aNewDomain commentary — People sometimes mistake me for a person.
This usually happens during the two and half hour break I get between the classes I teach. The gap is just short enough that going home seems inefficient. I don’t have an office. So I sit in the break room and write. And while I write, I am often visibly emotional. This is probably because I try not to write stuff that bores me.
Anyway, last week I put on my coat and hat to walk across campus to my final class for the day. Just as I was about to leave the break room, a colleague on her way out said to me, “I like your hat.”
Now, if I had more social skills, I might have said, “Thank you.” It was the limit of my abilities, though, to even refrain from saying, “I like your face,” or something else bizarre, uncomfortable and offputting. So I said nothing, and she seemed concerned at that.
Another colleague, walking with her, then whispered to her, “Don’t worry about it. He’s had a bad day.”
I hadn’t had a bad day, though. What was up with them?
It’s a question I ask a lot. I am, after all, just an autistic person who, 42 years into life, still hasn’t learned to handle small talk in the smallest degree. I just can’t do it, and I might never be able to do it.
I really don’t care who won the ballgame, or what the weather is like, or what’s for lunch, or what you think of my hat. My hat keeps my ears warm and that’s that.
Just today, I was editing a story in the same break room. I had been writing and sort of crying off and on – not full-bore snotty weeping, but definitely a few trickles. What can I say? I really get into my work.
Suddenly I noticed a female colleague had wandered by me a few times. I noticed her but I didn’t figure she noticed me. I mean, why would she? People don’t, on average, really care who is in their environment that much. So I didn’t say anything. Not just because I hate small talk and find it impossible to do. But because, like I said, people mostly just think about themselves.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m right about that. See, I get interrupted all the time by people’s self-talk.
I sit there, and people come in to make a cup of coffee or toast a bagel or something. I just ignore them because I don’t care about them; I care about doing my work. But they notice I’m there and they seem to assume I’m focusing all my attention on them for some reason.
One guy goes to the in-boxes and looks around. “Nothing in there,” he mutters. I don’t think he’d have muttered that except there was someone to hear it. Maybe, but I don’t think so. Does he expect me to comment? I don’t.
Then a woman comes in, looks in her box and begins muttering something about grading tests. I don’t know exactly what the issue is because I don’t care. I really don’t. So I ignore her muttering.
And then another guy wanders in, wanders out and wanders in again. Making eye contact with the tops of my glasses because I don’t look up, he addresses me directly, saying: “I’ll figure out what I’m doing soon.”
It’s this last person who makes me suspect that all the self-talk isn’t just people talking to themselves. It actually seems to be people wondering aloud if they seem silly to me, a complete stranger who is also completely disinterested.
A few hours later, I returned to the break room to finish up some writing. It’s not that I’m a masochist. I really had nowhere else to go.
And there’s a guy in there, I don’t know what he’s doing, but he’s dead quiet about it. I wait a second, just watching him, unseen. Then I come all the way into the room and put my crap down and there he goes with the self-talk that I’m somehow expected to respond to.
Look. I did some Zumba classes a while back. That was back when there was still hope for my physical condition. At the time, I was shy about dancing around for exercise, but everyone told me don’t worry, nobody’s looking at you – they’re all too nervous about how silly they look.
That was good advice. And that’s why I don’t feel bad about not engaging people. It’s true that nobody cares about you in situations like this. I mean, if all this self-talk is taken at face value, and I don’t know how else to take it, in the end it’s all self-directed anyway. They’re not thinking about me. They’re too busy thinking about how I’m judging them.
But I am still worried about one thing: Are these small talk, self-chatters really just worried about being judged for how much time they spend at the inbox … or whether their bagel is the right color … or if I think they’re Denholm Elliot … because they’re projecting. I mean, are they themselves always judging other people based on silly, irrelevant criteria? Which is why they seem to think I’m doing it?
Nah. I’ll just stick to “My hat keeps my ears warm, and that’s that.”
And I don’t give a crap, really, what anyone thinks about my hat.
For aNewDomain, I’m Jason Dias.
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