This is a bit of an odd post and will start with a dose of life with Asperger’s – or, at least, how things are for me – and end up with a moment of (in)equality but I’m filing it under “language” because that is, basically, what it’s about.
Are You A Man Or A Mouse?
I have recently got involved with a women’s HEMA social group called Esfinges [External Link]. This is not a training group but, basically, a support group so that we have somewhere to blow of some conversational steam when we want to discuss how our male-orientated interest works. By which I do not mean it’s about male-bashing.
Anyway, there is a blog and the first member blog post was by Kristen Elferink about how HEMA has helped her autism. The post can be found here: [External Link]
I’ll wait here with my panad while you go read it. It won’t take long.
Ready? Okay. The short short version of my commentary is “I identify”.
The important thing I’m trying to share / borrow from Kirsten’s post is the concept of living with fear. I’m not talking about knee trembling terror or recovering from major trauma but I spend much of my time with low level anxiety: Am I doing this right? Is this how it’s supposed to work? Is this okay with everyone else? Please don’t let me get hurt, etc, etc.
Obviously, the more familiar I am with what I’m doing or a sequence of events (i.e. routine), the less anxiety I feel. On the flip side, the more I allow myself to settle into a routine or do the same old same old, the more obvious my anxiety (to the point of outright, pant-wetting fear in some cases) over something unusual will be.
Which is why I chose the online name Journeymouse, a combined pun over “journeyman” and the question in the section heading.
(Oh, and the driving instructor who told me it was okay to talk about what I was thinking, in order to show people that I was at least thinking? Well, you can blame him for a large part of my constant chatter when I am at low level anxiety. I also nervous laugh a lot while committing acts of HEMA. I have no idea what it sounds like to the others, I’m too scared to ask in case they think it’s a sign of enjoying beating them up. I’d hate to shatter the illusion.)
Why Words Are Important To Mice
So, what does this have to do with language? Well, it starts off with communication. From my Asperger’s page, I have a link to the UK National Autistic Society’s explanation of Asperger’s [External Link]. I also use the list of symptoms the NAS gives and the first one is:
Difficulty understanding gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice
The third is:
Very literal in what they say and can have difficulty understanding jokes, metaphor and sarcasm
Arguably, these things are strongly linked and could even be considered the same thing – as I’ve said of other points on the older, linked page. If you consider that oft quoted thing about whatever percentage of communication being about body language (or, in computer-y terms, encoded data behind the overt message), you may already see why social communication can be a bit of a problem.
I am not bad at social communication but I’m not good and I am very aware I have a weakness. It scares me and brings on anxiety. I am better with people I know as they generally know how to hold up their end of a conversation with me. I get particularly anxious and / or stressed when I’m dealing with new people or large numbers of people. A new person means mapping what I’ve learnt onto a new set of features and a crowd simply means “oh, ****, I have to map it all out on how many faces?”
It’s not that I can’t do facial expressions, tones of voice or gestures, it’s simply that I have a limited vocabulary – if we liken it to understanding words. And each individual has their own slight variations and preferences, their own accent and dialect, so it takes me a while to learn an individual’s subtleties. If I learn at all. I never learn every nuance a person makes and there are people at work (who I don’t see all that often) that I just have to accept everything they say at “face value” unless we’ve obviously stepped into surreal comedy territory.
And, as I’ve said many times, “face value” is a really horrible turn of phrase for anyone who can’t read expressions properly to have to rely on to get their point across. As far as I’m concerned, human faces are only marginally more valuable than a doll’s and not much more than a point of reference – and something I have to look at every now and again to prove I’m paying attention. I digress, sorry.
Autism, and Asperger’s, is a spectrum. Everyone exists somewhere on it and some people are further along and some aren’t. It seems like I’ve always been aware that I’m missing something – in computer-y terms, like I’ve always known there was extra data, could hear or see it but saw it as little more than white noise because I didn’t have the key to decode it all. This can’t be true but we’ll go with it because it helps to rationalise why I’ve got so hung up on the meaning of words. And my anxiety over being sure that I have understood the message being sent and that the messages I send in return are not misunderstood themselves.
I’ve always been a little bit interested in etymology and how words become what they are – what they’re supposed to mean, how they evolve, where they come from – just not enough to go into proper language study. Part of me still seems to think that the real meaning is hidden just in the words, if I just look hard enough. Alas, it isn’t to be because I know it’s not just what a person says but how they say it – and I mean tone of voice, facial expression, and what they’re doing at the time they’re talking to you.
Oddly enough, I quite like talking face-to-face – at least I prefer it to phone calls because it’s easier to check that I understood face-to-face. I’ve been warned, on occasion, to be careful that certain subject matter is not for social media – and I guess I need reminders sometimes because I can be so wrapped up in something that I forget others aren’t also involved – but that’s more an issue of remembering to keep things compartmentalised: work stuff stays work, personal stuff stays personal, attempts to wind someone up stays in the salle, etc. But the actual “mechanics” of text communication is closer to what I’m used to dealing with in verbal communication. The only difference is the issue of being (potentially) permanent and therefore being responsible / accountable.
Compare And Contrast
But, back to the point about words: if one is convinced that the meaning is in the words, that the individual choice of words is important – as it especially is in stories, reports, legal documents, business emails, … – then one tends to be hyper-aware of others’ usage. Particularly when written down or at official functions.
Yeah, I’m getting to my case in point. I apologise in advance for anyone who finds the scene setting vague. This is as much information as I’m willing to give in a public forum. It’s been dealt with offline and I’ve had some conversations with others about the actual “event” but I’m not prepared to start naming and shaming (or dropping myself into the manure in the process).
So, a description of bullying. Men are “aggressive and physical”, women are “subtle and devious”. Anyone want to have a stab at what’s wrong with that and why?
Take your time, I’ll finish my panad.
- Obviously, I paraphrased slightly as I no longer remember the exact sentence that went with the comparison of “aggressive and physical” against “subtle and devious”.
- When challenged on the wording, the individual’s response was that it had been checked against websites of legal organisations and that “subtle and devious” was an acceptable description of how women bully.
The desk is right in front of you if you wish to bang your head on it.
But you may not have got to the point that I’m wanting to make about use of words (because this is really about word usage, not pointing out that someone needs to adjust their attitude to either gender). While individual words have their own weight, texture, colour, whatever-descriptor-works-for-you (remember the “These Building Blocks Give Synaesthesia” section of The Building Blocks?) that gives them a very precise meaning, the key point here is how those meanings work together. Or don’t.
Firstly, when putting two things together and saying they’re not the same, there is an implied comparison. It sets up an either / or situation in the reader’s (or listener’s) mind. Yet these are not comparative phrases. “Aggressive” is not the opposite of, or even related to, “subtle”. “Physical” is likewise not related to “devious”. For the opposites of the “masculine” terms, we’d need “passive” and “mental” or “emotional” – which would be perfectly good descriptions of female bullying in comparison to male bullying.
Secondly, when put in a comparative situation, the first option often becomes the “normal” option to which the second is contrasted to. By using words that aren’t comparable, there’s an extra layer of disdain for the female bullying – as if it is somehow worse because it’s different. So different and so bad, in fact, that it can’t be described in similar terms.
Thirdly and finally, the values associated with “subtle” and “devious” are never a good thing. Not only are “aggressive” and “physical” are much more neutral but they also, because of the use of a comparison, get associated with the antonyms of the “female” description – basically: “simple” and “honest” although other words apply.
The Moral Of The Story
Well, I guess there isn’t really one. I’m certainly not trying to defend bullying or women who bully. I’m just appalled by the wording, maybe I’m hyper-sensitive to it – because that’s all I can take from a conversation with someone I barely know and I have a fear of giving the wrong message myself – or maybe I’m hyper-sensitive to the potential inequality it was setting up.