I don’t want anyone getting me wrong here – this is not an anti-NT rant. I don’t do such things, not even in my worst and most frustrated moments. That would be doing a disservice to the many NTs I love dearly. Not to mention that I don’t believe that autistics are superior overall to NTs, anymore than I believe that NTs are superior to me/us. Rather, we have strengths in different areas, and in our thinking and approach to the world and life and other people, we’re simply, totally, completely and overwhelmingly different.
And it’s one aspect of that difference I want to explore here, as I attempt to get to grips with something that’s long puzzled me about NT behaviour. Namely, their dishonesty. Or what seems like dishonesty to us.
Note, I’m not talking here about those blatant acts of dishonesty – theft, shop-lifting, burglary, fraud, embezzlement, con-artistry, espionage, treason, and so on - that get punished by the law, and rejected by most NTs even, and rightly so. Nor do I mean the deliberate but not usually illegal deceptions of negative intent – the cheating spouse, the manipulative workmate, the political trickster. I’m talking, rather, about the little acts of social dishonesty.
I’ve come to realise that NTs, unlike us, place ‘getting along with others’ way, way, way ahead of ‘telling it like it is’. So they will do all sorts of little fudgings of the truth in service of that, where we would just blurt things out – and then get jumped on for being ‘rude’, ‘insensitive’, etc. As we almost never intend this, we end up confused and even hurt. What, we wonder, did we do wrong? Why is the truth so bad?
Anyway, here’s something of a guide to the various kinds of social dishonesty (though they wouldn’t call it that) I’ve seen NTs doing.
Phrasing things politely. This is using diplomatic versions of the truth, to soften harsh messages. So people will say that so-and-so is “a bit upset”, by something, when in fact they threw a tantrum, or are bawling their eyes out. Always take a message like this as a huge understatement – the truth is almost certain to be far worse than the literal words. Phrases like “a bit”, “kind of”, or “somewhat” are red flags for this sort of dishonesty. Even between aspies, I’ve seen this one trip some of us up.
Euphemisms. This is a variation on polite phrasing, where softer expressions are used to blunt harsh realities, eg saying that someone has “passed away” rather than simply “died”. I have often used these myself, finding them either less likely to cause offence, or just kinder. Or more bearable – eg when referring to my mother’s recent passing. It has its place therefore, but too much of it is like constantly wearing cotton wool in your ears – you start to feel like everything is a bit muffled.
Circling the truth. Basically, this involves verbal beating round and round the bush, till you’re not even certain what the heck the bush is. I have always found this extremely difficult to cope with. I’m still not sure what the point of it is, other than a kind of super-politeness, or maybe not wanting to commit to saying the truth, but if you’re faced with someone who never clearly states what is it that they want, or are trying to say, circling is likely what they’re doing. My recommendation is, be blunt. Ask straight out what they mean. It tends to disconcert people, sometimes annoy them, and even then you don’t always get a straight answer, but at least the issue is out in the open. And that’s got to be far less anxiety-provoking for you.
The little white lie. Years ago, my then-partner told me about a previous flatmate of hers, who fancied a guy who was obviously gay, something she refused to acknowledge, even once saying to my ex “people say so-and-so is gay, but he’s not, is he?” My ex’s private thought was that the guy was as camp as a row of pink tents, but she agreed no, he wasn’t. This is the ‘nice’ lie, to spare someone’s feelings and supposedly not harmful, though I have my doubts. How can not facing up to the truth be harmful? How long would that woman have gone on deluding herself this guy was potentially available? And how hurt would she have been, in the end?
If you do hear someone telling one of these white lies, however, it’s best not to barge in with the truth. These situations often needs delicate handling, and are best left alone by those as socially clumsy as we aspies. Of course if someone asks you outright, they should know better than to expect you to lie, but do ‘phrase it diplomatically’ if you can.The ‘Fairy Tale’. A more elaborate version of the ‘little white lie’, we see this one most especially on sitcoms, where some of the characters invent a complicated tale to tell another character, because they feel they can’t tell the truth for some reason. However it also sometimes happens in real life too, usually I think to spare someone’s feelings, or to escape the consequences of something.
I’ve been tripped up by this one more than once – confused, I would jump in with “no, that’s not true!”, and blurting out the truth. And of course getting a very sharp reaction, which confused me even more – why were they telling a lie in the first place, and why didn’t they tell me they were going to do it? I still think it’s stupid, and usually unnecessary. Or at least they didn’t need to invent such a convoluted lie.
Zipping the lip. Sometimes NTs avoid telling a lie by simply saying nothing at all, also known as ‘keeping mum’, ‘keeping stum’, and similar phrases. Like the little white lie, it’s done to spare other’s feelings, especially in situations where it’s felt that revealing the truth would do no good, and possibly even hurt someone. So there is a place for it, and I’ve done it myself – kept quiet about stuff that it really wasn’t necessary to reveal.
Maybe, for instance, you’ve got a sweet little old auntie who’s on her deathbed, and who’s always idolized her long-dead husband. Why tell her that in fact he had an affair thirty years ago? What purpose would be served by telling her now? (This is a fictitious example, I hasten to add, not one I’ve ever personally faced.)
Keeping our mouths shut is I think about the only ‘social dishonesty’ we aspies can manage, in response to all the situations mentioned above - difficult though it can be, not to blurt things out! I’ve found it best to watch what others are doing. If they aren’t revealing something, I don’t either.
It’s important to remember that all of these ‘dishonesties’ are done with positive intent in mind – the sparing of other’s feelings, at least in the short term. Whether they do in the long run of course is another question, but the golden rule here is “if in doubt, don’t say anything”.