Missing Signals: How People in the Workplace Let You Know You are “Different”
My current workplace has made a major commitment to “multicultural competency,” embracing diversity and inclusivity in the broadest sense — the way only a mental health provider embedded within a major public university can. Now that I am “out” at work as a person with Asperger’s, you would think — if people were walking the walk instead of just talking the talk — that they would be supportive of my neurodiversity. Some are. But some aren’t even trying to break a sweat, and this post is devoted to one means in which they signal their discomfort with my difference — or, rather, with the behaviors that result from it.
Earlier today I attended a “Multicultural Competence Committee” meeting, in which other new employees and I were oriented to the professional and personal development we’ll do over the next year in order to grow in this area. Let me say that I embrace diversity and inclusivity wholeheartedly. I don’t know that at this stage in my development I require a formal intervention, but I’m willing to see what’s possible. At the start of the meeting, we were invited to share our complex identifications with one another. Several people went before me (I chose to wait), and I enjoyed getting to know them better and learning their self-understanding and how it had evolved over time. For most people, race and gender were important identifications. For me, they have always seemed imposed from without rather than accepted from within. I explained this, and a number of other identifications in which I’m invested when I noticed the Chair look at the clock. I realized I’d gone on too long and wrapped it up. It might have been a kindness if he had given a more explicit signal sooner, since we Aspies can work up a monologue when a topic interests us — and cultural identification (my own and others’) is one of those things for me. But he meant to be kind, and that counts.
So what does the next person do? Does she begin her own story straight away? No. Like many people I encounter who believe I’ve violated a social norm, she indirectly announces that fact. She starts her statement with something like, “Well, I could go on with my story for twenty minutes or more, but I’ll keep it short and focused. There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll just say that…” Ah. Now that got through, even in my dimmest moment. She has called me out. She has complained. She has done this indirectly, and in a fairly neutral tone, so it doesn’t seem that I can challenge her — nor would I, really, since she has a point. But the why of it troubles me.
Why, with her knowing that I have Asperger’s, does she still feel so put out that she must say something to the group to make the moment worse rather than better? Couldn’t she pull me aside later, if she really needed to say something? And, ironically, why would she do this in a forum designed to promote the acceptance of difference? A possibility is that even though she knows I have Asperger’s the social deficit it imposes so closely mirrors intentional lapses in etiquette or social awareness that her default response is to take exception. That’s why Asperger’s is often called an “invisible disability.” We look normal, but we’re not. When I get caught up in a topic of interest (some call it an obsession), I enter a kind of flow state. I am transported somewhere else. Because I’m a professional with decades of practice in the world of work, and because I want to be the most pleasant and least annoying companion possible, I usually remember before it’s too late — I follow the time, or monitor my listeners. That’s how I noticed the Chair looking at the clock. But it’s not a strength, let’s say, even with so much practice.
This can happen even when I am asked a question. The detail, specificity, and intensity of my answer can make other people nervous, bored, annoyed. That happened at lunch today. One of the new staff asked a question about a notice he received about his utilities. I explained the concept of power aggregation, how it had been a subject of local city / county voting (aggregated plans leverage the collective bargaining power of consumers to reduce rates) now that it was permitted under recent changes in state law. He accepted the information well, since he was interested in making a prudent financial decision about his utility plan, but the other people eating with us went afterwards into long sweeps of how the question was so complicated and detailed they could not possibly form an opinion on it. I had just explained all of that to him, and recommended in favor of remaining with the aggregated plan, so what were they really saying? Their response was over-the-top dramatic enough that I believe they were expressing their pain at having to contemplate the details they had previously avoided as too dull and/or confusing. But again, in the form of an indirect, publicly aired complaint.
These co-workers also know that I have Asperger’s. I wonder if I was less tolerant of their differences what kind of indirect comment I might make about them in public? That kind of comment would certainly be less socially acceptable to make. And so we find that there is still a ways to go in understanding and even further toward acceptance.