By Claudia Casser
These tips are from five years’ personal experience as an Associate in a big Wall Street law firm, thirteen years as one of four hundred attorneys in one of the biggest corporations in the world, and five years as one of fewer than ten attorneys in the headquarters of a mid-size (around $2 billion) corporation. During this time, I also was owner and boss of a horse-farm that employed between two and four part-time barn helpers at a time, mostly high school kids. So I have some insight on both ends of the workplace size spectrum, from the positions of both employee and employer.
Unfortunately, it was not until after I took early retirement that I discovered I was an Aspie.
Aspies in neurotypical organizations must spend more time and energy to acquire a quantum of reward, than neurotypicals in the same job must expend for the same reward. This is not fair. But neither are most other things in life. If you are male, be happy you’re not stuck with female wages.
Some of the tips below apply to everyone who wants to keep their jobs; others apply only to those who want promotion or lateral opportunities.
1. Talk the way neurotypicals listen
I always thought I was a good communicator in the workplace because I was accurate, thorough and concise. In fact, I sucked at communicating with neurotypicals, largely because I was accurate, thorough and concise. Except in written exposition of technical matters, neurotypicals hate all three.
In the normal course of a workday, if you communicate like I did, neurotypicals will ascribe motives to your communication that would either bewilder or enrage you. Or both. Really. Then they will just tune you out.
So my first concrete tip relating to workplace communication is to read the “Habit 5” sections of Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
I absolutely hated the “7 Habits” training forced on me at my second job. I fought it tooth and nail. Now, however, I highly recommend it to you. Over the years, I must finally concede that neurotypicals really NEED to “waste” time the way Covey prescribes. And, it isn’t as much as a waste as it feels, because, if you use Covey’s method, neurotypicals usually won’t tune you out or wonder about your non-existent ulterior motives. They will actually listen to some of what you say.
However, neurotypical workplace communication is a great deal of stressful effort, and often I screw up even when I try hard. It helps me to think of neurotypicals as people who speak only Klingon.
No matter how well you speak your own language, Klingon speakers will only listen to you if you speak Klingon to them. So speak Klingon you must, however much using that language delays, twists and misconceives your message.
2. Try Hard Not to Take Communications Literally
When I was a freshman at Yale, my philosophy seminar professor told me that I “ask the wrong questions” and suggested that we “meet for coffee” to discuss it. It was raining, and when I got to the café, I wanted hot chocolate, not coffee. But I ordered coffee because that was what we were meeting for.
Once, when something I could not live with happened at my first in-house counsel job, I wanted a transfer out of a particular business unit. The response of the Law Department Vice-President to whom I applied was, “well, people in jail want out.” I was terribly hurt. I was not a criminal. Why should my situation be compared to theirs?
Don’t be like me. If someone seems to be saying something that upsets you or that seems to make no sense, first ask them whether they meant it literally. Like when a neurotypical says, “Tell me honestly, did I do a good job on that presentation?” Do NOT launch into a detailed analysis. Instead, first ask, “Did you want my one-word overall rating? Or do you want to know which parts I thought worked best?” It’s a pretty sure bet that, at this moment in time, neurotypicals do NOT want to hear specific or negative criticism. Which leads into the next tip.
3. Don’t be honest
It literally hurts my chest to type that caption. But, I assure you, how Aspies conceive “honesty” and how neurotypicals conceive it in the workplace are worlds apart. So, to be fair, maybe I should say: in the workplace, adopt the weird misconception of honesty shared by neurotypicals.
When I participated in the Advanced Management Program at my first in-house employer, on the last day, the trainers exhorted the group to be “more honest.” Then we broke into small groups and went around the circle, each finishing the thought, “If I was 10% more honest at work, then ____.”
I was the only one to say, “then I’d be fired.” Turns out I was right.
Most important, if you want to stay in a particular job or organization, you must understand that, even after the Challenger disaster, being honest about bad news harms your standing at work. Period. So try to avoid being the bearer of bad news.
(But NEVER let your boss get surprised. Inform your boss of new developments as soon as they arise (preferably in writing), and keep a paper trail of such communications with your boss.)
Second, being honest about what you think about a boss, colleague, or subordinate can, depending on exactly what you think, get you fired for anything from insubordination to sexual harassment. Try hard to avoid saying what you think about somebody from the workplace to someone associated in any way with the workplace, even when asked by a third party.
If it is a third party asking, turn it around; say “Well, what do you think?” If it is the workplace employee or boss themselves, evade. If you cannot evade, lie. The minimum lie is something like, “I’m tongue-tied,” or “I don’t know,” or “Sorry, I just got a cramp,” and run to the bathroom. It may make you feel like spiders are crawling over you, but to survive in the workplace, you must adopt neurotypical conventions about when it is “appropriate” or “expected” one will NOT tell the truth.
To me, a subset of lying is “tact.” To this day, I do not understand the difference between “tact” and “white lies.” And, aren’t even “white” lies still lies?
Regardless, you must strive to be tactful at your job, however difficult. One rule of thumb I use nowadays is to routinely say something is one degree better than I actually think it is. So, if I think work meets the minimal criteria to pass, I call it “okay.” If I think it is average, I call it “good.” If I think it is better than average, I say it is “very good.” I still suffer the cognitive dissonance of “lying,” but I don’t have to wallow in it.
4. Choose a Role to Play When Speaking to Your Boss
For neurotypicals, the tone of your voice and the expression on your face are as important as the words you say, sometimes more important. When I thought I was being neutral in conversation, I was often interpreted as haughty, judgmental, unsympathetic, and even scary. Sometimes neurotypicals thought I intended to hurt the person to whom I spoke. Think of neurotypical reactions to a milder version of Sheldon from the early seasons of “The Big Bang Theory.”
To survive, much less prosper, in your workplace, you do NOT want to be perceived that way.
Tone is especially important when communicating with your boss. They like tones that are respectful and deferential. They dislike being interrupted, contradicted, or being told they are wrong.
Bosses (and other neurotypicals) love at least one dose of admiration or personal sympathy in each interaction. Note, even though it seems to waste time compared with delivery of concise, accurate facts, neurotypical bosses will think more highly of you for conversing in this less efficient way.
Leave exact accuracy (I know “exact accuracy” sounds redundant to Aspies, but not to most neurotypicals) for your written work.
In conversation, bosses really just want to know: is the task on schedule, are there any significant barriers to the desired outcome, and am I, the boss, a good guy who helps out his subordinates?
The easiest way for you to make bosses and administrators comfortable, is to pretend you are someone with whom they are familiar.
Choose a workplace stereotype you can live with. I think that the “good corporate soldier” or the “shy nerd” are the easiest familiar roles for most Aspies to play. Even better for your career is the “eager beaver,” if you can pull that off.
If you are serious about wanting to stay in a particular job or particular organization, I strongly suggest you make time to study one of these roles. At a minimum, watch movies or television shows that feature it. FREX, Leonard in the early seasons of “The Big Bang Theory” is a friendly example of a workplace-acceptable “shy nerd.” Howard is the more challenging “eager beaver.”
5. Socialize at Work
Neurotypicals enjoy mingling. It may tire you out and frustrate you because it feels like time wasted when you have too much else to do, but mingling buoys them.
Neurotypicals distrust (or, at least, think less highly of) people who don’t mingle with them. Distrust makes you much less effective at your job.
Unless you absolutely must work at your desk to complete an assignment, join your colleagues for lunch (or breakfast, dinner, drinks, or whatever your workplace culture suggests for people in your job).
(If you go out to lunch without them, bring a treat back with you. Ditto for business trips. Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” novels have some very funny sections about how he tries to blend in with his neurotypical colleagues by being the “doughnut man.”)
When mingling with your colleagues, do NOT talk about your obsessions. You will, inevitably, go on too long.
Instead, talk about their obsessions. If you cannot spontaneously come up with a question or observation about whatever (to you) boring subjects they like to discuss, do some homework. Prepare one question and one observation per day. FREX, if your co-workers are likely to discuss the big basketball game, Google it. You don’t have to watch it; you can just quote some sportscaster, with attribution. The rest of the time, just nod, smile or grimace once in a while. That is both necessary and sufficient to get your card stamped.
An expression you should not take literally. 🙂
The foregoing communication tips are only a sample of what I wish somebody had told me before my first job. On the other hand, you might be lucky enough to work in the small fraction of neurotypical-dominated organizations where they are unnecessary, at least for your job title.
You must decide for yourself whether your goals make the effort and cognitive dissonance of following these suggestions worthwhile.
NEXT MONTH: Tips for Making Allies in the Workplace
Claudia Casser (firstname.lastname@example.org), a graduate of Harvard Law School, worked as an antitrust litigator and a corporate in-house counsel before retiring to write and raise her children. She is the author of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Her website is www.ethicalantics.com