I’ve recently had some time to reflect on some things about myself. And I suspect my son James shares at least a portion of this personality trait with me.
It has long been known to my wife and close friends I am “different”. I don’t work well with incomplete rules. If you give me a set of rules or a process by which I can evaluate things I will do fine. But if something isn’t covered I will end up “stepping on someone’s toes”. A typical situation will go something like this:
My accuser, “You shouldn’t have done that.”
My defense will be, “Here are the rules, I didn’t break any of them.”
“Everyone knows you shouldn’t do that, you don’t need to be told.”
Things will deteriorate from there. I sometimes get offers to “help me”. But I don’t want their “help”. I want them to either enumerate things or give me a process by which I can unambiguously take the data and process it into a go/no-go decision. That discussion goes something like this:
“That’s just not possible come up with rules for everything.”
“You can’t punish me for breaking a rule you didn’t tell me about or even give me a hint about”.
“You should have known better.”
“I can’t explain it! It’s just the way it is!”
“If you can’t even explain it then how do you expect me to know it? How is it that you know it? How do I know you aren’t just making things up as you go along?”
If I took them up on their offer to “help” me we would both soon be frustrated and angry. They with my constant pestering about “obvious” things. And me with their condescending attitude and having to constantly be asking for “permission”.
Surprising as it might be at first glance I believe this characteristic is closely related to another one articulated by my friend Eric. He describes me as “completely without guile”. To him this is “both refreshing and frightening”. It is refreshing because he can count on me to tell him precisely what I think without holding back or telling him what I think he wants to hear. It’s frightening because…well, because I will say precisely what I think without holding back. When I worked at Microsoft he had to “run interference” on some of the email I sent. A typical event would go something like this. He would come to my office and say,
“Your email caused quite a stir. My boss (or someone else in management) asked that I talk to you about it.”
He would shudder and say, “Have you sent anything in the last 30 minutes?”
“Just a checkin email.”
“That’s probably okay. The one I’m talking about now was one you sent a couple hours ago.”
“I’m not saying I disagree with what you said. It’s just that people aren’t comfortable with it being said.”
“Is there some way I could have known this before I sent it?”
His mouth will open and then slowly close as his eyes roll up towards the ceiling. He is thinking. He takes perhaps three or four seconds which is about the time it takes for him (he has an IQ of 165 and is an incredibly fast thinker) to search the entire Unabridged Oxford English dictionary in his mind for words to explain. There aren’t any. “No. For you, I don’t think you could have known. Just don’t send anything that might cause problems for a couple days until things cool down.”
“But checkin emails are okay?”
He starts to say “Yes” but stops as he realizes he would be creating a rule for which I would probably find an exception a few milliseconds later, and says, “Probably. Just be careful for a few days.”
“Are you unhappy with me?”
“I have far bigger problems than you. And having you throw hand grenades up and down the halls draws attention from all the havoc I create on my own. Just don’t do that too often.”
“Can you tell me what it was I did?”
[heavy sigh] “No. I don’t think I can.”
You might assume that with this apparently clueless personality that I am insensitive. That would be wrong. I am incredibly sensitive. I break into tears more frequently than some women. From “tear jerker” movies, to hearing of someone else’s pain, to being on the receiving end of minor slights, rejections, or insults–the tears start flowing with incredible ease. People at the Boomershoot 2005 dinner who listened to me telling about the loss of Adam Plumondore know what I’m talking about.
So what does all this mean? I’m not entirely sure but my guess is that I process information differently than most people. I know that I take and say things literally when others process or expect them to be processed “as they were intended”. I complain that people don’t listen to the words I say and find a way to misunderstand me. Others complain that I should know what they meant even though that’s not what they said.
I expect “the human experience” is far more subtle and nuanced than people realize. There are many things which are just an integral part of they way people think about things they are sort of in the position of a fish trying to describe water. They will tell me “the way things are” and I will think of a half dozen exceptions which they dismiss as being unimportant and I think are critical. They think I am “broken”, “defective”, or “handicapped” because I can’t understand. I think they are “obtuse”, “talking nonsense”, or “making things up as they go along”. I think it boils down to that, in a very real sense, I don’t share the same reality with a good share of the population. I wish there were some drugs they could take to cure them of their delusions.