Miniscule Indicators: An atomic theory of communication

Communication can be a thorn in my side – Its frustratingly easy to miss visual or verbal cues which either change how I understand the communication or how I sound. The other aspect I struggle with is that people often have so much jargon that the point of what they say is lost in a seemingly endless void of nothingness. A colleague made this point a few weeks ago:

“most of the conversations I have are like Atoms. You’ve got the important bit at the centre which everything hinges on, and you’ve got the electrons as little orbits of information which float around the centre, yet most of them are absolutely nothing”

I loved the analogy so much that I couldn’t help thinking of the other ways communicating with people is atom-like. I’ve come up with a connection:

Social cues and the words we choose to use are minuscule– the existence of them are recognized, but they are not something most of us often consider.

Despite this, atomic structures provide a basis of everything around us in the same way as the way we communicate can form the basis of how we think, and in turn how systems and structures of society are shaped.

Using the ‘tiny building block’ understanding of atoms as an analogy, I aim to express how the small ways we communicate (or are communicated to) influences thought, and in turn shapes systems or larger ways of thinking about the world.

Of course there are more nebulous similarities like the fact that an atom, like communication, is composed of multiple elements. This is not so much a blog about Atoms but about communication and how the way people or elements interact has outcomes. To use one final metaphor, lets atomize a complex issue:

Atomised communication

Lets stay on metaphor for a second as they are something I’ve paticulary struggled with. Its not so much that I didn’t understand them its just that I used to have to decode them. Like the phrase ”those living in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones” – I still don’t see what on earth the meaning has to do with glass houses, but I can grasp the general idea of “being vulnerable to criticism means that I should not be willing to criticise others”

“Metaphors capture assumptions we hold about ways to think and communicate about problems and solutions in organisations. Metaphors correspondingly provide clues to how we think about our alternative communication behaviour”

Organizational Culture in Action: A Cultural Analysis Workbook
By Gerald W. Driskill, Angela Laird Brenton

You may regard metaphors as small but they’re actually incredibly significant. I’ve mentioned before how I prefer ‘autistic person’ to ‘person who has autism’. In a sense, this can be a metaphor as the ‘has’ is possessive, and gives the impression that I’m burdened with a heavy load.

Another small yet significant factor is tone of voice. I struggled a lot with confidence in going to different places growing up and due to the way I portrayed myself, that image as someone who’d struggle in social situations became an identity. Problem being, I often struggled with understanding the emphasis. After all there’s a difference between…

“You cant go there on your own and You cant go there on your own”

The former implies that there’s something wrong with the place. The second suggests that I’m the problem. The implication is different. Taking a wider look, we may care to ask how we sound when we say that ‘autistic people struggle to fit in with societal norms’. Are we saying that autistic people are the problem, or are we making the point that society needs to change to better understand autistic individuals?

I would like to talk about ‘microaggressions’. In that odd point between school and higher education, when I mentioned my autism at careers fairs, the company representatives tone would often change, they’d insist on interpreting for me and the look on thier face would turn to one of sympathetic mournfulness.

“my differences make the unintended transformation from simple quirks into “symptoms” of a “disorder”, for which it is assumed that sympathy or even pity is in order.  The default position is that I’m broken, defective, diseased….The rest of the song goes that I must therefore be incompetent, not of sound mind, the rebuttal of which falls on unlistening ears because everything I say is automatically suspect”  

Laina Eartharcher, Autism and microaggression

We see in the examples I’ve given, tiny traits, small as atomic particles forming the basis of what people with autism experience, day in and day out. These tiny yet significant micro-traits in how we talk about autism, make up the structures of how we think about the condition as individuals and by extension how we as a society treat autism. The same applies to how we communicate about people from other minority backgrounds. Some examples: A policy proposal whose wording weighed on the outcome. A job you didn’t get because of a tone of voice or facial expression you might have had. These are all examples of how small communication traits have adverse effects.

Massive Effects

Building off that last point, I will show a few ways communication can have a profound and huge effect, from an atypical perspective:

A few weeks ago I noted in a blog post how disability benefit assessments are very much a tick box excersise. Questions are worded along the lines of ‘how does your disability affect you’ – its possible someone could accidentally end up describing just how much they do cope with. Claimants often feel the need overstate how much they stuggle – I can’t deny that its quite tempting to focus specifically on times you’ve became anxious and broke down in social situations, regardless of the amount of times that hasn’t happened. For good reason- the way you communicate in that situation will make up a vital process in deciding whether you’re going to get support. A skewed question, an answer that uses key words which state your case, a tone of voice adopted during an assessment – tiny building blocks, which shape the lives of autistic and disabled individuals.

I used to do voluntary support work for autistic adults. Specifically, I was an ‘outreach’ worker. While I never saw anything of the sort I’m about to describe I used to go to a lot of community living settings, and one evening I had an emotional reaction to a news story about the way some of them work. The point of community living is to allow disabled individuals to move out of institutions, and into settings where they can exert greater control over thier lives. However, research by disability commissioner Elaine James and social workers Mark Harvey and Rob Mitchell, found that these settings still subject autistic adults to institutional routines. There was one example which struck me, painfully illustrating my point about the social impact of how we communicate:

In one setting, the team found an “artifact” pinned to a chair belonging to one of the residents. It read: Dinner 5pm; Bedtime 6pm; With Medication; Night Night; Sweet Dreams. A life pitifully summed up in 10 words. What better illustration of the dehumanizing impact of institutional routines?”

Darren Devine, Community living settings

Maybe at this point though you’re doubting if the small ways we communicate can really have that much impact. Well, autistic people in the UK and America have started talking about ‘camouflaging’ in order to describe the process by which they hide thier autism, pretending to be neurotypical. Here we see the example of quite extreme, often military-associated language being used to describe some peoples inclination to ‘hide’ their autism in public, based in turn off preconcieved ideas of ‘normal’:

“The behaviours themselves can be grouped into masking and compensation strategies. In the short term, camouflaging results in extreme exhaustion and anxiety; although the aims of camouflaging are often achieved, in the long-term there are also severe negative consequences affecting individuals’ mental health, self-perception, and access to support” 

“Putting on My Best Normal”: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions

A question not asked in work due to fear of sounding ill-informed, feeling pressured to mimic others in a desire to ‘fit in’ – We see a process happening where due to the social cues and structures which make up ‘normal’ communication, autistic people feel compelled to hide their autism. Like atoms making up a concrete monument, we see hidden processes at work, where facial expressions, language choices become part of a culture of ‘here’s how we communicate’ treating anything different to that as strange. The words we choose to use, the tiny decisions about tone of voice and facial expression put together establish a society-wide understanding of autistic people and the way they act and behave.

Like atoms forming a new structure, autistic people’s understanding of the world around them changes in response to societies’ understanding of them as individuals. The usage of words like camouflaging as a critical term, and ‘on the spectrum’ instead of ‘has autism’, continues to shape understanding in a way which in turn shapes institutions, societies’, and systems.

An Atypical Perspective…

Social cues are minuscule and rarely considered: Perhaps this is the reason people rarely think about the effect thier communication has, or the significance of the gestures they are using. And I can see why, if you’re looking at a sculpture, okay atoms are the microscopic building blocks, yet you rarely need to comprehend them. The issue is that the tiny elements that go into your communication will affect how you’re perceived. I’ve talked before about how I’m likely to be emotionally receptive to what you say and thus, its always worth taking a microscope to the way we communicate.

Cues both reflect and shape our understanding of the world: Although there’s some disagreement in this area, the generally accepted idea is that the ways in which we communicate influence social settings and that those social settings reinforce the way we communicate. For example patronizing language used in an institutional environment for autistic people, will be likely to foster a self-reinforcing idea of them being weak minded. One way to change the way social structures are shaped is to examine those communication cues and set about seeing how we can change them.

Communication provides a basis for everything around us: I’ve made this clear in the first two points but its worth reinforcing that communication methods, however small, are of consequence – Its why LGBTQ+activists have spent years campaigning for the recognition of different ways to describe thier place on the gender spectrum. Why feminist groups and BLM campaigners often flag up the concept of ‘tone’ as something you should pay attention to. Why neurodiversity campaigners are still seeking full recognition of the autism ‘spectrum’. Its easy to see in each of these cases how the way we communicate around them could provide the building blocks for how we think and act on these topics. One change of word or tone can change the entire meaning of a sentence and affect how its understood – harnessing that principle, ask what you could do in your own life to change the communication methods you’re utilising.

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