Sep 14, 2011 0 Share

Truth and Consequences

Two men arguing.  One man seated, pointing finger at other.

“You lie!”

So shouted Joe Wilson, a Republican Congressman from South Carolina, during President Barack Obama's speech on health care reform two years ago.

Whether you're an Aspie or an NT, you might support or oppose Obama's version of health care reform. But if you're an Aspie, you're especially likely to have wondered what the fuss was all about afterwards. Wilson sincerely believed Obama was lying, and he exercised his freedom of speech to say so, right? And if Obama was lying, he certainly deserved to be called out, didn't he?

It's not quite that simple.

Sometimes, it's not considered OK to say what you want—even if you think the other person deserved it. One of the most important examples is calling someone a liar (or saying that they are lying). Aspies are more likely to be sensitive to what we perceive as lying or promise-breaking, and we're more likely to be direct about it.

Thing is, most people don't see it as a simple matter of fact. They feel it as a deep personal insult. The idea is, if you consider someone capable of lying, you must not trust them. And if you can't trust them, how can you possibly deal with them anymore? Thus, saying that someone is lying is like a declaration of war. And, once people started seeing it that way, made it more so—after all, if saying it is almost guaranteed to tick the other person off, why do it unless you actually hate them?

And centuries ago, hating someone didn't just mean unfriending them and maybe tagging them on nasty pictures. It was cause for mortal combat. If you insulted someone, they could “demand satisfaction”—that is, challenge you to a duel with a sword or gun. (Otherwise, people might figure that if they weren't mad enough to want to kill you for saying it, it must be true.) You could either fight—and risk being permanently disabled, possibly even killed—or retract  your words and apologize. Or have everyone think you're a dishonorable coward.

Even today, we take great offense. That's why legislatures the world over forbid their members to attack other members' honor, considering it unparliamentary language. That includes the United States, by the way, as shown for example by these rules for Republican Congressmembers. It doesn't matter if you believe the other person really is lying—there are certain words you agree not to say if you want to get along.

We can say anything we want—as long as we're prepared to take the consequences. Aspies tend to talk like a detective novel:  “Just the facts, ma'am.” Problem is, NTs—and often Aspies, too—tend to hear not just facts but also feelings. For example, an Aspie may not see a problem with saying  “You look like you're at least 50 or 60” because literally, that's just a statement of fact. Whereas NTs tend to hear that as “You look ugly and possibly fat too,” and maybe even also “You haven't accomplished as much as you should by now.”

It's a bit like writing a webpage—an Aspie may type in simple HTML code, but the other person sees the webpage itself with many background colors, images, fonts, font colors, etc. We need to understand that just as webpage features are activated with simple codes, so are people's feelings—and we need to learn the codes that activate them.

One good way to find those codes is to see what people struggle to avoid saying. For example, in a show I saw as a child, an old man was being helped by a group of children after the government started harassing him. After making him franks and beans, they asked him how it was—and he said it had a “unique, well-done flavor.” Well-done means cooked a great deal—not a flavor. And he didn't say just how it was unique. That may have meant he was trying not to say how he really felt. And what possibility is closest to what he said? Burned—that’s well-done going too far. The franks were burned but the man was grateful and didn't want to hurt the generous children's feelings. That's how I learned that if someone helps you out, be careful before saying that anything's wrong with the help.

In a nutshell, let's think before we speak...people may take more out of our words than we mean to put in them!