Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Neurotypical indirection

on 2010 November 6

There are several kinds of indirection employed in neurotypical communication.

Indirection using metaphor

The dimension of metaphor runs from LITERAL to METAPHORICAL, and indicates the degree of substitution in communication. Metaphor is a manner of speech using a substitute or proxy for the intended thing. A great example from Look Me In the Eye is when a taxi driver approaches an apartment complex to drop oft the passenger, and asks “Where are you?”, which is a substitute for “Which apartment is yours?” An autistic passenger said “I’m right here,” because she missed the metaphorical indirection. In order to decode metaphor, the listener has to test multiple meanings and determine which is the suitable level of indirection for the current situation.

Indirection using ambiguity

The dimension of ambiguity runs from UNITARY to AMBIGUOUS, and indicates the degree to which multiple meanings are included in one expression. The sentence “I’m not going to be there until you get there” does not specify the reason for being late. It leaves open the possibility that the lateness is an invitation to go together, or a threat of some kind. A statement that has a tone/inflection or gesture that doesn’t match creates an ambiguous way of saying it. A message given as a question or with a “maybe” (or some other noncommital word) or in the subjunctive mood can express vagueness, or a range of possibilities without nailing down one of them. An autistic listener might be confused, and not seek out multiple meanings, or might assume the simplest one. (In the example above, the autistic might understand that the speaker has a prior commitment until the approximate hour when she happens to be going, and nothing more than that). In order to decode ambiguity, the listener has to understand all meanings at the same time, without discarding some of them or settling on any one.

Sarcasm is the particular case of ambiguity that includes two opposites in the same expression.

Indirection using subtlety

The dimension of subtlety runs from BLATANT to SUBTLE, and indicates the degree of dwarfing of the communication. Gestures can often be more subtle than words, although grand gestures can also be more blatant than words. Voice inflection can be subtle or blatant. In order to decode subtlety, the listener has to have enough sensory integration to be able to process all the senses at once.

Indirection using abstraction

The dimension of abstraction runs from NATURAL to CULTURAL, and indicates the degree of separation from precisely defined words and actions. On the most natural level, the person communicates by doing (for example, taking something to indicate it is wanted). Cries of pain or sign language gestures that portray the shape of the thing are also natural expressions. In the middle of this scale are words that are about something in nature, or a phenomenon that can be observed, measured, or tested in some way. These words have arbitrary sounds with no natural relationship to their meanings, but are still precise. On the extreme cultural end of this scale are statements about things that are just associated with other things by cultural references, and have no absolute, or natural, meaning of their own. They must be learned. Also, mannerisms that evoke certain feelings can be quite culturally abstract. In order to decode cultural meanings, the listener has to have memorized the mental map of the language and culture (including postures, variances in speech, and other culturally prescribed behavior).

Examples of different kinds of indirection

Here’s an example of statements about afternoon drinks:

  • “I want tea.” This has no type of indirection.
  • “I want either coffee or tea.” This is ambiguous, but otherwise direct.
  • “It’s three o’clock, sir.” This is cultural, but unambiguous. (There is no mistaking the intent, as long as you know what normally happens at 3 in this household.)
  • “Isn’t it time for a stroll or something?” This is ambiguous and cultural.
  • “Ahem” (making sound of dry throat) This is subtle, but unambiguous and otherwise direct.
  • “What’s on?” or “What’s for tea?” This is metaphor (on = the kettle on the stove; tea = time for tea and/or other drinks or food)

This example is meant to make clear how each dimension is separate. It is not the case that verbal speech is always clear and non-verbal is subtle or ambiguous; it can also be the other way around.

Another example is a female coworker is saying “No” to a male coworker who is asking for a date. Here are possible ways she might say it:

  • “I’m your boss” or “I’m taken” – These statements require some cultural knowledge to know that certain other relationships mean a new one cannot happen.
  • “I’m busy” – This is ambiguous with a literal level (other things are taking all my time) and metaphorical (busy = not interested).
  • (look away) – This is subtle and natural, but note that she is still attempting to communicate, not evade.
  • “We see each other all day” – This is ambiguous in the sense of being tangential to the original question.

In all of the above responses, the female is using indirection as a way to clearly communicate “no”. If she wanted to, she could also be unclear, perhaps because she wants to communicate “maybe”. In that case she might wave towards the two desks which are close together and say “you sit here in this room all day with me as your boss” and then look away and say “we’re too busy anyway”. That response has every kind of indirection in it.

Why is indirection used?

I can attempt to answer this first by saying that NTs communicate how they think, and they think in associative ways. That is, their minds are a web of concepts and words and other cultural notions, that all relate to each other. In order to convey the whole chunk of the web to another person, it can’t be broken up; one piece of it in isolation is an inadequate way of presenting something, because things derive their meanings from all the other things that they are associated with in the web. Consequently, communication has to be soft, repetitive and multi-faceted. They are always “getting at” something instead of isolating the single thing to say.

The corollary to this is that history can be re-written. If something was subtle, you can say it didn’t happen. If it was ambiguous, you can change the “real” meaning after the fact. If it is culturally abstract, it lacks precision in meaning in the first place. The more re-writing that can be done, the greater sense of consistency. Inconsistency causes cognitive dissonance.

NTs will say indirectness is part of being polite and non-aggressive. If the alternative directness is negative, such as a judgment of bad character or hate, then indirectness still communicates but lets the other person down gently. Instead of being fired, you might be “let go”, creating the image of a bird being set free. It’s a social story that props up or invests social currency in the person who is actually being fired. It prevents the person from “losing face” – that is, keeping integrity or consistency of the identity.

A listener can be manipulated into believing something was his initiative, if the speaker is so indirect as to escape conscious attention being payed to the message. Advertising uses subtlety in this manner.

If something is indirect, in can also require extra attention. If it is outright enigmatic, it can require study to figure it out. The more work one does to receive a message, the more one has invested and therefore the more meaning it might carry.

Problems for autistics

Indirection is seen by NTs as essential to keep the peace, be polite, and maintain relationships. It’s pervasive and foundational; it is not a verbal trick that is occasionally added on to other communication. Indirection is the norm, and being direct is the exception used when drafting legal documents or other specialized communications.

For autistics who cannot or will not operate in that way, our directness clashes with the norm. Isolating a single direct point (probably more common to autistics) can feel harsh or blunt to them, even rude or threatening. Their need for indirection is shared by the vast majority of the population, and provides a great deal of security. There is no point to them in risking the aggression, impoliteness, and rigidity that is caused by a more direct way of speaking.

Consequently some NT-to-autistic attempts to communicate can be stymied by both parties refusing to or unable to adopt the other party’s stye. The NT might say “Why should I have to resort to direct language? That would be rude! Normal people can understand me, so he ought to be able to as well. If I’m that rude, I risk retaliation, or a loss of my reputation.” On the other hand the autistic might way “Why can’t he say precisely what he means? He never gets to the point. I shouldn’t have to wait through all this banter.”

Indirection in starting relationships

NTs appear to be generally open to changing relationships, starting new ones, and washing away the old ones. They are socially adaptable that way. There is rarely a need for a definite “yes” unless it’s a marriage proposal, so they get by on “maybe” and “no” for all other occasions. And saying “maybe” to a relationship is the arena where indirection is king. When a person is closed to a relationship, they tend to be somewhat more direct on all levels. For example, they would turn away, not smile, say “no” or “I’m busy”. But when they are open, they tend to be more indirect. Flirting is indirection raised to an art form. The golden rule of flirting seems to be that history will be re-written: all statements need to contain the possible interpretation of pushing away, as well as the possible interpretation of drawing toward. In the event you need to escape, you feel consistent, because after all, you have been pushing away all that time.


One response to “Neurotypical indirection

  1. dennis says:

    “…history will be rewritten…”

    Why does this statement – it and its many implications – remind me of 1984? Specially the concept of *doublethink*? “The purpose of power is power,” and things in similar vein?

    While not all ‘Normies / Nts’ are regularly operating at that level, many, perhaps most *have the innate capacity* to do so – and, as Zimbardo determined in a Stanford basement years ago, this more-or-less hardwired “instinctual” (as in it’s not conventionally learned, and requires little conscious effort) merely needs a suitable opportunity to show itself.

    Again, thank you for writing this. I need to bookmark this location – it tends to be quite the eye-opener regarding the true aims and means of *society*.

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