Saturday, August 25, 2012

3603 We get what we ask for

Saturday, August 25, 2012

We teach people how to treat us.
-- Me --


This is one time that the post content is directly related to the (not-so-random-this-time) green quote.  We do teach others how to treat us.  Sometimes it's very subtle.

The last few months with Jay, he was blind, and the left side of the world had disappeared because of the damage to the right side of his brain, so when his many friends and coworkers came to visit, I told them to sit on the right side of the bed, and to put their hand firmly on his right forearm so he could locate them in space.

Almost without exception, guest after guest widened their eyes, and said, "Touch him?  You don't touch Jay.  Are you sure it's ok?"

In an office where it was normal to put your hand on someone's shoulder when leaning over to look at something on their terminal screen, to shake hands when you come to an agreement, to high-five when celebrating, or to pat an upper arm when passing, no one, ever, touched Jay.  He and I were best of friends for seven years, the last two of which he worked every afternoon in my office, hiding out from people looking for advice so he could get his own work done.  Eventually I transferred out of that office to the litigation lab, without, in all those years, ever having so much as touched his back when I passed behind his chair. 

Yes, you didn't touch Jay.

No one was able to say how they knew that.  It's not like he flinched from contact, or stiffened, or anything like that.  He was charming and relaxed, the master of fast puns and wordplay.  But somehow people just knew.  Somehow they sensed, "you don't touch Jay".  Even I, who knew him so well, knew that, but even now I can't tell you why.

At 6'3", 220 lbs, with 24" wide shoulders and a big black beard, he could be intimidating, but he wasn't.  He came across as a bunny rabbit.  A large bunny, but a bunny.

It turns out that he really WAS extremely sensitive to touch.  After we finally got together, I discovered that you could touch him firmly, tightly, but not lightly.  He didn't physically react to a light touch, didn't flinch or frown, but he was extremely conscious of it, like his mind stopped in its tracks and concentrated on that spot.  I discovered that he couldn't wear certain fabrics next to his skin.  Sweaters drove him crazy, even over a shirt.  Sweatshirts were torture.  I got him silky pajama bottoms to wear inside his suit pants, and he was pathetically grateful. 

In his last year we found out why.  During some brain function testing, he was diagnosed as high-functioning autistic, probably Asperger's Syndrome.  Autism often involves extreme sensitivity to touch.

No one had ever before mentioned autism to him (at that time Asperger's was not well known), but it explained so much about him.  Not going to get into that now, that's not the topic.

Back to the topic - everyone knew not to touch Jay --- but how did they know?  No one could say.  But somehow, in some extremely subtle but subconscious way, he taught people not to touch.

We teach people how to treat us.

If you are ignored all the time, somehow you are signalling to people that you don't want to be part of the group.

If you are taken advantage of all the time, somehow you are telling people that you don't mind being the giver.

If you aren't in on the office gossip, somehow you've given the impression that you don't like gossips.

If people never listen to you, somehow you telegraph that you think you have nothing important to say.

On and on.  Pick something.  

Somehow you are teaching people how to relate to you.  What you have taught them may or may not be true of you (but I'll bet it is true, even if you don't want to admit it).  It's likely that, as with Jay, they couldn't tell you what specific signals they are picking up, they just know how to react.  It's likely that no amount of self examination will uncover what you are doing to get that reaction.

Maybe, if you don't like the way you are treated, you just have to internally change the way you expect to be treated, and your external signals will change, too.

(I still don't know how I knew not to touch Jay during those first many years as coworkers.)


~~Silk said...

I don't want to be hugged by anyone other than my blood relatives and whatever man I have chosen for that honor. I DON'T LIKE HUGGING! Somehow hugging has become ubiquitous. I go to a Meetup dinner, and complete strangers hug me when I arrive and hug me when I leave. I HATE IT! I DO NOT WANT MY FACE SQUISHED INTO YOUR AMPLE BREASTS (remember, I'm only 4'9.5" tall)! Where the Hell did all this random hugging come from?

Somehow I am failing to send that signal.

Becs said...

Yeah, I get that signal from you. And I give it out, too. The Queen Bee is allowed to hug me but I don't mind it. She's just that way.

I don't claim to be an Aspie but I know that when I was a kid, there was a constant battle to get me to wear clothes that were scratchy in general and too tight around the neck. Now most of my clothes are at least one size too big and I love it.

~~Silk said...

Heh. That wasn't a subtle signal that I'm not aware of and others can't describe, like what I'm talking about in the post.

I flat out SAY it. Somehow when you SAY it, people don't believe it. I need to develop that whatever-it-was vibe that Jay put out, where people back off and don't know why.