Friday, May 11, 2012

When Rules Are A Challenge

Thoughts from readers on this one would be appreciated.

Live alone, no arguments. Live social, arguments, or if you prefer, disagreements.

We can escape conflict about the thermostat and almost everything else, living alone. But it can get boring and lonely. So we try to partner up, and most of us like to go for drinks, lunch or dinner, just to be with people.  We can't all succeed at this, even when we want to.

It can be hard for some of us, socializing, because we live in a world with social expectations and rules.  To have friends we want to follow those rules to fit in, but they are often subject to change and not everyone has the innate ability to comprehend the wisdom behind them.

There are overt rules, the spoken ones, the ones written on the black board: Ask for a pass before leaving the classroom. You'll find them in the employee handbook, too: No sexual joking around with employees. 

The covert rules are assumed; you won't find them posted anywhere. Once they may have been spoken, but they are now so much a part of our social fabric that we no longer over think them, they just make sense in context. Before leaving the house, make sure to wear clothes. What sociologists call traditional roles are characterized by dozens of covert rules, rules like this one: Of course I'll make dinner while you read the paper or check your email. I'm a woman.

We like making rules, all kinds, and as soon as we're in a position to do so (think parenting, managing, teaching), we'll oblige, take full advantage, probably because we like predictability even more than we like power.  Predictability makes us less anxious.

Curfew at 11:00 for the kids.  
Morning coffee ready at 6:00 a.m. 
I’ll throw in a load of laundry if you mow the lawn. 

Must we discuss this? 

Rules take out the mystery out of life, and everyone gets to where they want to go on time.

No rules, no set objectives, less consensus no end to conflict about the way things should be. Add one extra person to a decision making process, spend hours in committee. (There is an old saying: three Jews, five opinions.)

So we work hard to make life systematic, predictable and organized. Some may grumble about it and do their own thing, and they will find like-minded others (with whom they will ultimately argue about other things, assuming their relationships are healthy). We strive, however, for a social contract full of the promises that make life sweet, a little easier to handle.  More predictable.

Or  choose to live alone.  No arguments. It is pretty hard to live life all by yourself, but you can see why people do.

It isn’t the overt rules that really get to us, so much as the covert ones, those unspoken social expectations. When we can't read people's needs it seems we're lacking in manners. But even when we do know the covert rules, meeting the expectations of others can be difficult, if not impossible.  For example we might know that at a cocktail party we should socialize, converse. If we don't, people think we're snobby.  But that's very hard for some of us.

The social lubricant of alcohol helps grease those wheels. Alcohol is even referred to as liquid courage, and is on the menu to ensure everyone is more likely to be socially lubed up. This is ironic because some of us, finally disinhibited with the help of drink, are likely to make socially unacceptable, insensitive remarks, even behave offensively, perhaps remove clothing that should stay on, or consider boxing a social sport.

Those on the autism-Asperger’s spectrum have difficulty with social cues, don't interpret body language well, nor twists of vernacular. Shipwrecked in public, no idea what to say, unable to read people, not knowing why people do what they do, they must learn to respond appropriately, to validate, repeat back what is said to them to stay on topic.

But even when they do, they still suffer a seemingly irreparable empathy deficit. Even when coached by therapists (Ask questions! Don’t talk about yourself!) they are likely to act and to feel stiff and awkward, or talk too much.

Whether (1) suffering from a disorder on the spectrum; (2) gifted with empathy but socially phobic;  or (3) embarrassed or impaired by any number of the mental/behavioral disorders, some prefer to hide in a proverbial shell, if not an unoccupied bedroom or bathroom. Understanding that the social ideal is to be schmoozing (Yiddish, rhymes with losing, means gabbing away) this can feel beyond challenging.

As a society, we're beginning to recognize that the social skill we value is not within everyone's reach.  Reading about the lives of people who survived their social issues, i.e, Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robison, and Quiet: the Power of Introverts by Susan Cain (I haven't read that one, but it sounds marvelous) is helping. The psycho-educated are more prone to compassion, less judgmental, even those of us who like rules, who live by them.

The idea is to give the socially less smooth the benefit of the doubt. Most people need tolerance, love and friendship, and it is good for the rest of us, if we can, to provide.

The good kids, the ones who play with the kids who aren’t fitting in? They should get prizes.

The trend-- that we become aware of our differences, and forgiving, for we are so similar-- is going to continue. The ecosystem, the big one we call society, will somehow collectively worry less about conforming and raising SAT scores, more about raising psychological and emotional IQ’s, the understanding of those  differences, the importance of making fewer negative assumptions about others.

We might consider this kind of education, which is everywhere, in books, on television, on the Internet, if not so much in schools, the therapy of an entire society. The object of change--everyone.  

The dream systems intervention.



Retriever said...

Good job, TD. As the mom of a kid on the spectrum, I can relate. Thinking also that often a person is aware of the rules and rebels against them. Knows them and refuses to demean them self following them. Or is busy w higher personal priorities. Tho very few Asperger's kids are actually geniuses (contra feel good PR) many great geniuses have failed to follow social rules. Eg: Michaelangelo.

Laura said...

I've been thinking about the 'fitting in' part. What's a definition? What are you giving up, in order to fit in? Whatever that is, seems to be more of a priority, as the commenter above suggests. We want people to like us, but there's something else that's more important.
I live alone, but I still seem to have a lot of conflict in my life, with people I don't live with.

Mound Builder said...

One thought I have is that if two or more people are fairly self-aware and fairly compassionate/empathetic and live together or spend time together then I suspect conflict is fairly minimal.

I suspect the greatest amounts of conflict arise from two or more people who are not especially self-aware or compassionate/empathetic and who insist on their way being the only way.

I suspect if you pair two or more empathetic people with one who is not terribly empathetic or is not very mature, then you may have lesser conflict as the more compassionate ones will be tolerant of the one who is not and will yield and bend to try and grease the social wheels. Over time, this may become problematic because it may mean too much acquiescing to the one who lacks compassion and irritation may arise, leading to conflict. But my guess is that the empathetic ones will seek a solution because chances are they don't want to live with a lot of conflict.

Traffic rules are rules I am, for the most part, grateful for, though I see that lots of people run red lights and do other things that are dangerous and inconsiderate, so I guess there are a fair number of people who think those rules shouldn't apply to them. I try to stay out of their way, as I don't care to tangle with strangers who are driving large pieces of metal that can be used as a projectile. There are arguments I prefer to avoid and those conflicts over who the law says has the right of way, versus what the person in the car is doing, those are conflicts best avoided, in my opinion.

Unspoken rules can be modeled and I suspect a lot of them are, especially within a family. If the parents mostly share the workload, without rigidly adhering to who does what, but always working to manage the household work evenly, I think that gets communicated to the children, as a for instance.

I'm a fairly introverted person who has worked, over the years on what I refer to as my inner extrovert. But sometimes I prefer to observe rather than to jump right in and socialize. And though I can and do enjoy the company of others, it also tired me and I need time alone to energize again. I feel accepting, without judgement, of people who are highly extroverted. I wonder, though, why it is that extroverts don't necessarily seem tolerant or accepting of me. Sometimes, when I have gotten to know extroverts well later on, they will reveal that they interpreted my quietness as being "stuck up" or equally unflattering things.

If I meet people who seem socially awkward, I do my best to make them feel at ease, and keep an eye on the feedback I get from them. Some may want only a little social contact and so my efforts will be minimalist and then I'll leave them alone without feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable. With other people, it's just a matter of finding some little way in, just some ordinary remark to grease the social wheels and put them at ease.

Sometimes it seems to me that some people think they won't be seen or heard unless they create controversy and for people like that, I tend to ignore or to back out of conversations as much as possible when I realize I've run into that kind of person or conversation.

I think most people, deep down, do want to be liked and accepted.

Mound Builder said...

I suspect, but don't know for sure, that my spouse is somewhere on the Asperger's spectrum. As he is close to 60, he grew up at a time when there was no such diagnosis. I suspect he has sometimes, maybe even often, imitated my social forms and efforts, and those of others that seem to work, so he won't feel socially awkward, though I know sometimes he does feel terribly socially awkward anyway, especially if he is new some place. And imitating others has probably been a good way to learn and to appear more socially comfortable if not adept. I don't think he enjoys it particularly but recognizes that people socialize and that it is expected. The place where that doesn't translate so well is in the expressing of real and deep and genuine emotion, spontaneous feelings. When someone says "I love you" to you, you want it to sound like they mean it, not just to go through the form of what is expected. I'm not sure you can really teach someone how to express feelings with their words if the problem is one of not connecting a lot with feelings in the first place.

If psychopath says "I love you" would it be enough to have them say those words to you? Or would you want them to actually mean those words, rather than just saying what is expected? How do you know when someone says that and means it, versus just saying it because social convention demands that?

Therapist said...

yes... most of us have grown in almost the same or different parental guidance type. The only thing that is always present is RULES. It is needed to keep the morale of every member of the society.Most of it wasn't established but we, the members of the society will naturally follow the rules... For example: No one told us to respect the elders but then we respect them with the same reason to maintain the morale....

therapysites said...

The world today is driven to show an attitude that conflicts with the others, resulting to more reason to know oneself better. Rules has dominated every facet of lives, but the choice is still with us to be ruled by them. Therefore, we need to have the full power of ourself.

therapydoc said...

Right Retriever, and none of us are good at everything. That’s why I love that word, differently-abled, as opposed to disabled.

Laura, no doubt, escaping conflict is impossible for a thinking person, they’re in our heads anyway, if not the kitchen.

Mound Builder, great stuff there. Conflict avoidance and the introvert-extrovert continuum are related, I think, and you would probably agree. And that’s so true, that just saying it won’t convey an emotion, and will seem disingenuous. Sometimes working to convey an emotion is intentionally deceptive. In the case of Asperger's that's okay, but for the rest of us, acting is probably not so necessary. We like genuine.

And does anyone understand the last two comments?

Mound Builder said...

Therapydoc, I hadn't really thought of it in quite that way, the conflict-avoidance being related to the introvert-extrovert continuum. It makes sense. I don't think of conflict avoidance as a bad thing, in general. Sometimes it seems to me that there are far too many conflicts over things that really don't matter very much.
Does it really matter how someone dispenses toothpaste from a tube? Or whether the toilet seat is up or down? Or whether one person prefers Skippy peanut butter and the other prefers Peter Pan? Those kinds of conflicts are matters of preference and not something worth launching a couples war over. There are realities, like how much money a couple has to spend, and that can, of course, lead to conflict. It seems to me that it doesn't have to, though. Paying the bills for basic living expenses seems to me to be obviously the first thing to do--house payments or rent, utilities, food, insurance. After that, share what's left. In terms of household chores, I suppose outlining who does what is probably helpful for some people and for others probably doesn't matter much, as long as things get done. Personally, I think the worst situation is when two people get into a pattern of managing those responsibilities as if they were two children doling out M & Ms: I did this so you have to do that, one for me, one for you. I think as long as both people come to those responsibilities thinking of them as a shared life and that over a life, if both pitch in equally, everything will get done through good will and good effort, then mostly there probably aren't conflicts over that.

As an introvert who tends to work cooperatively, who tries to be alert to doing my part and then some, I do tend to avoid those kinds of conflicts, though I hear other couples who fight quite a bit about the other one not being fair about managing such tasks.

There are some things, though, that I will speak up about and will sometimes get in conflict with people over and those things have to do with social justice, of doing what's right for those who can't necessarily help themselves very well: children, the elderly, those how are infirm in one way or another. And if I see something like that, or hear someone espousing a view that seems contrary to promoting social justice, I am apt to be quite vocal. And on those occasions when I do speak up, it seems to really shock people who seem far more likely to be upset by what I have said than they are upset with people who are often complaining about the tasks they feel their spouse doesn't do enough of or that sort of thing. And it upsets me, when people are shocked at my response. It upsets me that when I do speak up, then people tend, for awhile, to avoid me or that topic.

And no, I didn't understand the two responses to which you referred.

therapydoc said...

I like how you think, MB.

Anonymous said...

Well - coming from a dysfunctional (and more) family - my experience was the rules favored everyone except me (the cinderella/scapegoat/overly independent child). Socially, when someone even says "How are you?"... I'm still wanting them to really care - instead of simply following social "rules" of interaction. The opposite happens frequently too - because I'm totally unexpecting that anyone cares. A perceptual conundrum that only frequent socializing (and living with someone I truly can talk to, for years) can help me sort out - lots of opportunity for practice, over & above my reticence and wishing to become part of the wallpaper or just to disappear.

therapydoc said...

Such an interesting conundrum, and I've heard about it many times. Creating a new social system that meets unmet needs sounds impossible, but it isn't. We call it a "corrective family experience."

Mound Builder said...

Anonymous, I struggle with that, too, not out of a dysfunctional family where no one was caring. In fact, kind of the opposite, that in my family we did care and it was okay to say how we felt. It is throughout my adulthood where I have learned that often it is just a social form and that people don't really want to hear how one is when they ask the question. So I try to gauge when is someone asking me because it's what is expected and when do they really want to know. If it's a close friend, I can be pretty sure they really want to know. Sometimes I find that strangers, or people I don't know well, really do want to know, too. When I ask that of someone else "how are you?" I really mean it. I try to live my life in such a way that I'm never too busy to listen, if someone wants to say how they are.

therapydoc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
therapydoc said...

Kind of like, how are you REALLY?

Mound Builder said...

Yeah, Therapdoc! And by the way, how are you, REALLY? And you, too, Anonymous?

Anonymous said...

LOL... thanks Mound Builder!

I'm better than I'm afraid I feel, some days. DUH. In english, I really am better off, doing more than just "surviving" (more thriving) and growing my life. I still need to become more fluent in my own measurement (self-assessment) definitions and that still takes a "slow leak" of energy toll.

therapydoc said...

It's as we always say, feelings, like pregnancy, are usually better out than in.

Mound Builder said...

Anonymous, I'm glad you feel better. Sometimes I feel like I don't deserve better, whatever better may represent. I try to ward those feelings off or at least not stay stuck in that for too long. Sometimes I try to remember to treat myself as I would treat my own children when they were small: with patience and acceptance. May you continue growing your life, Anonymous!

Therapydoc, I don't think I'm familiar with that saying, regarding feelings, though I definitely remember that point from my pregnancies where it's just too crowded inside having someone else occupying my own body like that. I'll try to hold onto that image as a reminder when I'm full of feelings and wanting to avoid a conflict. Some conflicts do seem to be unavoidable, because, in part, there are people in the world who seem to thrive on them, and if you prefer to avoid conflicts, and instead want to seek solutions, one can feel drawn into conflicts with the conflict-thrivers. The question is how to do it that isn't exhausting and that allows me to maintain my own integrity. Sometimes conflict-thrivers seem, in part, to want to bring out the worst in others.

Better Things-- Seeing Ghosts