When the Golden Rule fails

2 05 2011
peer rejection

When you don't understand the rules, golden or otherwise.

It seems so simple: treat others as you’d want to be treated.  Except it doesn’t work very well in practice.  In a general, broad sense perhaps; mutual respect, don’t inflict pain, I won’t steal your stuff so don’t steal mine.  That sort of thing.  But for the specifics of moment to moment choices, words and behavior, the Golden Rule is no help at all.

You make a joke about a shirt someone is wearing.  It wouldn’t bother you at all if someone made a joke about your own shirt.  You’d appreciate the attention.  But they are hurt and upset.  What went wrong?  You like to be told if you make a mistake.  How else are you going to learn?  So you point out the mistakes another person is making, so they won’t embarrass themselves by making them again.  That’s what you’d want.  Why did they get resentful?  It’s hard to know what a person wants if they don’t tell you.  So you are very up front with what you want, need and feel, expecting that others will do the same for you.  Instead, they consider you rude and selfish, and don’t like to have you around.  What’s that about?

What we are presuming in holding up the Golden Rule as a guide to behavior is that we all want the same things, we all feel the same way, and we all approach social interactions with the same understandings.  But reality does not conform to that neat assumption.  It might be better said, Treat others as they want to be treated.  So how do you figure that out, particularly when it doesn’t come intuitively?

They used to have helpful film shorts or cartoons, the kind they’d show in school during Health class, to teach children how not to be a “Goofus” or a “Mr. Bungle.”  As if being polite, friendly, helpful, and outgoing were natural, and children just needed a prompt or an occasional reminder, because of course they want to be liked.  But poor Mr. Bungle never seems to get it right.

The world of human psychology is finally beginning to figure out that not all human brains are wired the same, and the differences are sometimes subtle.  Science likes to label and quantify, the better to organize things, so we have clever terms like “Asperger’s Syndrome” and “Autism Spectrum” to identify abnormal variants.  It’s better than being called “Mr. Bungle”.

If you’re lucky, you get diagnosed, so you realize why you can identify so painfully well with those Socially Awkward Penguin memes.  The earlier you get diagnosed the better, because you have a prayer of surviving childhood and adolescence without becoming hopelessly scarred.  If you’re really lucky you manage to connect with a good councilor or adviser, so you can begin learning strategies to cope with social situations, apart from just avoiding them.

Then, if you’re beyond lucky and into the realm of blessed, you can figure out a way to make your handicap work for you.  Because you’ve had to study human social behavior so closely, the better to mimic it, you’ve become an expert.  You can write about it (which gives you the excuse to be alone and relieved of the effort of trying to deal with people).  You can become an actor (you’re supplied with a script that tells you what to say, so you don’t need to try to figure it out yourself).  You can help others who have the same issues (so you feel less like a useless, isolated freak).  You can get your degree in Social Sciences, go forth and study some more, and maybe even get paid for it.

As the rusty old saying goes, when Life gives you lemons, you can either get mad and scream at Life to take the lemons back (which doesn’t work very well, as a certain former shower curtain salesman discovered) or you can make whiskey sours.  It’s difficult not to get angry and bitter; we all know how critically important social skills are to success of any kind.  And no one is quicker to pass judgement on you and stamp you with the big letter “L” than somebody who possesses both social skills and success.  Don’t let them get to you.

Chances are, you’re much smarter than they are in some other way, and you can make that work for you.  You can use it to get around your weaknesses, the way a blind person uses other senses to get past their blindness.  Find a way to succeed on your own terms.  Forge your own golden rules.

Be happy.  It’ll drive the normal people nuts.

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