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?


Geniferous said...

Sometimes I think NTs have marked impairments in their their use of multiple verbal behaviors, such as being repeatedly told something that has no meaning other than its literal meaning. : ) I think you just have to keep emphasizing that you actually mean what you're actually saying, not something other than what you are literally saying (but I don't know how to get NTs to believe this).

Jeff Deutsch said...

Hi Geniferous,

Excellent point - I agree completely that it's a real pain in the butt when you mean what you say and say what you mean, while others respond to what they think you meant. Especially even after you repeat yourself and otherwise insist that they feel free to take your words at face value.

Problem is, NTs have their own ways of interpreting words, and like it or lump it certain ships have sailed. For example, as Yale Law Professor Stephen Carter has pointed out, once a "critical mass" of professors write letters of recommendation in exaggerated fashion, eg "So-and-so is the best student I have ever had" when So-and-so was just a talented and hard-working student like those in many classes, other professors have strong reasons to follow suit.

That's because in such a setting, employers and graduate schools will automatically discount such recommendations, so if "Best student I ever had" just means "Bright and diligent" then that will be just average, and a detailed, nuanced discussion of both the student's strengths and challenges could be the kiss of death.

I'm not sure what a small number of dedicated individuals can do to change an established connotation. Many times, it may be worth it just to go along and get along, even at the cost of doing a bit of further violence to perfectly legitimate words.

And if, say, the same terms mean pretty much their literal definition to some people and a much more negative thing to others, we need to exercise our cultural tools the best we can to subtly "suss out" - often without openly asking - just whose internal translators are set to "hair trigger" and whose are set to "tell it like it us" and customize our responses appropriately.

However you slice it, life among NTs is much tougher for an Aspie than for a fellow NT, other things being equal or even not quite equal. That's not going to change anytime soon, however much you and I might want it to.

What do you think?

Jeff Deutsch