Some thoughts

Life in a Mixed Marriage, the curse of good manners, or how to be rude nicely

One of the sessions Teresa and I run is titled:

How to lie with grace, and be rude nicely

We think this perfectly encapsulates the sort of problems encountered between autistics and neurotypicals.

From an autistic point of view, not being brutally honest (as the NT might think it) is to ‘lie’, and for me that is wrong and confusing.

For an NT, being polite, offering a white lie here and there, is what makes the world go round. To do otherwise would be rude.

Why is this a problem? Well, speaking as an autistic, one of my challenges is to understand the unspoken language that occurs between NTs. It is much harder for us to read, if indeed we read it all. Think of being literal, not understanding nuances such as tone of voice and facial expression; think of all the things I described in my article on the Imitation Game (LINK). You, the neurotypicals, say one thing in words (usually the polite version) and the truth is communicated in other ways, but we don’t see those other ways, all we have are the words

Herein lies the language problem. As an Autistic I have had to learn to ‘lie’ and, even worse, accept lies with good grace. Teresa has had to learn to be ‘rude’, blunt and what she considers to be unpleasant in how she talks to me, and to accept me being ‘rude’ and horrible when talking to her. That’s not a conventional recipe for a successful relationship.

Between us we try to understand the other’s language and try to find something in-between. The trick is not to be offended when someone behaves in a way that is true to their nature, whilst also expecting them to make an effort to “tone it down” when they can.

Understanding and tolerance are the only solution. It is harder for Teresa, she has a lifetime of good manners to overcome; it is easier for me because I’ve had a lifetime of trying to learn to ‘lie’ and be ‘dishonest’ (by my standards). Neither of us is good at it and it takes a lot of effort and correcting of each other (with love, patience and understanding), but it can be done.

So, Teresa, I do love to see your inner bitch.


  • Robert Erskine

    I am interested in your ‘rudeness’ article, and as in the past I have been struck by some of the examples. To take, for example, Teresa’s ‘Are you sure?’ question, when she had been offered a lift. The truth is that her question is not built in to neurotypical genes – it is a learned phrase, and also culturally specific; even within our own British culture. It is one of the stock phrases that middle class people use without thinking, and roughly translates as: “I would really appreciate it, but I don’t want to inconvenience you, and I want to ask if you are sure in order to give you a chance to withdraw the offer if it is really inconvenient.” The reason it is expressed at all is that, habitually, people will make such an offer because it is helpful, generous and polite. In most cases the offer is genuinely meant, and in a few cases the offer might be made for the sake of politeness. It is often difficult for a neurotypical person to tell the difference. However, and this is my key point: the response “Are you sure?” is entirely learnt. Nobody is born with a tendency to say “Are you sure?” (Or anything else for that matter!)Those who do so say it because it is shorthand for what I said in the beginning, and is entirely learnt! I have to assume, not having a great depth of knowledge about autism, that for some reason these stock phrases and their underlying meanings are not routinely learnt in the process of growing up and learning a culture-specific language. It occurs to me in passing that in New York, deliberate rudeness is culturally learnt, and indeed expected, as a kind feature of local colour. Neverthless, that rudeness is a cultural linguistic artifact, and as such is learnt. Or learned, as they prefer to say in North America. Or loined, as they say in New York.

  • Bean

    Indeed, the problem is not a genetic one in terms of learnt behaviour. Rather an inability to perceive the behaviours that Neurotypicals easily pick up. For me it’s like being brought up in England, speaking English and handling that fine, communicating with people, but, there’s this other language (Russian say) going on and I’m not aware of or only dimly. It is that “social” language that I have to work really hard to learn whereas for non Autistics it is usually easy to pick up. People generally learn how to behave and when to behave without being aware of that learning process, I have to work really hard to learn it from observation and it is really hard work, exhausting and I often get it wrong and I have no idea why.

    Think of blindness, the sighted have no idea how much of their language and communication is related to the sense of sight, take someone who is born without it and they are missing a language that most people get without thought. Of course, I’m not blind so I have no idea what it is really like, in the same way that I assume there is this other language being spoken by people because I can observe it’s affects but of itself I have no knowledge and how the Neurotypical will struggle to understand what it is like to be blind to a social language that everyone seems to take for granted.

  • Teresa

    Yes, you are right about it being entirely learnt, Robert – what fascinates me is how deeply embedded this learning is. Until David and I began to have this conversation, for me there was so much happening at an unconscious level that I really didn’t understand why he was having such a problem!

    Also, as I read your comment I was reminded of a conversation I had with a friend who worked in Japan for many years, confirmed by my experience when I visited her: in this culture the need for politeness is so profound that often one will receive apparently contradictory responses. I certainly remember occasions where a first response to a question was ‘yes’ but once I’d unravel the accompanying statement, I discovered the ‘true’ answer was in fact ‘no’. How on earth would/does an autistic function in that environment?

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