Getting to Know You
When someone tells me that they want to set up time with me, I generally demand an agenda from them. ASD specialists will call this “rigidity”. I call it common courtesy. It is a matter of perspective. In a world where human interaction is “King”, spending time with other humans is natural and “right”. But in a world, where spending time with humans requires effort, it is not as natural and not always the “right” way to communicate.
Time is one of my most precious assets. Material things, my home, my money, status, all have very little value to me. But time spent involved in my interests is very important to me. As such I do not give my time lightly though I try to give it generously. Knowing the agenda ahead of a meeting gives me the ability to prepare material for the topics that we need to discuss and also assures me that the other person has real business with me. Often I must prepare words so that I can add value in the most efficient manner as I rarely process information real-time very well. In the world of “high tech” people, I almost always get a reasonable 1 to 3 point agenda for the upcoming meeting and I always prepare myself for those topics ahead of the meeting. Subsequently, when we get into the meeting, I am ready and things go well. But in other groups of people, I often get a response that involves the phrase, “Getting to Know You” or some such similar thing. Those who know me even a little also know how much this agenda infuriates me.
Honestly, what does this mean and how can I prepare for this?
Whenever I concede a meeting with this “fluffy” agenda, the meeting starts awkwardly. I come to the meeting and wait for them to divulge to me with their real agenda. Typically they squirm and start to do this polite and pointless (to me) small talk stuff. I answer any questions as best I know how and wait. More squirming usually follows. Sometimes we get past this awkward stage and into an actual agenda but sometimes not and I cannot help but get really angry. Recently I drove through rush hour traffic to meet with an official from a professional organization. I was already frazzled when I showed up but she assured me that this face to face meeting was important and that there were some papers I needed to sign. I sat at the table ready to sign papers and the woman folds her hands on top of the papers, looks at me and verbally asks a question that I had already answered for their organization no less than 7 times previously. I could not believe my ears and the anger in me could not be hidden. When I queried her as to why I was answering this question yet again and why had she not just read that answer in the paperwork I had already done, she squirmed and informed me that she was just trying to “get to know me”.
There it was again!!! I HATE that phrase!!
Once my anger subsided, I began to look more closely into this incident in an effort to try to change my belief systems or (at least) my behavior. I thought back to the many other incidents I experienced all surrounding this phenomena that people have to get together for no apparent real reason. It did happen quite a bit so there must be a reason for it. Yet even after 48 years of experience on this planet, it was still completely illogical that people were so disrespectful with my time as to not give me a clear agenda and then to waste my time with this small talk.
But with this latest series of incidences, including my boss telling me that I jump into the “meat” of conversation a bit too quickly, and with a recent ASD diagnosis, I was able to bend and to look at this a bit differently. What if these people were not being disrespectful at all? I knew already from my social skills training that Neurotypical people get some form of emotional kick or “feelings” from small talk. (When my therapist told me this fact, it actually blew me away so much so that I accused him of making it up. He assured me it was true.) Fascinating… I get irritated with small talk and they get some sort of emotional connection or feeling… Hmmm… Okay, so that must be at play here during this “getting to know you” business. But even with knowledge of this fact, I still was not okay with the phrase. It still made me angry. The problem was that I simply do not associate with that feeling at all in this context so could not figure out how to generalize the words. My mind could not imagine that anyone really had these feelings since I do not.
It was my colleague, Dr. Arnold, who finally came up with an analogy that allowed me to “feel” why small talk is important. She explained that it is useless in the same way a hospital gown in the Doctor’s office is useless. The purpose of the hospital gown is to allow the patient some respect before the Doctor peeks under it. It gives that person comfort rather than standing there completely naked while waiting. The Doctor looks under it anyway, so why have it?
It took me almost 24 hours to process this analogy but once it hit, I got it. Now I believe I finally have the tools that I need to overcome my instant anger about this phrase. I can feel that I would be embarrassed without the hospital gown so I can now understand (AKA feel) what it is like for people when I insist on getting to the “meat” of the meeting so quickly. To them it feels like they are standing there “exposed”. It still does not make complete sense to me that people feel this way but, at least, I can understand this feeling. This will (hopefully) make it easier for me to tolerate this curious behavior. It isn’t that they are being rude on purpose. They simply do not understand how I think or how hard human interaction can be for me. They can only view this from their own perspective since it makes them so uncomfortable otherwise.
So the next time someone just wants to “get to know me” and insists on a face to face meeting refusing a more detailed agenda, I will still wait for them to get to the real agenda but will try really hard not to have a look on my face as if I have just smelled a fart. I will attempt my meager but polite small talk skills while they are doing their mandatory small talking.
…and maybe I should add this one to the ever growing list of things to practice in future social skills training…