Autism and Asperger Articles, Bill Stillman, Award-Winning Author

Demystifying Autism From The Inside Out

“I’ll Call You Next Week”:
Asperger’s Misinterpretations or the Erosion of Social Etiquette?

By William Stillman

I’ve been struggling with something most of my life, but lately it seems to have grown exponentially. Personally speaking, I say what I mean and mean what I say. Period. And I do what I say I’m going to do when I say I’m going to do it. I expect the same of others, and I suspect that my rigid devoutness is in common with other Aspies. Trouble is, fewer and fewer people operate from this principle any longer. From my perspective, the principle is that of demonstrating respect for others by honoring one’s word, and adhering to mutually agreed-upon timeframes. In short, courtesy and kindness.

The reason I suggest I’ve been struggling is because, as an adult with Asperger’s, I’ve had to temper my understanding of my own internal “rules” regarding how I believe people are supposed to “work” versus how they truly do when it all plays out in real time. I feel I’m struggling because I’m concerned that my perception of proper etiquette has become old fashioned and obsolete. I do believe there was a time, not so terribly long ago, when the majority rule was to abide by one’s word. This was especially important during the period in our collective history in which merchants and business owners of all varieties were working to establish sound foundations and sturdy, loyal reputations for their honesty and goodwill.

But I sense an erosion of common courtesy to such a degree that it has become socially-acceptable conduct not to honor one’s word---and it’s conceded without consequence because it’s now considered acceptable. Permit me be more specific. If I should unexpectedly happen to meet up with an acquaintance in the community, and that person appears pleased to greet me, wants to chat, and concludes our time by saying, “I’ll call you next week. We’ll set up a lunch date,” is it at all unreasonable that I should leave that social situation believing I will hear from that person the following week, just as they said? In my mind, I’m planning on hearing from that person because I believe they’re going to do what they said they were going to do. When the call never comes, am I over-reacting to feel hurt or betrayed in some way?

Herein lies my conundrum: Is my reaction to a situation like this (which really has happened more times than I care to remember) attributable to Aspie-oversensitivity or is it merely the new-millennium etiquette? That is, “other” people (i.e. neurotypical individuals) seem to accept, take for granted, and shrug off such oversights. Meanwhile, I’m left smarting and confused, self-analyzing which of my own shortcomings may have been the catalyst that led to my social downfall. And, by extension, if this kind of behavior is now deemed acceptable, what does that communicate about the trust we have for others and ourselves? I cannot accept that it is okay that we should hold no expectations when we are told, “I’ll call you with the information,” “I’ll be there by two o’clock,” “Let me e-mail that to you,” or “I’m planning on stopping by later this week” and not a bit of it comes to fruition. (In best case scenarios, we may receive a sheepish, “Oops, I forgot!” some time after the fact.)

I realize that people have busy lives, all best intentions, and lapses in memory (that took a long time to get down without bearing a grudge or ostracizing someone entirely for their misgivings), but I’m observing an increasing trend of social indifference and inconsideration. It is promulgated in our media, bombarding us in popular music and glaring at us from roadway billboards: “It’s all about me.” It’s all about wealth, physical beauty, material possessions, and manipulating others to get ahead at all costs. Lately, I’ve had to wonder, have I been just as wrong for assuming “it’s all about me” when my feelings get slighted because “me” gets lost in the shuffle of the grand scheme where others’ priorities are concerned? Am I---more often than not---on the outside looking in because I don’t “get” the slang of the sign-off salutation “I’ll call you next week”?

I’m even seeing a decline in the way in which we interact with one another using the Internet and e-mail. I’m reading things posted online or sent from one person to another that I know would never be said in person, face-to-face, because the communications are harsh, abrupt and callous. It’s easy to be passive-aggressive and spew barbs from the safe confines of one’s comfortable surroundings; it’s another thing entirely to interact one-on-one with a reverence that speaks of common courtesy. There’s just no excuse for bad manners, no matter who you are.

My fear is that my perception of this social erosion has perpetuated to the point of taking on a life of is own. I call it “The Messiah Complex.” We see it in who and what we value, and it mutates into how we present ourselves to the world. Certain famous persons often enjoy such double-standards; we accept their sometimes-outrageous behavior because, well, after all, they’re celebrities. After September 11, 2001, it seemed we were experiencing a renaissance of brotherhood, resilience, and courtesy but, alas, that was short-lived. Will we have to endure a far greater, longer-lasting catastrophe to shake us out of our narcissistic indifference toward others? People with different ways of being have historically been devalued, but I suspect that, somehow, someday, we will be obliged to resign to their gentle guidance in order to learn life lessons about how we should all endeavor to interact with one another.

©2005, William Stillman

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