Thursday, 18 June 2015

How Are You? A most difficult question to answer.

I got up this morning and wrote my Morning Pages - three pages of long hand writing about anything and everything.  Three weeks into that practice and every day they churn something up and lead to discoveries and decisions and things that need to change.  That's about 1000 words every morning.  And then I got sidetracked online by a one frame cartoon based on the question "How are you?"  And then the following happened.  Another 1000 words.  Typed - which is so much quicker than using a pen and feels very different inside.  So that's 2000 words of dubious quality and equally dubious meaning, written down by about eight in the morning.
OK.  So this is going to show me to be a bit weird.  Or possibly very weird.  That's nothing new.  There are seventy posts here already, most of which show up some kind of weirdness.  Yes, this is weird - but at least I know I'm not unique.  I know at least one person who feels exactly the same way I do and complains about this very thing.  And he's not even autistic!  Another person who doesn't deal well with those parts of social interaction that are just acceptable nice rituals.
One of my least favourite questions to be asked is "How are you?"  A question that is asked every day.  Part of the small talk and formal social banter we're all expected to participate in.

It's part of that social ritual that means we have to talk about the weather.  Someone is standing next to us and we tell them it's a cold day or warm, or wet, or dry.  As if they don't know that for themselves.  And then they have to respond with something equally banal.

I've learned the weather thing - I just agree with whatever the other person says.  Which becomes hard for me when one person tells me how cold it is and a minute later someone is telling me how hot it is.  That happens.  For me it's quite confusing.  I want to argue with the second person on behalf of the first!
But I have real trouble with the question, "How are you?"
That's because - as anyone reading this knows - very few people actually want to know the answer and I am a pathological truth teller.  I'm generally a very open book and the only secrets I keep are about other people. I have trouble interpreting the words "How are you?" as "Let's enter into meaningless ritualised talking for the next few seconds" rather than as "How are you?". I find it hard enough to give the meaningless "I'm fine" answer to complete strangers and have to force myself against all instinct to say it when asked by people I know.  Because while I know in theory that the question is just a piece of social fluff that doesn't mean anything, in practice, in the moment, I have to work really hard to remember that people don't actually want to know how I am when they ask me how I am.

Most days I can manage to do the polite thing:  "Hi.  How are you?"  "I'm fine.  How are you?"  "I'm fine too.  It's sunny today isn't it?"  "Yes, but they forecast cloud on Tuesday."  "Oh no, I hope it stays sunny."  "Yes.  I've got to go now.  It was good to see you."  "Great to chat with you."  "Bye."  Such a conversation is a bit like two animals passing each other and giving each other a quick sniff, though I dare say the animal conversation contains far more information.  But it's a conversation most of us have very regularly.
But sometimes I'm so drained that I can't manage to override instinct, honesty and openness about pretty much everything.  So what tumbles out is an actual answer to the question.  And that gets me in social trouble pretty frequently.

Please don't ever ask me how I am unless you want the answer, whether it's from the height of ecstasy or from a place of dark pain. Because for me, anything else is physically painful.  Yes, physically painful.  To answer "I'm fine" when I'm not actually hurts me.  To be asked a question that actually means "Please lie to me now" isn't easy for me.

Please don't ask and then tell me off if I respond with honesty.

If I ask you the question it means I actually want to be told the answer, or to be told that you don't want to tell me the answer. It doesn't ever mean that I am making polite and completely meaningless small talk.
If I ask you the question then I don't want the answer "I'm fine" unless you are fine.  Tell me you aren't comfortable with answering.  Or give the answer, whatever that happens to be.  But please don't lie to me just like most people lie to each other dozens of times a day and just like it's become our instinct to lie, avoiding proper relationship while pretending we have it.

If I ask you the question it means that I am seeking relationship with you, based on truth and integrity, on authenticity, not on social rules that force us to be dishonest with one another.

If I ask the question on my own initiative - not as a polite answer to you asking the question - it is an actual question.  It's not small talk - because I'm rubbish at initiating small talk.  It's not ritual.  It's not part of the liturgy of most people's social interaction.  It's a question.

I know all that is strange.  I know that the world doesn't work like that and that such questions will continue to be asked without meaning what the words say.  But it is the way this head instinctively works.

There is another reason why I have trouble with the question "How are you?"  It's open ended and can mean too many different things.  It's not specific enough and I can panic about what the question might mean before coming out with an answer.  Honestly, there are several reasons why I have trouble with the question and I've learned this year that these reasons are common for autistic people.

Some of them are echoed in the comments on this page.  Yes, I could be that aspie friend in the original post.  I'm not, but it's nice to know I'm not alone!

It's fascinating for me to slowly look at my life and thoughts and ways of being through the lens of autism.  It's bringing so much understanding that I never had before.  And with understanding and time and work I'll be able to learn to function so much better in society.  Whether it's the little things like small talk and questions like "How are you?" or the big things like the sources of my temptation of self harm in times of stress, or the ins and outs of sensory issues, defences and social work arounds the whole process is being a revelation for me and is turning out to be a challenge of a size I never could have believed.

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