Daily Archives: June 22, 2008

How to communicate with people who insist that everyone communicates in multi-layered and manipulative ways?


(Please note that this is mostly a discussion of things that have happened offline recently. If you read this, you’re not likely to know anyone involved.)

I’m not sure what to do in situations where the purpose of someone talking to me is not to communicate, but to do something else.

I’m not talking about the relatively common phenomenon where someone with trouble understanding language might not use language for the standard way or the standard reasons. Autistic people often have that problem, I’ve had that problem, it’s different from what I’m about to discuss.

I’m talking about people who seem to have no trouble understanding words, but who introduce far too many levels of meaning and manipulation into what should be the process of communication.

I’m also not talking only about non-autistic people, nor universally about non-autistic people. I figured I had to add this because frequently when autistic people talk about something they don’t like in someone else’s communication, it becomes an “autistic vs. NT” thing whether they say it explicitly or someone else reads it in. This isn’t. I’ve seen autistic people do similar things, and the vast majority of non-autistic people don’t think like this.

I’m also not talking about people who do this only very occasionally when under a lot of stress, nor am I talking about situations in which it’s perfectly legitimate to assume that a lot of indirect communication is going on.

I’m talking about people where it’s their habitual communication style to… well, one person I know offline described the communication of someone else offline as having several “layers”, similar to the following (they described it a little differently, I’m adjusting it to a different person I’ve met recently):

  • The literal meaning of what it is that they are saying.
  • The implication of what it is that they are saying.
  • What their actual thinking is (often different than either of those).
  • What they want other people to read into what they are saying.
  • What actions they want other people to go through after hearing what they are saying.
  • What hierarchical status they want to maintain for themselves and the person they are speaking to.

And then, the person assumes that no matter who they are talking to, all of these different layers to communication exist for that person as well. They can’t seem to understand that most of the world doesn’t operate on this extreme a level of manipulation or hidden meanings. Yes, there are unspoken assumptions behind all communication just because of the nature of language, and the impossibility of speaking in Entish (I always thought Entish must be endlessly recursive). But most people don’t constantly try to deliberately twist the purpose of communication into a pretzel to get people to do what they want.

It’s difficult for me to come up with exact examples of conversations that have worked that way. I can remember many such conversations, but what I can’t seem to do is make up conversations based on them. The reason I can’t, is that I am horrible at reading those hidden layers of manipulation into innocent statements. So it’s difficult for me to come up with a plausible reading of those things.

That’s one of the reasons those conversations are so frustrating to me — I cannot anticipate what someone like this will think of my statements, nor can I adjust my statements to convey the right hidden meanings. I know someone else who doesn’t like conversations like this either, but she can at least match the other person’s passive-aggressive tone, and people like this often leave her alone — at least to her face — because she out-argues them in their own language.

It’s also difficult when it’s really necessary to talk to someone like this, or to ask them questions. For instance, if someone like this is doing it on the job, there’s often no way to get around having to interact with them.

There is no possible way to make a straightforward statement around someone like this. They will read into it several layers of implied meaning, most of them manipulative, many having to do with where you position yourself on a social hierarchy, and many of them to do with your wanting something out of them.

One conversation I had with someone who wasn’t always this way but was this way more often than was comfortable, went like this. I’ll call them Barbara (the person with the sometimes-unpleasant communication style) and Cindy (a mutual friend of ours). Beware: drama ahead.

Barbara was talking about how Cindy was a kind and generous person, and had helped her in a number of ways.

I completely agreed with Barbara, and said she’d helped me out a lot too. As far as I was concerned, there was nothing unusual about this statement. It complimented a mutual friend, it said what a generous person she was, and it agreed totally with Barbara. I couldn’t conceivably see any hidden meanings in it, and so I was stunned by what Barbara did in response.

She became visibly irritated. She acted as if what I had said was somehow related to how I thought Barbara must think of me. And she grudgingly told me that of course she liked me a lot too, not just Cindy. I can’t remember her exact wording, but she really seriously believed that my statement in that regard had somehow mysteriously been a commentary on me thinking that Barbara did not like me very much.

And in reality, Barbara didn’t like me very much. But I had no reason to comment on this at that or any other time — I rarely talked to Barbara at all, and didn’t mind that she didn’t like me, especially because she was the sort of person that made me automatically wary anyway. But she would never admit it to me — she would only tell friends of mine that she didn’t like me, in fact that at times she hated me.

So somehow, when we were talking about both of us liking a mutual friend, she interpreted my statements that were clearly and directly about our friend, and entirely complimentary, as having a hidden meaning about whether she herself liked me.

If I thought really hard, I could come up with at least a tenuous chain of circumstances connecting all this. Because Barbara had actually attempted to manipulate things to separate Cindy from me. It hadn’t worked, and had backfired into losing some amount of trust from both of us. So I guess in some really roundabout manner a person could read into my liking Cindy, that I somehow knew Barbara didn’t like me and wanted her approval of me. But I only figured that part out today, years after all these events had come and gone. Because that wasn’t even a part of my motivation, wasn’t even in my mind.

I suppose that’s a simple example because the conversation involved was very short, and did not get into the layers of complexity that conversations with people like this can reach if the conversations are drawn out over a long time. They also become more complex from my end because over time things can shift around, so that one moment I am picking up the tone and dropping the words, and another I am picking up the words and dropping the tone, and that all makes keeping up with even the literal content of conversations like that challenging.

More recently I had one of those conversations, offline, with someone. I was communicating solely in order to give and receive information to make sure something was going to happen that was supposed to happen. I had non-autistic witnesses who said that I was in no way what would ordinarily be construed as rude or hostile.

However, this person read deliberate hostility into my every comment and proceeded to engage in an impressive flurry of passive-aggressive nastiness. She managed to convey that there was no reason that I needed the information and no reason to even speak to someone who communicates as slowly as I do (I was having someone read my computer screen to her), to interrupt me frequently when she knew I was typing responses to her, to assert her dominance and superiority on a regular basis, and to treat me like a waste of time and space. She also told me at one point that a conversation I was trying to clarify (that I’d had with someone else) had happened right in front of her, so she knew everything there was to know about that conversation (even though if she did she’d have to have been listening in on my end) and had no need to discuss its content. And even attempting to discuss its content was an act of hostility as far as she was concerned. She also engaged in a whole lot of non sequiturs — saying things about other people that had nothing at all to do with the situation at hand, but that she was trying to use to manipulate us into dropping the conversation altogether.

The person who was there reading the computer screen was stunned and appalled at her way of communicating. But it turns out she’s like that to most people, at least most people she sees as beneath her most of the time.

It’s impossible to have an exchange of literal information with someone like this. I can say “I really mean exactly what I say, I’m not implying anything else, I’m just trying to exchange facts with each other so we’re clear on what to do about something, this is a purely practical conversation and I don’t mean anything good or bad about anyone in the course of it.” And I can say that more concisely, or more elaborately. But when I say it, people like this will even read into those statements something that wasn’t there, and will continue to refuse to just talk about the information.

Another amazing thing about conversations with people who do this, is that once they have decided that I have hidden and sinister meanings behind my words, then there is nothing I can say that won’t be put through that filter. If I pay someone like this a compliment, they seem not to even notice: They even assume there’s an insult hidden behind the compliment! If I agree with the person, then there must be an insult hidden within the agreement! It becomes absolutely impossible to convince someone I’m not insulting them right and left, because the insults are there to them whether they see it or not.

And I’ve noticed that when that particular pattern of “there must be a hidden layer of meaning to everything I say, and usually a bad one” occurs in someone who isn’t just wary because of prior bad social experiences… it’s usually someone who manipulates people all the time. It’s usually someone who’s incredibly passive-aggressive, and who mostly communicates in ways tailored to manipulating other people rather than to simply exchange information or reinforce social bonding. Sometimes it’s manipulating people into actions, other times it’s simply attempting to manipulate everyone they know into liking them. But it’s always that sort of communication on way too many layers and expecting everyone else to do the same.

I don’t communicate on that many layers, at least not layers of that kind. I haven’t the foggiest idea how to communicate with people who do. Whether they’re autistic or not, their communication style is impossible for me to predict or decipher, and I have absolutely no clue how to say things in ways that they’ll understand the meaning rather than making up five or six layers of complication into it. I can’t even figure out how to say things in ways where they’ll take the imaginary layers as positive rather than negative. It’s just a complete mystery to me.

If anyone else has clues on how to communicate with people like this, please let me know.