This is largely a brain dump , although it might turn into a proper theory later. For the record, I’m currently listening to “You Say Potato: A Book About Accents” by Ben and David Crystal. The book examines the impact of accents and the associated stereotypes on people’s perception of a person’s intelligence, education, social position, wealth, and overall worth, and that is kicking off all manners of dark thoughts in my intemperate brain.
My tentative theory is as follows:
There is a difference between the ability to read vibes and the ability to read social cues. Neither of these abilities implies a willingness to take up one’s expected role in a social script. And absolutely none of the above has a damn thing to do with a person’s level of interest in interpersonal connections.
A lot of the times, people complain about third parties “being socially inept,” often but not exclusively in the context of neurodivergence. The argument often goes:
- X person said/did something that bothered me.
- Thus, X person must either be unable to perceive my botheration, or to be trying to bother me on purpose.
- In the former case, X person must be unable to operate according to societal norms. In the latter case, X person must be unwilling to operate according to societal norms.
- Either way, X person must not care enough about me, or about people in general.
Aside from the fact that there is no connection whatsoever between ability and interest levels – a person may care very much about a thing, yet be unable to do that thing – this argument is the result of an unholy mishmash of interconnected but separate concepts. X person may be perfectly able to read the vibe of the room; i.e., they might know that you are bothered by something. Being able to read vibes is a power many (but not all) people have. X person may, however, be wholly clueless as to what you are bothered by. Their ability to work that out has very little to do with their empathy, and nothing at all to do with their level of interest in interpersonal connections.
Working out what bugged a person hinges on one’s ability to rewind the conversation and pinpoint where and how it went off the rails, which are two totally different skills hinging on a number of factors. The ability to rewind a conversation relies on working memory, auditory processing, and probably a load more stuff I can’t think of at the moment. A person with poor working memory may not have logged enough of the conversation to rewind it, and that is not a manifestation of lack of interest. A person with auditory processing issues may be in the same position due to different causes; and, again, this is not a reflection of a lack of interest. The inability to carry on that internal rewinding can present an immediate and unsurmountable barrier to self-correction. This is particularly true in cultures where asking questions like “What did I do wrong?” is unlikely to yield useful results because the operant belief is that answering that type of question correctly is also wrong.
Cultures and subcultures where one must not speak one’s mind directly don’t just make it harder to pinpoint what the issue is; they actually create the need for said pinpointing. In groups where saying the wrong thing immediately leads to someone speaking up and pointing out the issue, one does not need to carry out an investigation to gleam the very same information. Personally, I find that left-leaning people who are Millennials or younger are more likely to provide that kind of feedback; when you put your foot in your mouth, they immediately ask you to remove it by using their actual words. If the situation is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction and adjustments are made to avoid future reoccurrences of the issue, the relationship remains untarnished by the “conflict”, or may actually be strengthened. That is rarely the case when I interact with people my age (Xennial) or older, who have a far greater tendency to interpret any attempt at course correction as a personal attack and/or a breach of the social contract. My observations cannot be generalised, though, because my social experience is far too narrow and too quirky to be indicative of trends in society at large.
Once one has worked out What One Has Done Wrong, that’s where things get really interesting, and where issues of social roles and scripts really come to the fore. Many of our social rules are context-dependent; for instance, the way you speak to your mother isn’t the way you speak to your child, and neither are much like the way you speak to your boss or to a doctor. Getting this wrong can have negative consequences. Talking baby talk to your doctor may get you attention, but probably not of the right sort unless you’re looking to get locked up. Telling your boss that you hate them and slamming the door in their face may have different results from carrying out the same behaviour at home. I could come up with infinite and ever more absurd examples, but the bottom line is that the ability to switch register when dealing with different people in different settings is something most of us have and use regularly and automatically, without ever thinking about it. Most of us pick the register we deem appropriate to the conversation at hand, particularly when we want that conversation to go smoothly.
This is the gnarly bit: different rules apply to a conversation depending on the perceived social roles of the participants, and there is no guarantee that all participants will agree to said roles. In conversations between a doctor and a patient, for instance, there is an assumed disparity of knowledge, authority, and power between the two parties. The doctor is assumed to know more than the patient, and the patient is expected to listen and follow the doctor’s instructions. The patient’s respect for the doctor as an authority should be reflected in their tone and manner of speech. How that respect should manifest is also context-dependent, and one of the main factors in play is the perceived position of the patient on the social hierarchy as compared to the doctor’s. Patients deemed to be well-educated, well-heeled, or in possession of their own personal penis are often guaranteed a greater degree of conversational latitude, because their position in the social hierarchy is relatively close to that of the doctor. The opposite applies to patients deemed to be significantly socially inferior to the doctor. If you don’t believe me, try walking into a hospital wearing dirty overalls* and tell me how that goes for you.
When those assumptions doesn’t match reality – for instance, when a patient’s level of education and experience is higher than expected – things can go awry. While some doctors respond by adjusting their register accordingly – e.g., by switching from providing reassurance to providing information, or to providing information in more technical terms – some respond by becoming defensive, aggressive, or obstructionary. This isn’t a reflection of the patient having Done Something Objectively Wrong. The patient went off script, though, and a lot of people treat that kind of thing as an infraction, regardless of the causes.
Social scripts are important. We all rely on scripts to navigate our social and professional lives, and we do so because scripts can make our lives easier. Thing is, that’s only the case when everyone signs up to the script in question and to their role in it. That isn’t always the case, and the difference between what’s script-appropriate and what we deem to be Right can be significant.
For instance, the script-appropriate response to mansplaining is simpering – and please note that I said “script-appropriate”, not “right.” Simpering proves that the interlocutor has received the mansplainer’s message – that they are intellectually or culturally superior – and that they are in agreement. Aside from meeting the mansplainer’s emotional and social needs, it also closes the script, which can actually reduce how long the mansplaining goes on for. After all, the ultimate point of the behaviour is a power exchange, not an exchange of information.
I am not advocating simpering as the stock response to mansplaining; quite the contrary, in fact. I am not terribly in favour of rewarding behaviours I consider despicable. My personal choice is to step off-script – or, rather, not to step into the script in the first place. It’s not my script, after all: I didn’t pick it and I didn’t sign up to my role in it, so I assume no responsibility in making it go smoothly. That means that my interactions with mansplainers routinely go awry. On most occasions, that suits me just fine. I am able to read the mansplainer’s bad vibes and to pinpoint their cause. I am, however, unwilling to modify my behaviour to rectify the situation. That’s not because I am unfeeling, uncaring, or antisocial; I simply have no interest in interpersonal connections that require me to debase myself in order to appease others. That kind of relationship doesn’t satisfy my needs and runs contrary to my beliefs, so I don’t get into it.
That doesn’t mean that I deliberately antagonise mansplainers. I couldn’t if I wanted to, because I wouldn’t know how. If I pretended not to know something to trigger someone’s need to educate me, the resulting lecture would not class as mansplaining, after all. I believe the behaviour to triggered by the mansplainers’ assumptions of my knowledge, abilities, and position on the social hierarchy, and those assumptions are often based on factors outside of my control (most commonly, my accent, sex, and size). The only way in which I can disabuse the mansplainers of their misapprehensions is to not take on my half of that particular script. Alas, they tend not to like that.
I’ve picked on mansplaining because it’s an easy example of the phenomenon, but the same issues apply to all kinds of interaction. Just because I don’t play along with a script, it doesn’t mean that I don’t see it, don’t know it, or that I am unable to understand the social and emotional consequences of letting it go wrong. I am just unwilling to take up roles that make me want to gag. When I do, the result is such a pathetic simulacrum of interpersonal connection that it holds no value for me.
This theory, such as it is, has fascinating implications for neurodivergent people, as well as many other minority groups. We are routinely assumed to be less capable than or straight-up inferior to neurotypical people, either because we cannot do certain things or because we do them differently. The less we are able to mask as neurotypical, the more inferior we are perceived to be, and that often results in assumptions as to our rightful place on the social hierarchy. Those assumptions come with a whole load of baggage, including the role people expect us to take in certain social scripts. When we refuse to play ball, or simply thwart a script by not being as helpless as we are supposed to be, that is misinterpreted as our inability to pick up social cues or emotional vibes. We didn’t pick the script, nor did we sign up to our role in it; we were crowbarred into it willy-nilly. All we are trying to do is to have a social interaction that doesn’t require us to misrepresent ourselves. Yet it is is our fault, the reflection of our social cluelessness or lack of empathy, when the script falls apart, and the person who started it all hurts their own feelings as well as ours. That’s pretty amazing, when you think about it.
*For those whose immediate reaction was that wearing dirty overalls in a clinical setting is inherently disrespectful: hate to break it to you, but people busy doing physical jobs do get sick and have accidents that may require immediate medical attention. That’s, like, a thing that happens. And the way they are dressed should not have an impact on the level of care they receive, but it often does.