Social Boundaries: Getting Lost in Translation

If only there was a dictionary for understanding other people, right?

If only there was a dictionary for understanding other people, right?

It’s a typical day for you on your favorite social media website. You’re sharing funny memes, feeling moral outrage at some injustice in this world of ours or perhaps you are the one ranting about it, and of course posting oh-so-interesting pictures of your latest meal for the world (or at least your friends) to see. Things are going as planned. You like when things are going like you expect them to. Your interactions with people are free from conflict.

And then it happens. Out of nowhere, you post something, or write something that causes a conflict with someone you know. It’s absolutely maddening to have every good intention and certainly none bad, and yet your well-intended statements and actions make someone very angry with you. Misunderstandings are frequent and par for the course when dealing with online interactions no matter who you are but if you’re on the Autism spectrum like I am, or you have some other disability or disorder that affects your social interactions then they are all too frequent.

Where do we go wrong? Are we justified to feel like it is the other person who is actually in the wrong by taking us the wrong way and insisting on still feeling violated even after we explain what our intentions were? This question is particularly important to ask ourselves when we’re talking about an interaction in which someone you know felt you violated their boundaries. Like many on the Autism spectrum I don’t really have social boundaries to the extent that most people do. I am very open and I have even been told that I have no innate sense of privacy. I’m not sure if I would quite go that far but I certainly have few boundaries compared to most people it seems.

Recently, a very close friend and I had a misunderstanding like this over social media. I am a very open person about my life and the problems I go through. I wrote about wanting to make a change in my life talking about a goal I was considering for myself. In doing this, I used my friend and what they had done with their life as what I considered to be a positive example. My friend has told me many times before they are a private person and asked that I respect this.

So why did I not think of that when I made the decision to use their life as an example of what I wanted to do? When we have interactions with others and we fail to recognize their boundaries, it can often come down to not looking at it from their point of view. I’m a layperson but I am a huge fan of science. When scientists do research they utilize intensive peer review by other scientists in part to help check peoples’ biases. Yes, science is supposed to be an unbiased endeavor but the point is this: as human beings, the way our minds work, we cannot free ourselves of bias. We are always looking at things through the filter of our experiences, the values we have accumulated, what we have been taught, what we have rejected and so on. This filter is crucial to how we approach things in general but it is especially crucial to how we approach interactions, and where we each place our boundaries as individuals.

Coming back to my question, I must say that I failed to evaluate my actions through any lens but my own. I’m a strong believer in what is called the “Golden Rule”. Treat others the way in which you would want to be treated yourself. Unfortunately, the reality in human social interactions is that this is not a hard & fast rule for success. The way I am okay with being treated is not necessarily the way that another person is okay with being treated. We don’t all define what is acceptable behavior in the same way because we each approach interactions with our own biases.  Yes, it hurts when we upset others, especially those we care about, without any bad intention on our part whatsoever. It’s difficult to step back and try to evaluate our actions through someone else’s filter.

I know that for many with social difficulties trying to understand other peoples’ boundaries, what is acceptable for us and what is not can feel like fumbling around in the dark. Unfortunately we can’t know what kind of boundaries every person we interact with has. This gives us all the more reason, when dealing with those we don’t really know well, to not take it personally when we cross a boundary and upset them. But what about those we do know well? We have to have open and honest communication with them, to know their boundaries and for them to know ours.

It’s very easy for people with social difficulties who already tend to feel isolated to go into victim mode and blame the other person for being upset with us. The fear and frustration I’ve felt going through this over and over has often left me feeling like I want to just disconnect from everyone. Learning peoples’ boundaries as a person with social difficulties can be similar to being in a country where you do not know the language, and trying to learn on the fly. You’re sure to mispronounce a word and accidentally insult someone’s mother. You have every good intention to interact with others in this place but you’re bound to commit a social faux pas if unwittingly.163450213_18478d3aa6_z

The good thing here is that unlike trying to communicate with someone when you do not speak their language nor do they speak yours’ you don’t have to engage in these interactions with no ability to understand the other person(at least verbally). You can listen to the people you know, and learn their boundaries. You can get a sense for the filter through which they see things. In order for us to understand how to respect other peoples’ boundaries, we only need look at our actions through their filter. The cliché is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Rather than a cliché let me leave you with a metaphor: our ability as human beings interacting with one another to look at things through someone else’s filter rather than our own is like our own personal translator. You don’t have to retreat, isolate yourself and blame others. Interact with the locals of this crazy planet, and when in doubt, reach for that Them-To-You dictionary.

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