Non-Verbal Communication: The “Hidden Agenda”

Background

I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome as a young child. Even today, I have a great amount of difficulty relating to, and communicating with, people. Our society is very much based on unspoken and hidden communication, sometimes more so in the workplace.

I work in the real estate industry, which, ironically is very much based on relating with others. More often than not, the industry tends to attract people with strong interpersonal skills. As a result, this can be a challenge to someone with Aspergers.

Exact details in this case study have been changed for confidentiality reasons. The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios.

Case Study

My first jobs were disasters; almost literally. My very first job was working as an assistant for a flooring store manager. I would perform tasks such as unwrapping rugs, cleaning tiles, and filing invoices. The manager was never happy with my work. Even though the rugs were spotless, the tiles were glimmering and the invoices were filed to near perfection, in his estimate, I was woefully inadequate.

Every unwritten performance evaluation was the same – very poor. It was amazing I was able to work there for as long as 6 months.

But then I realized something. My boss had a deep sales background, so I figured that communication might be the issue; that I needed to empathize personally with him more or “put myself in his shoes”.

Having Aspergers, I knew that becoming an extraordinary communicator overnight was a little beyond my limits. So, I figured, why not act like it. I understood that the subconscious mind plays a pivotal role in how you interact with others, so I changed my approach and thought processes [perception].

By acting or pretending to be that “extraordinary communicator” – in other words, acting in a non-Asperger fashion – I found that I didn’t actually need to be one. I went back to the flooring store and treated my manager like he was my best friend, asked him for advice on subjects I knew he had knowledge in and even studied more about baseball, his favorite sport, and his favorite teams. My boss’s attitude towards me changed almost instantly, and as soon as I knew it, my performance reviews were always outstanding. While I went on to a better job shortly thereafter, I am still friends to this day with him.

Related to this, is that initial impressions are very vital to success in the business world. With the vast majority of people in the world, you are judged within the first 5 seconds of them meeting you. It’s not fair at all, but people make that first decision about you very fast and usually solidify it into concrete. In most cases, it’s a challenge to break that mold and in some cases, nearly impossible. Having Asperger meant that I was not always easily pre-disposed to creating an outgoing, positive first impression due to my innate reserved nature.

The best way for giving a good first impression is simple: get into an “actor mode” by looking the person straight in the eye. Though I appreciate that this can be difficult for someone with Aspergers, one tip is to look at their nose, it usually gives a false impression of eye contact; use a customary greeting and say something along the lines that you’re very glad to meet this person. This also connects with treating your friends and enemies as just your friends. Using the mindset that everyone is your friend helps enormously.

I can’t tell you how many situations I have been in the workplace, when I have been forced to deal with people I did not like. I have found that if you say very little to these type of people, be “neutral” friendly (i.e., very artificial friend) and compliment them on what they do (when appropriate, for example, when they are happy about something they did), it can help a great deal.

The best way to “treat everyone like your friend” is to smile, say “hello”, pretend to listen – even if the conversation is boring or largely irrelevant, because to them it is interesting, otherwise they would not talk – and try to maintain eye contact and appropriate body language.

An early job of mine was working for a healthcare company. I was the mail clerk there, and I would go from office to office, cubicle to cubicle to hand out the daily mail. In this job, first impressions were vital, you had to know everyone if you wanted to perform the job effectively. This is where I learned to adapt my “treat everyone like a friend” ideal.

I remember there were a few newly-minted college graduates there who didn’t much care for me. As far as they were concerned, I was not very intelligent since my job involved delivering mail. In addition, I was not as socially aware as they were, so it was a difficult situation. They would play jokes on me all the time like hiding my mail cart, saying someone said something when they never did, etc… It was humorous at first, but in some cases, their jokes began to affect my ability to perform at my job as the criticism made me self-conscious.

I told my boss about it, which essentially accomplished nothing. As it turned out, the boss was the same person who recommended the other guys in the first place. I needed to deliver that mail and I was intent to do just that.

But I knew I was on my own, so I had to develop coping strategies by myself. Slowly, I began to basically laugh at their jokes, despite the fact they were not so funny. I would even “hide” the mail cart myself, and “act” like it was gone. Or sometimes, I would not even notice or pay attention if they played a joke on me. I would just act like the person they wanted me to be. After some time saying some very nice things to them about how great their jobs were, much of their initial disrespect began to vanish. Eventually, after some time, they began to accept me more as part of their group, even inviting me to lunch on occasion. Of course, I politely turned it down; just because I work with and are friendly with them didn’t mean that I really wanted to meet outside the workplace.

Aside from the “work” in the workplace, there is also the gossip. I consider it to be a virus; everybody catches it, and some are more than happy to spread it. In fact, in some offices, a person’s “popularity” within that organization is based on the spread of semi-verified facts (e.g., half-truths, misunderstandings) which are really gossip.

With Aspergers, gossip is not the best situation to deal with. The reality is to try and avoid becoming involved in any gossip you might hear floating around. Respond to what you pick up, but do so with a disinteresting blank response – in other words, downplay it. Gossip, like fire, needs fuel to spread. Without that fuel, the gossip dies as soon it’s created.

Going back to the mail clerk job which seems like so long ago, I didn’t really understand the “power” of gossip. I had befriended a girl there who had just started to work as a customer service representative. We talked a lot and became friends, even meeting up after work to talk and socialize. It was really nice at the time to have a friend like her, someone who seemed to care. I felt like I could say anything to her after a couple of months. Shortly after her first 6 months, she decided to go on a week’s vacation. Not being able to say hello to her, I had talked to a friend of hers sitting in the neighboring cubicle. When I passed through that section with my cart, I would ask her if she heard anything from my friend and how her vacation was going (I had my friend’s personal email, but she didn’t respond).

I found out later, that I may have asked her friend one too many times how she was doing. All the enquiries about my friend, which may have been perceived as too numerous, got expanded on by office gossip. Soon I was accused as being obsessed about her. Some stories even had me seeing my friend at her house which was total nonsense as I didn’t even know where she lived.

Well, my friend’s vacation was over in what seemed like a long week. Unfortunately, the gossip about me and her refused to die and took on a life of its own. My response was denial, which I later learned is a big mistake. Some people think that denying something is affirming it is truth. As a result, I was inadvertently feeding the same rumors which had grown to the point of threatening my employment there.

Associated with gossip, I have also found that people, especially neurotypical ones, have personal agendas. People also tend to let the “cat out of the bag” often, even if unintentionally. Most normal people can’t keep a secret; there is too much temptation for them to “spill the beans”. This has to do mainly with how “normal” people converse. Essentially, they base their lives on the activities of others i.e. gossip. This is almost a narcotic for them; once it runs out, they need more. When the regular gossip runs out, they switch to their reserves, which is basically all the secrets you ever told the person.

Sometimes aware or unaware, people are more than happy to disclose secrets to satisfy their addiction to gossip. So, often, by thinking about an event that has happened or something someone has told you, make a scenario in your mind about what would happen if this information were to be broadcast. If it is something that you know could be used against you in anyway, do everything you can not to say anything to anyone connected to the company and/or people, involved.

This lesson continues, but with the added addition of email. Yes, email is one of those wonderful inventions, giving instant communication to all who have it and provides other numerous benefits. But it is also a hazard, especially since it is involved with writing. Basically, anything you write in an email, no matter who you send it to or what you type, can be seen by the public (directly or indirectly).

Going back to the story above, my friend began to ignore me. She thought the gossip was true, and her attitude towards me shifted dramatically. I thought there was still some hope for our friendship, so when I delivered her mail to her, I would smile (not knowing at the time how much she believed the rumors).

A few weeks later, the office director called me into a meeting with two upper level managers. They handed me an email I had sent to my friends personal email account a few months earlier. In that email, never intended to reach the company, I had complained to my friend about my distaste for the company’s management system.

Of course, it was a personal email, so the language used was not very positive. But I didn’t write it with the intention of sending it anywhere near the company. The copy they showed me was a great clue as to where it came from. The printout of the email was clearly done from an internet browser based email client from AOL. So, right then and there, I knew it wasn’t the management who found out about it by themselves. I knew my “friend” had printed it out for them and that email, along with my “friend” and her neighbors made statements about the rumors they heard like they were concrete facts. The material was all used to denigrate me, something that I personally found very upsetting, and it all started with a simple misunderstanding and trusting someone in a personal email.

This brings me to another salient point: trust. When dealing with trust in the workplace, the mantra for me simple: don’t trust anyone. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you need to mistrust everyone, it just means that the only person you should fully trust at work is you. At times, especially when you need to trust someone the most, they have the potential to turn on you, based on something that may even be pure fiction. I go by a basic rule: unless it is a proven trusted friend, family or loved one, I don’t completely trust anyone.

Review

Basically, I have learnt to be guarded in the workplace, and of the need to control or “hide” many of the facets connected with my Asperger.

Doing so has significantly enhanced my ability to work effectively. I have also been able to lower my anxiety levels whilst doing so.

Among the key lessons that I have learned from my experience are:

• Be guarded when you first meet people, and seek to project the correct, required initial impression.

Make a note of who introduces themselves to you when you first start. If at first they seem super friendly coworkers who want to be the first to get to know you, they may also, sadly, often be the first to turn against you or be less than supportive later. This may be especially true if you do not measure up to their often unrealistic social or work expectations of you such as an unwillingness to play the game by their rules.

• Treat everyone like they are your friend, even if you dislike them, maybe intensely. Remember the adage: keep your friends close and your enemies’ closer still!

• Don’t trust anyone. It seems over protective, but it is a good rule of thumb and sound defence mechanism.

• Filter your emails. They are basically written in stone and can be sent on to anyone. When sending an email, be as non-offensive and as bland as possible and never refer to an individual personally or critically.

• Try to avoid unnecessary office conversations or gossip. Aspies are not experts at social interaction in the workplace. Be polite and terminate a contentious conversation as soon as possible. Where possible, refrain from being drawn into one in the first place.

• Be an actor. The non-aspie person prides themselves on toeing the line and playing the – required – game. It works. Try to be outgoing at work by putting yourself in the mental role of the “other” person and hide natural Asperger tendencies such as saying what you truly feel when you know that it could be detrimental and that your words would have no beneficial effect.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome