Iʻve read (listened to) a lot of books about psychology and interpersonal communication in the past 2+ years. And it always amazes me how there is always pretty much the same perspective. Always authors who have good sight (and hearing, presumably), and are nonautistic. So we always get the same advice. Smile, keep using eye contact a lot, use pleasant facial expressions, open body language, pleasant voice…
It starts to get a bit repetitive. And I keep wondering why is it that all those are still the default advice and assumptions in the era of digital world. While we have all the fancy technology, we then get tangled in video calls so we can look at the other person… friend, spouse, relative, or a medical provider. It can all work fine as long as you both have the same preferences and skills. But when those lack on one side, it gets frustrating. You can see me; I canʻt see you.
The same books also always mention how people apparently find internet so frustrating because when you only have the text, they cannot see the facial expressions or hear the tone of voice. So essentially nonautistic people are unable to just read text these days and understand it? How on earth did the humanity survive before TV and audiobooks and videocalls were invented then? Get a novel; if itʻs print (or braille), there is no “tone of voice” there. Yuʻll have to extrapolate it yourself. Pretty much like when you are reading any text anywhere.
There seems to be a big cultural thing thatʻs right between me and the main American culture too. Emotional expressiveness. Americans like to show their emotions on their face, voice, and actions. They seem to me like they are unable to control them. I grew up (partially) in a much more reserved culture: I keep emotions in self, not displaying them openly. A mild, closed smile is what I can do to display comfort or joy. I donʻt want to “learn” to do American style big smiles exposing all teeth and displaying fake compliments and bejaving emotionally. So a polite closed smile, reserved body language, and for the rest of the time, “expressionless face”, dark shades, headphones and a hat. Which makes me hugely and silently uncomfortable for the Americans. I donʻt express my likes or dislikes (except the smile above, or sensory overload crisis, rare); since I canʻt really see your facial epxressions why should I use mine? You will not hear me speak in a high-pitched, emotional voice – even to a puppy. Even that has a tendency to remain pretty flat, expressionless to outsiders. That all adds up.
From my point of view itʻs all about equality. If I canʻt see your expressions, I will keep mine to minimal. If I cannot decipher your TRUE tone of voice because you always sound fake and emotional, I will keep the expressiveness of my voice to minimal. If you wave your hands like a car salesman, Iʻll either stare at your hands (if I can see them) or blankly listen to you head pointed in your direction. There is nothing natural about the “open palm” gestures used by car salesman or all the hillary clintons, yet those are always touted to be the golden standard of showing openness and trustworthiness. It is all from so culturally biased and sighted perspective.
So what would I add instead? Focus on the words and try to be expressive with them. I can tell if someone smiles when they speak, and also (if they speak in their first language and have no major problems with speech in general) if they sound fake. Unfortunately, many people now do sound fake, as an extrapolation of the past, people with similar voices and what has been learned from all past people experiences. If you sound like a social worker, I will not trust a single word out of your mouth, as that tone of voice portrays just a disgraceful attitude and lies all around. I will not trust you if you sound overly enthusiast and are working in a face to face customer-facing environment. There are a lot of interesting videos out there about detecting lies, but it seems like the easiest method (at least to someone like me) is to go by voice. It changes, it gets more controlled or nervous or fake or higher, or just different. And often the most detectable only after listening to it all at a different speed later. Or noticable just if you know the person. And of course, depends on how much energy the liar will have to put in their visuals (where I would mention eye contact – excessive eye contact stinks of lies to me).
Speakers forget the importance of the words and the voice. So they talk, focus on their body language, and add all the slides to their presentation. “You can read more about that over there…” “as you can see in the picture…” I could go on. Stanford did a lecture on the importance of visuals in speech recently that I disliked a lot – because the speakers completely forgot to take into account that there will be blind, visually impaired, low vision etc individuals everywhere, including in their audience.
Ditch the visuals. Make your speech work so that you can follow it purely from sound. Like if you were in a pitch dark room. And then provide the transcript for those who canʻt hear you.
Another thing that irritated me badly when listening to the book where the screenshot is from, was their suggesting of using paraphrasing. I hate paraphrasing. Even worse, they especially recommencted emotional paraphrasing, and gave a lot of bad examples of it.
Tell me the emotional paraphrasing is an American thing. Someone starts on a long rant or whine or complaint, and you are expected to extrapolate the emotional cues, mindread what the personʻs problem really is, instead of jusrt listen and then offer advice. Sometimes being an emotional shoulder is awesome, but is it so hard to advice the listener before that that is what is expected? “I had a really shitty day at work; would you mind just listening? Donʻt offer advice, I just want to vent”. That would already prevent a lot of further communication issues (in the case of any emotional dump on the listener, there is a big risk the emotional dumper will be perceived negatively and weakly). If I were to emotionally paraphrase people I would not do it well: “It sounds like you are really emotional. Learn to control your emotions, donʻt be a slave to them – it will also help you manage your work issues that you were just complaining about…” or maybe. I can sort of grep the essence of unusual emotional states of the people I know very well; everyone else would be pure guesses. And those Iʻm uncomfortable with.
Empathy is all about the “how would you feel if you were that person” or if those issues the person is facing are happening to you kind of thing. I wonder if the emotional expressiveness or closedness of cultures is also intertwined with it. Just because I donʻt show emotion openly does not mean I donʻt bave emotions about things. Whereas people who have grown in this culture worshipping overly emotional behaviors seems to have quite a few people who seem to display caringness in their appearance and sounds, yet thereʻs nothing behind the appearance, just surface caring. Empathy is a private thing: do not try to force me to display facial expressions of emotions to demonstrate I care or empathize with something. Itʻs all internal, and if someone only cares about the sighted, nonautistic expressiveness of emotions etc they will miss it. And that will do for a start about that. More later – and hopefully more autistic people will write communication books also for neurotypical people.