you, no matter what your objective merits are. For example, court clerks often decide which cases get heard when...and they've probably long since noticed how it influences the actual decisions.

H/T: News of the Weird's syndicated newspaper column. IMHO, in this day and age reading paper newspapers may be "weirder" than the above decision-making patterns.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Autism Awareness Month Roundup


I've been quite busy this Autism Awareness Month.

Among other things, I took part in an Aspie panel for the Howard County (Maryland) Asperger's Support Group - mostly for parents of Aspies. The idea here was to help the parents understand what it can be like to be an Aspie.

Also, I gave guest posts at Multiples and More and Acting Balanced in honor of the occasion.

Last night, I took part in a Blog Talk Radio discussion on day-to-day issues facing Aspies.

What do you plan to do next year for Autism Awareness Month?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Admitting Ignorance Is No Crime

Looking for my precise bus stop at a general bus depot in Seattle, no transit employees around:

Conversation abbreviated to pertinent part...

"Pardon me sir, can you help me find the stop for XYZ Bus?"

"It may be a bit far to walk..."

"That's OK, I don't mind walking a bit. If you know precisely where it is, please tell me."

"Well, you walk about thirty blocks that way..."

"Obviously, you don't know where the XYZ Bus stop at this depot is. I'm sorry to have disturbed you, sir. Have a great day." (Walk away.)

Yelling after me: "Then why did you ask me in the first place?"

Because unfortunately I can neither read minds, nor predict the future, nor even detect someone who actually has the information I'm looking for. At this point, I'll settle for someone who, if they don't know the answer, will at least be up front about it.

Takeaway: Not knowing the answer to a random stranger's question is OK. Wasting their time when you don't know the answer isn't. (Not to mention they'll find out anyway!)

Monday, April 18, 2011


Recently I visited Seattle (joining Emily, who was working there that week).

After getting off the plane at Sea-Tac, I made my way toward the light rail station while pulling a small suitcase and carrying a laptop case and another bag.

A couple of young men came up to me and asked if I was local - sounding like they needed help finding something.

Life is interesting sometimes....

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Good Guys Won!


150 years ago, rebel Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, starting the American Civil War.

50 years ago, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to go into space, beginning a new and ominous chapter in the Cold War.

30 years ago, the first Space Shuttle, Columbia, was launched by U.S. astronauts John Young (the 9th person - and for that matter the 9th American - to walk on the Moon) and Robert Crippen.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Cost of Disability Accommodations: It Isn't Peanuts

An elementary school in Edgewater, Florida has become ground zero for a controversy: Just how much should other kids be asked to change their routines when one child has a disability?

A 6-year-old girl there has a life-threatening peanut allergy, and school officials agree that it's a Federally protected disability. So, they've required all her classmates to wash their hands before entering the classroom both in the morning and after lunch, and also to rinse out their mouths.

Some people think that's a bit much to ask - in fact, local parents have asked that instead the girl be home-schooled...though the school district says "that's just not even an option".

Looking more broadly, a clear if narrow majority of the 86,250 people (as of now) who have voted on the issue on the above page agree that the girl should be removed from class because her allergy is too disruptive. Only just over a quarter of those voting feel it's a straightforward matter of her right to be in school. The rest - including Your Humble Servant - hope some kind of compromise can be worked out.

While we Aspies rarely ask others to wash their hands let alone rinse out their mouths more often, the fact is that we also often require sacrifices of others. People who, among other things, have to abandon their normal polite mode of speech, or wait until we've looked up from a task to suggest something, or hear complaints from people whom we've addressed bluntly (in their eyes, tactlessly) at least have a right to ask that we do anything we can to reduce their burden.

What do you think?

PS: You might have noticed - but probably didn't - that we had no NT Planet last week. It's been suspended (likely indefinitely) due to lack of interest.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

NT Planet: The Power Of A Kind Word

Gary Noesner, retired FBI* Chief Negotiator, recently reflected on his work - ending with:

When I used to interview people when they had surrendered after an incident and ask them what one thing I said to make them change their mind, they would invariably reply, ‘I don’t know what you said but I liked the way you said it.’ Our genuine, sincere, and concerned tone and demeanour are the most powerful tools of influence that we know.

[Emphasis added]

These were hardened criminals, or people who had snapped, or otherwise desperate folks, who had barricaded a place and often taken hostages. Some of them had robbed, hurt and even killed people.

And even they, pace Al Capone, didn't consider a gun more important than a kind word. Every FBI agent, not to mention every other police officer on the scene as well, had at least one gun. If guns were what mattered they wouldn't need any professional negotiators, let alone a chief negotiator.

NTs (and even some Aspies - more than we might think) are moved by kind words...and kind tones of voice.

[*] U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation; the closest we in America have to a Federal police.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

NT Planet: How Do People "Think"?

Let's face it: People are sometimes irrational.

Take this bike - please.

Seriously, if you saw someone trying to steal a bike, what would you do? Chase the thief away? Call the cops? Or...help him or her?

Well, there's the rub. As ABC News' "What Would You Do?" shows, if the thief is a her - specifically, a young, slim, blonde and generally attractive woman - and you're a him, you just might help her.

In this video (SFW), actress (and model and singer) Ashley Carpenter visibly takes her time trying to steal a bicycle in a park. Each time someone approaches her, she makes clear that the bike is not hers and she wants to steal it.

Notice what happened: Some of the men - but no women - actually helped her!

Not exactly news that men will go out of their way to help attractive young women, right? They even may help them commit crimes.

That's just it. Even though it's not news, men don't arm themselves against it. Not all or even most of them say to themselves "As a man, I'm vulnerable to young, pretty women's appeals, so if one approaches me I'll be extra suspicious. Especially if what she's asking is, well, evil."

Pretty strong evidence that people act, at least significantly, based on their emotions. Keep in mind that women's emotions weren't necessarily engaged in this particular situation, because very few women are trying to impress, or feel the primal need to protect, a pretty young woman.

We Aspies need to understand that when (not if) we need others' cooperation, logic, reason - even, at times, elementary moral principles - aren't enough. We need to look as good as possible, and otherwise engage people's emotions and primal desires - perhaps especially the ones no one will ever admit to themselves, much less others.

PS: Since, if you were cast in "What Would You Do?," you likely would be portrayed acting unethically if not illegally, ABC News warns:

Please beware of unauthorized people claiming to be casting directors for "What Would You Do." ABC News' "What Would You Do?" hires actors through established casting agencies only.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

NT Planet: Wrong Way Corrigan

This week, we'll look at a way in which NTs can take a good thing too far.

In this Dilbert strip, Dogbert is asked for directions. After making a joke based on the way the driver worded his request, Dogbert gives a set of directions. As the driver leaves, Dogbert reveals that he actually has no idea how to get there, but he didn't want the driver to think Dogbert was a jerk.

In fact, a commenter says that's common practice in Thailand, and speculates that maybe one gives subtle signals that the directions one is giving are not real. Meanwhile, I've been told that happens sometimes in Mexico, too.

NTs have a commendable urge to do whatever's possible to avoid saying "No," or "I can't help you." That's good when it motivates one to make extra efforts to actually help someone. It's not so good, and in fact is hypocritical, when one can't (or won't) help them but pretends to do so...often making them worse off in the process.

If there are subtle signals that in effect say "I'm just being polite...ignore these directions and ask someone else" - that's nice...if everyone notices and recognizes them. Let's assume, at least for the sake of argument, that saying "Take these directions, left, right and then left..." plus subtle signals meaning "Ignore these, I don't know the way" feels better to the recipient than saying "I'm sorry, I wish I could help."

But pretty much by definition, subtle signals are not always noticed, let alone recognized. People waste time, gas (two nonrenewable resources) and air quality taking a false route and then getting back on track. They may suffer even more if, for example, they accidentally get into a bad part of town.

It's good to make others feel good, especially if you can follow your own words and actually help someone. If you really can't assist them, the ethical thing to do is to be honest about it, and to whatever extent possible point them to better sources of help.

Meanwhile, you might recall I appeared recently on Neil Haley's Total Education Show - check out the podcast any time.

Next up, tomorrow evening I'm speaking at The Auburn School in Silver Spring, Maryland! It's free and open to the community - if you want to attend, please pre-register as soon as you can.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

NT Planet: How To Say No Around The World

As we may know - in fact as many of us do know since Aspies are sometimes especially interested in other countries - different cultures have different ways of saying "no". Americans are (as a group) significantly more direct than, for example, East Asians (ditto). (Having lived in Beijing, I can attest to this.) In fact, even among English speakers we Americans tend to be more direct.

Iris tells us of a friend of hers, "Bill," staying in Japan, whose major issue there is Japanese people's vaunted inability to say "no". For example, when he wanted to look at a house (to further his architectural interests), he asked permission of the owners through a mutual friend - and was told that the owners "are busy for the entire year"!

Iris points out that Americans say "no" indirectly as well - the difference is that Americans might be more creative with excuses, whereas Japanese people saying in effect "We're busy for the entire year" are more transparent.

In other words, maybe Americans say "no" so well others - including NTs - may not even know they're being told "no". People may really believe the excuse (eg, having a screening to go to) and figure there's an actual problem and the other person would love to say "yes" but for the problem. (Beyond a certain point, that can cause problems too.)

Meanwhile, feel free to check out the comments to Iris' post for a look at how Chinese, Koreans and even French may say "no". (NB: A bit of the language there is NSFW.)

What do you think?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Honey vs. Vinegar

Yesterday, I went to the library to meet with a Cornell applicant. (It's not really an interview because [1] it's optional for the student and [2] it's non-evaluative. I let the Admissions Office know how things went, but I cannot make any recommendations like "Deny," "Admit," "Wait List" or anything like that.) Also, we help persuade the applicant to choose Cornell if he's admitted.

Noticing that all the front tables had someone either sitting at them or having reserved a seat, I went to the back and found several chairs facing the large window at the wall. I moved the two remaining empty ones together, put my writing pad on one of them and went back to the front for my jacket to put on the other.

By the time I returned to the back, jacket in hand, a woman was pulling one of the chairs aside. I asked, in a soft voice, "Would you like me to get you another chair? I'm using these two." She declined in a nice tone of voice, and mentioned that she'd figured that possibly both the chairs were reserved. As she was walking away, I repeated my offer, which she again refused and then she left.

By (1) addressing the situation indirectly, (2) offering a favor, (3) using a soft voice and (4) repeating my offer even after it was clear I would get what I wanted, I helped her feel much better about the situation. Had I just said, in a normal or even a strong tone of voice, "I'm sorry, I'm using both chairs - you'll need to get another one," maybe she would have still left but she would not likely have been happy about it.

And on the other hand maybe she would have put up a fight - with a best-case scenario a bit of unpleasantness and serious social fuel expenditure right before the meeting, medium-case also having to find another chair and worst-case an embarrassing scene in front of the applicant (who arrived a short time later).

Everyone happy, and a great meeting was had by all.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

NT Planet: Different Levels of Communication

Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler - founders of VitalSmarts - have written an interesting book: Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High. It gives some perspectives on addressing people's concerns when talking in a sensitive situation.

The first task is, of course, noticing when a sensitive situation exists. For example, on page 143:

A patient is exiting a health-care facility. The desk attendant can tell that she is a bit uneasy, maybe even dissatisfied.

"Did everything go right with the procedure?" the clerk asks.

"Mostly," the patient replies. (If ever there was a hint that something was wrong, the term "mostly" has to be it.)

From a merely logical perspective, "mostly" is not necessarily a hint. After all, the patient is saying that most of it went well, we all know nothing is perfect and she is not voicing any particular complaints.

Only after we add in the understanding that people tend to communicate through hints, and therefore expect us to interpret anything other than a 100% endorsement as a sign of a problem, do we see that this is a hint expecting us to ask what's wrong.

Keep in mind that NTs often communicate in two or more stages, especially with negative information. The first stage introduces the fact of negative information, and only after we let them know that we want to hear the news does the other person continue.

That does not make sense from a strictly logical perspective - after all, if you need to communicate something, why not just go ahead and say it? Especially when the alternative is to drop a hint, and then if the other person doesn't pick up on it blame him/her later? Wouldn't it be more efficient, not to mention less risky, just to transmit the information right away?

However, from an emotional perspective, it can make sense. In effect, one first asks for permission to give the information, then the other person is expected to give it, then the first person goes ahead. Logically, if the second person is expected to give the permission anyway, and if she doesn't get the hint in the first place it's her problem because she's presumed to get it, what point is the ritual? Isn't it hypocritical and worse, since it may be misinterpreted?

The point is, to people who communicate emotionally as well as logically, that the ritual communicates a broader message: I care about your feelings and don't want to press undesirable information onto you. And in turn: I care about your feelings and want to give you permission to express negative information, therefore showing you that I want to resolve your concerns - and don't want you to feel censored.

Could a group of people agree - either literally or in their actions - to do away with the rituals, assume everyone wants to have any information that he would need, and go ahead and give all the information immediately in the clearest possible way - especially since the other person can always ignore it? For example, instead of "Mostly," could the above patient say (from page 144), without the clerk having to prompt her:

"It hurt quite a bit. And besides, isn't the doctor, like, uh, way too old?"

Sure. The patient and the clerk, and maybe other people, just need a different set of understandings in mind when they think of and process this kind of information. The patient needs to feel that it's OK to give negative information even at risk of being ignored or even criticized or attacked, and needs to understand that the clerk might not get it otherwise. Meanwhile, the clerk needs to feel that it's OK for the other person to give negative information even before the clerk has given "permission". That's a matter of culture.

Thing is, it's a matter of very few NT cultures. Since it's a matter of culture and language, everyone or almost everyone needs to get with the program for it to work. (It's like computer programs - you can create the most brilliant program in the world, but if it doesn't interface well with the computers and other software people are already using, it's worthless if not worse.)

And that's not going to change in the foreseeable future. So we need to understand that NTs tend to communicate on several levels - they communicate on both a logical and emotional level, and also they give a hint of negative information first, and then wait for your (expected) permission before giving the rest.

What do you think?

Monday, February 14, 2011

On the Air


On Wednesday night, 10pm ET, I'll speak on Neil Haley's Total Education Show on Blog Talk Radio about ways in which Aspies and NTs can come closer together.

The show will stream live on the page, and afterward a podcast will be available there for your on-demand listening pleasure. Meanwhile, if you'd like to call in, the number is (805) 285-9736. A Skype channel may be available, so if you have both Blog Talk Radio and Skype accounts (which are free) and a Skype channel is available you can listen and also call in without paying long-distance charges or using cell minutes.

"See" you on the air!

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

NT Planet: Let's Give Them Something To Talk About (Talk About Etiquette)

Singer Bonnie Raitt did "Something To Talk About" - describing how folks seem to think that she and a certain someone have feelings for each other:

...[T]hey keep saying
We laugh just a little too loud
We stand just a little too close
We stare just a little too long

Guess what? Those are three pivotal types of body language, and changes in those areas show that something different is going on - as self-defense and communications expert Rory Miller has pointed out. Within a given subculture, ethnicity, form of relationship, etc., people have normal tones of voice, personal space and eye contact.

That means that when people use a louder (or softer) tone of voice, allow each other less (or more) personal space, or make longer, more direct (or shorter, less direct) eye contact than are considered normal where they are, something is going on. And while softer tones of voice or even whispers can carry the same connotations of closeness as especially hearty laughter, standing particularly close and looking at one another longer than normal are strong hints that two people especially like each other and want to get to know each other better.

Bonnie goes on to point us to another very interesting feature:

Maybe they're seeing something we don't, Darlin'.

These are subtle and subconscious signals. Body language and tones of voice transmit things that people sometimes don't admit to themselves - or even know on a conscious level. If you were to ask Bonnie at that moment whether she had feelings for the other person:

  • She may refuse to tell you the truth,
  • She may trust you enough to tell you if she knows - but she hasn't come to terms with it herself yet, or even
  • She may be honest with both you and herself - but maybe she hasn't yet even decided it on a level she can put into words.
Bottom line: The more we can pick up on others' nonverbal signals - and abide by accepted nonverbal signal patterns where we are - the better we can understand others, predict their behavior and minimize being being misunderstood by others. We can ask people to articulate more of their expectations of us, and to focus more on our words than our actions (including our subconscious ones), but such requests will only take us so far. We can get a real leg up by communicating better nonverbally.

What do you think?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

NT Planet: Time to Take a Hint


The comic "Dilbert," about an engineer in a supposedly high-tech company, gives some good views of what happens when Aspie and NT sensibilities collide. Aspies have tended to concentrate in high-tech industries, so these behavior patterns may be better understood there.

In this Dilbert strip, Dilbert is chatting up a woman; she asks if he has a good job, and he mentions that the stock market has taken a toll on his stock options - so he's not exactly wealthy. She then looks at her watch and says "Hey, look at the time" - while Dilbert keeps talking.

Like it or lump it, many women* consider wealth and income important factors when selecting a man. When Dilbert admitted that the stock market had taken a toll on his finances, she wasn't interested in him anymore. Rather than say that outright, she "noticed" the time - which implies that she has to leave soon. It's considered a polite way to end a conversation.

Of course, it's somewhat exaggerated here. In real life, the woman would chat for another minute or three as a "decent interval". Since people know that mentioning time and having to leave is a polite substitute for the truth, people figure that such an excuse - especially right after receiving information that she may find negative - is likely untrue and in fact she doesn't want to chat anymore with a guy who's not earning a lot. Since officially we frown on people dating or marrying for money, people are hypocritical about it.

It's a classic form of hypocrisy - she doesn't want to actually say "Since you don't have a lot of money, I don't want to talk to you anymore." But she also needs him to understand that in fact she's terminating the conversation permanently. If Dilbert took her literally, he may offer to chat some other time when she's free - even ask for her phone number or email address.

On the one hand, social mores prevent her from (at least being comfortable) saying it. On the other hand, she still needs him to know it - and social mores expect him to accept it, too. This kind of hypocrisy explains much social dynamics.

[*] My wife Emily is not that kind of woman!

UPDATE: Donnla Nic Gearailt responds: "A woman who is mainly interested in a man's finances shouldn't limit herself to just the one john."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

NT Planet: Superior Forms of Communication

Looking for an excellent guide to the "hidden curriculum" of law firms and law careers? Kimm Alayne Walton's book What Law School Doesn't Teach You...But You Really Need to Know fills the bill.

For example, on page 194, she points up the dilemma faced by a law student who had just gotten a job offer from a law firm:

The managing partner had sent him a letter inviting him to the firm's annual golf outing. The letter included the line, "We know you may not golf, I don't, but I participate every year." The [soon-to-be-lawyer] asked [his law school's] career services director, "Do I really have to go? I've got to study for the Bar exam. And I don't golf!" She responded, "Absolutely! You should tell them that you're really excited about it, but you've never held a golf club."

He protested, but she continued, "You don't know if this is an event you can blow off. The tone of the letter suggests that every lawyer in the firm goes. If they all do it, you can't turn down the invitation."

[Emphasis added.]

NTs tend to be hypocritical about certain things, including superior-subordinate relationships. They don't always like to let it show that they're ordering a subordinate to do something...but they do expect the subordinates themselves to understand.

Such as with events like golf outings. On the one hand, the point of something that looks like fun is that it's supposed to "be" fun. And that's kind of hard to reconcile with subordinates being ordered to participate.

On the other hand, those in charge want everyone to participate in certain things, perhaps to give a show of having fun and help the superiors feel happy about putting on a good event. Other reasons may include helping the people relax and get to know one another better, and helping superiors observe subordinates under more relaxed conditions. For example, is Lucy really a sticker for detail? Put her in charge of the refreshments and let's find out!

Such knowledge is supposed to help everyone work together better. That's why the superiors ask subordinates to come and take part. But it destroys much of the point if the subordinates feel forced to do so.

Superiors manage this tension by putting certain obligations in softer terms. They don't necessarily say "You must do this" but rather something like "Even though I don't typically do this activity, I'm taking part here." The message is "This event is for everyone, not just for those who like this activity for its own sake. You should come even if you don't enjoy it."

Also, when a superior says something like "Everyone else is coming in Saturday," that means you should too. Yes, maybe you have better ways to spend your time Saturday. What are the odds that nobody else also had better things to do? The idea is that you should come even if you have things you'd rather do.

Trust me, when someone in a position to affect your life says that they themselves are doing this, or that everyone else is doing that, it's not meant as an amusing bit of trivia. Rather, it's considered a polite and not terribly subtle way of communicating that you'd be well advised to join in. With a smile.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

NT Planet: Shooting the Messenger, Part II

Geniferous made an interesting point in response to last week's observation. She said that tone of voice matters too, so if we're unable to use the optimal tone of voice we should explain that in advance.

I certainly hope it would help, though I'm not confident it will fill the gap. Thing is, if words and rational explanations would satisfy the other person, tone of voice wouldn't matter in the first place.

Geniferous is absolutely right: One thing I've learned the hard way is that people - especially (but not only) NTs - are built to respond automatically to certain cues like tones of voices, facial expressions, gestures, etc. Therefore, the absence of those cues must have some effect beyond what words can compensate for.

More broadly, tone of voice can be the exception that proves the rule. With some NTs, you have to use so much sugar coating and soft soap that the bad news is twisted beyond recognition...perhaps even by the recipient. People may miss important information because it's so obscured.

Especially if they're not the most sensitive people in the world but people talk to them as though they were, because those people are afraid of underestimating how sensitive they are and getting ignored, screamed at or worse. Not to mention that all that sugar and soft soap doesn't come free - people have limited amounts of emotional and mental energy, after all.

So, gentle tones of voice and even other things like subtle phrasing, understatements and the like aren't even close to perfect fixes. They carry costs and problems of their own.

The more NTs (and even Aspies) who take bad news personally, the more informational and emotional issues we're going to have, one way or another.

What do you think?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

NT Planet: Shooting the Messenger

In this Dilbert strip, the manager makes clear that he doesn't want to receive bad news, and thinks that someone who gives it to him, knowing he would feel upset, must hate him. He certainly wouldn't want such a person working for him.

For us, news is news as long as it's true and relevant, and it's only rational to meet bad news head on. For many NTs (and even some of us), news is also an emotional connection. NTs don't separate facts and feelings as readily as we (tend to) do, and often associate the messenger with the message.

The old saying about killing the messenger who brought bad news wasn't hyperbole - in ancient times, that line of work shortened your life expectancy. (These days, you may "just" worsen or lose, say, a friendship, relationship or job.)

So when communicating negative information, especially to an NT, don't assume it will be obvious that you didn't cause the situation - even if you say it in so many words. Either dress it up to a greater or lesser extent in euphemisms and understatements, and maybe put some positive information before and after it, or know that the other person may become angry with you and treat your news as an attack on them.

(PS: Many more people act this way than realize it. People tend to tell themselves they're much more rational than they really are. Most people "understand" that they shouldn't blame the messenger. Many people do it anyway, for reasons too complex to discuss here...though if anyone asks for elaboration, I'll be glad to do so.)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

NT Planet: Hope and Change

The famed horror writer Stephen King - under his nom de plume Richard Bachman - wrote several books, including Roadwork...about Barton Dawes' self-destructive spiral. His wife Mary, having left him just days before, agrees to have lunch with him to discuss the next step:

Her hair was braided in a single thick cable that hung down to her shoulder blades, a way he could not recall having seen her wear it (and maybe worn that way for just that reason).

Why would Mary have taken the trouble of wearing her hair in a new way?

People often wear their clothes, jewelry, hair and the like in ways that signal things about themselves. For example, someone in a suit and tie is more likely to have one kind of socioeconomic background, education and career than, say, someone in faded overalls and work boots. Obviously, there are individual exceptions...but it's a good general rule.

And people sometimes signal change through what they wear. If your college buddy had previously gone through like in suits and ties, and then you see him in overalls and work boots, you might wonder if he's become a victim of the recession and been forced to take manual labor to pay the bills. Or - maybe he's just decided to switch careers.

Likewise with hairstyles. Mary could have been saying: "I'm not the same woman who was married to you for 20 years." That in turn can imply: "I've changed in terms of what I will and won't tolerate. You may be able to win me back...if you change your ways."