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."