“She’s so happy” is what someone just told me about Fey, my cat, who’s visiting me where I’m staying right now.
Actually, while Fey is a lot of things right now, happiness isn’t what I’d summarize it as. She’s glad to see me, but she’s also edgy and scared about being in a new place (and about me not being home yet), angry at me for not being home, annoyed about having been picked up, and frantic in her attempts to get me to do something by nudging my hands and face hard and in rapid succession.
I notice this sort of thing often. I obviously can’t read a cat’s mind and know precisely what she’s thinking about everything, but I can get a pretty good clue through body language of the assorted layers of emotions she’s got going on.
Other people often seem to have a limited template of cat emotions in their heads.
Such as, as I finally deduced today, “Purring means the cat is happy.” Which is a gross oversimplification of the use of purring by cats, and which seems to lead to humans totally ceasing all further observation of what the cat happens to be doing in addition to purring, as well as all comparison of the sound of the purring to all other purring the cat has done.
Then there are more “subtle” things like not knowing the difference between a play-bite and an anger-bite. Which doesn’t seem subtle to me, but after watching a lot of people interact with cats, it seems like many people don’t get it. I’ve seen too many people attempt to “play with” (read: invade the space of) a heavily annoyed cat, only to conclude the cat is “mean” when they get hissed at and scratched. And all too often, even after the hissing and scratching, they might say in a sing-song voice, “You meanie,” and go back for more. Putting themselves at risk of a serious bite and taking every warning sign the cat has to offer as a sign of “playfulness”.
That last one, I had trouble understanding for awhile. I thought the humans doing those things were being cruel themselves. Then I ran across a person who seemed absolutely contradictory: She was very conscientious about most things, but at the same time she seemingly terrorized my cat and then laughed about it.
A friend pointed out that she probably wasn’t able to read feline social cues very well.
And that did turn out to be the problem after all.
But it seems like to many people there’s only one set of nonverbal cues that exist: That of the neurologically standard members of their own species in the culture or cultures they are most familiar with.
Anything beyond that appears less nuanced, but often they conclude that rather than being unable to pick up the nuances of an unfamiliar species, neurotype, or culture, then these nuances don’t exist unless the unfamiliar people in question develop nonverbal cues specifically intended to communicate to the person doing the observing. They might even, if they don’t even manage to learn an abbreviated version of the nonverbal cues in question, conclude that the unfamiliar species, culture, or neurotype has no body language. Which leads to being stereotyped as mysterious, sinister, defective, deficient, or some combination of the above.
I’ve always found it interesting, how if autistic people don’t understand certain things about non-autistic people, it’s because autistic people are disordered (deficient in understanding “nonverbal cues” in general, as if there is only one kind), but if non-autistic people don’t understand autistic people, it’s also because autistic people are disordered (deficient in our ability to produce “nonverbal cues” in general, as if there is only one kind). People seem very resistant to the idea that there are many levels of detail and nuance that they are missing in this regard.