Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Office Jerk, Asperger Syndrome, and Mitt Romney

Lynne Curry, a local management consultant who has a weekly advice column in the Anchorage Daily News, had a letter today from an employee who'd been sent by his boss to "charm school" and he though it was a big waste of time:
"I was given hundreds of nonsensical suggestions. These included saying "please" and "thank you" when asking employees to do tasks they're paid to do. I was also told to listen to "all others" without interruption, even when idiots talk and I've got things I need to do.
I told my boss he could choose between me being "nice" and me getting my work done. He told me to call you."
The gist of Curry's answer was:
"Allow me to shorten the list of suggestions to just one: Stop being a jerk."

It's easy to dismiss this as far-fetched and conclude the letter is a hoax.  But I suspect many of you know someone like this.  So I'm going to continue on the assumption it's for real.

For everyday practical responses, "Stop being a jerk" probably works for all of us reading it, but what about the guy who wrote the letter?  Or Mitt Romney?* (Curry does say more, but it is all in the same vein that he's already dismissed as 'nonsensical suggestions.')

Labeling someone - especially a pejorative like 'jerk' - doesn't work well if the person truly doesn't understand what the problem is.  And even if they do understand, this will likely make them defensive, though in some cases it might work. 

My preference is to try to understand the underlying reasons one gets put into the 'jerk' category and whether there might be other ways to phrase it.  Jerk just means 'you aren't a good person.'  But people don't choose to be jerks. They may choose behaviors that cause others to label them jerks, but being a jerk is a side effect of how they act, not their goal. 

They need more help understanding their 'jerkhood.' 

In fact, his behaviors remind me of Asperger Syndrome.  (I confess that I see Asperger symptoms a lot.  I don't know if this is because my understanding of mental health is so limited I apply Asperberger inappropriately or that there really are a lot of people who display a few or more Asperger symptoms.)

 About.com's overview of Asperbergers offers a simplified list of symptoms from the Cambridge Lifespan Asperger Syndrome Service(CLASS) in UK.  Let's look at the list with my comments applying them to Curry's letter writer.
  • I find social situations confusing.
    • Clearly the case here.
  • I find it hard to make small talk. 
    • Seems to be the case here
  • I did not enjoy imaginative story-writing at school. 
    • No evidence presented.
  • I am good at picking up details and facts. 
    • Seems to do his job well which may involve these skills.  Not sure.
  • I find it hard to work out what other people are thinking and feeling. 
    • Definitely
  • I can focus on certain things for very long periods. 
    • Again, possibly.  He focuses on his work and isn't distracted by the social aspects at work and doesn't like to be distracted by others asking him questions
  • People often say I was rude even when this was not intended. 
    • Definitely
  • I have unusually strong, narrow interests. 
    • We don't have enough evidence, but he does his work - possibly one of those strong interests -  and it seems like those interests do not broaden out to things his co-workers are interested in, or even to his co-workers themselves.
  • I do certain things in an inflexible, repetitive way.
    • May explain why he's so impatient with how others do things or even listening to them making suggestions.  And he certainly doesn't want to change how he interacts with them.  They are the problem, not he.
  • I have always had difficulty making friends.
    • Definitely true at work and I suspect elsewhere.
This doesn't mean he has Asperger Syndrome, but it does suggest it's a possibility.  Even if he doesn't, it lays out some of his issues in relatively neutral language that he can understand.  People with Asperger Syndrome can be highly functioning and highly intelligent, but have difficulty picking up social cues. 

I looked for the source of the checklist above and found a paper at MD Junction which appears to have as the lead author the head of the Cambridge Lifespan Asperbers Syndrome Services, Simon Baron-Cohen. (For the interminably curious, Wikipedia says he is the cousin of actor Sacha Baron-Cohen.)  Here are some of the most relevant symptoms to Curry's worker's case from in Appendix A of the paper.
  • doesn't think it's their problem if they offend someone (EQ27
  • can't always see why someone should have felt offended by a remark (EQ29)
  • prefers to do things on own rather than with others (AQ1)
  • finds friendships and relationships difficult so tends not to bother with them (EQ12) .
  • often told has been impolite even though they think they have been polite (AQ7)
  • Lack of social or emotional reciprocity (e.g. not knowing how to comfort
    someone; and/or lack of empathy).
  • finds it hard to see why some things upset people so much (EQ21)
  • does not spot when someone in a group is feeling awkward or uncomfortable (EQ26)
  • is not upset by seeing people cry (EQ32) 
  • makes decisions without being influenced by people's feelings (EQ39) 
  • does not get emotionally involved with friends' problems (EQ59)
  • does not enjoy social chit-chat (AQ17)
  •  is not good at social chit-chat (AQ38)
  • can't tell if someone else wants to enter a conversation (EQ1)
  • can't work out what other person might want to talk about (EQ54)
  • not a good diplomat (AQ48)
  • often finds it difficult to judge if something is rude or polite (EQ14)
  • is very blunt without being intentionally rude (EQ34)

Read more here: http://www.adn.com/2012/09/16/2627671/prince-charmless-doesnt-want-to.html#storylink=cpy
As I understand it, people with Asperger Syndrome aren't willfully being jerks, but rather they don't 'see' the signals most people see.  They either don't pick them up or their brains don't know how to interpret them.  It's like interpersonal deafness or colorblindness.

*I think Mitt Romney's more awkward behaviors could be pinned to these lists.  In fact his  comments to wealthy donors reported yesterday sound familiar: 
“There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care of them, who believe that they are entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it,”
"[M]y job is not to worry about those people,” Romney said, referring to Obama supporters. “I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
The message is the same as Curry's office 'jerk':  

I'm not the problem, the other people are impossible and unreachable so why should I bother?  

OK, I acknowledge that Romney's problem is bigger than Asperger Syndrome, but I suspect Asperger - or something similar - is part of it. 

Read more here: http://www.adn.com/2012/09/16/2627671/prince-charmless-doesnt-want-to.html#storylink=cpy


  1. what an insightful commentary on the office jerk! I hadn't thought of quasi-Asperger as a Romney characteristic but you make an interesting point. he certainly is tone-deaf to a lot of what people say and think.

    but I suspect it's not so much Asperger as it is that high-end Republicans and rich people have so little experience hanging out with lower-end people. George HW Bush had a hard time campaigning; remember when he expressed such wonder at the laser price readers on grocery checkout lines? when they try to pretend they sympathize with lower-end problems they get it wrong, just as they probably get it wrong when they try to talk like buddies to their maids and drivers.

    and for the record, I'm for Obama no matter what, but I don't consider myself a victim. so there, jerk.

  2. As a mom and a grandmother who lives in an ocean of Asperger's, I will tell you it is important to remember that each person with the Syndrome is different. I have multiple close family members with Asperger's and they do not all display the same traits and they have differing degrees of various traits.

    I agree with kathy in KY in that it it seems more like he has been so isolated as a wealthy man that he has no way of identifying with the average person. The story of him leading the harassment of a gay classmate is absolutely not what any Aspie I have ever known would do.

    The only Asperger's trait that I see that he has is that he continually makes statements that are offensive and has no clue why they would be, but that could also be due to the glass bubble of wealth he has spent his whole life in.

  3. To my eye, Romney's characteristics are more psychopath than Asperger's. For one thing, he's really not as smart as people assume. Never having had to work his way up in life, he starts at the top. Running a successful business is easy to do when you have no consideration for the fact that you are dealing with people's lives. People are simply "production units" that translate into numbers and it's a simple matter to balance numbers on a sheet of paper. Romney wasn't successful at making businesses work, he was successful at making profits for his investors. This is an easy thing to do when you have no conscience. Sometimes it means a company survived, sometimes it meant a company failed - that part was insignificant. The end result was that either way, his people made a profit.

    Romney is not interested in serving a nation or helping it's people, all he is interested in winning an election. He cares about self-aggrandizement not serving his country. He can't answer a serious question without laughing and smirking. He reminds me of Sarah Palin - talks and talks but never says anything, and is totally unqualified for high public office.

    I don't know much about Asperger's but I know a bit about psychopaths. It sounds as though Asperger's are either unaware of or unable to process other people feelings and considerations, whereas a psychopath is aware of these things but just doesn't care and in some cases, hurting others is desirable.

    1. "To my eye, Romney's characteristics are more psychopath than Asperger's." I agree, although I might use the label "sociopath." The neural characteristics of all these outcomes may be very similar. Most autistic people I know are very empathetic and kind. Romney is clueless.

      The checklists in the post are interesting, but are written by a non-autistic person who is also clueless, in a different way. His work is thoroughly rejected by many of us who are autistic. I'm working on an alternative.

      Final comment: Asperger's (and autism in general) are not "mental health" conditions, they are neural differences. Our brains have developed along a very different pathway, and we process information and react to it in ways that are generally incomprehensible to neurotypical people. If we were in the majority, they would be the oddballs, but since we are a small minority, we are derided and told we "don't get it" -- we just have a different perception. All that said, as a practical matter, it is incumbent upon us to learn to get along with the tyranny of the majority -- they are not about to change their comfortable ways to understand and accommodate us. It's a cruel and stressful world, but it's the only one we've got.

    2. Thanks Michael, for you insightful comments. I constantly struggle trying to find the right words. Mental health didn't sound quite right. I like neural differences.

      I really started the post as a comment on the letter about the office 'jerk.' Whether he has Asperger symptoms or something else, he is missing something that most people do get. But in not recognizing that it may be more than jerkiness, the people around him also don't get something themselves. That's what I wanted to point out.

      I think we all do better when we understand our own strengths and weaknesses. I don't doubt that Romney has great organizing and focusing skills, but he also is missing important interpersonal skills that make for a huge liability in a presidential candidate.

      The biography on linked at your blog is quite interesting and I hope I can follow up contacting you. I'm curious to see the screening tool you come up with.

    3. Thanks. I colead a series of couples support groups for people in a "neuroexceptional" relationship (where one or both partners is not neurotypical).

      In our most recent group, one of the men (clearly what I call "wife diagnosed") asked "What exactly *is* Asperger's, anyway?"

      I'm trying to come up with a description that doesn't rely on clinical terms and understanding, and that doesn't medicalize or pathologize our difference. I want to emphasize "difference" rather than "difficulty" although both may be true.

      The list you used isn't a bad one, but it is written from a neurotypical point of view, and uses code words and rather snide descriptions, such as "I do certain things in an inflexible, repetitive way." This is a snarky way of talking about the comfort that we get from preset behaviors. If I have the same thing for lunch each day, it's not because I'm "inflexible" it's because it gives me one less thing to worry about. My brain is already on overdrive thinking about a dozen challenges of the day, and I just don't need one more thing to distract me...

    4. Michael, thanks for clarifying that. It makes perfect sense and meshes with things I've worked on in other areas that I call cross-cultural translation. I use culture broadly here to mean groups who have different world views, which includes male-female, black-white, blind-sighted, etc. Like you are pointing out, the issue is different, not lesser, with the awareness that people who are different have other insights that 'the norm' do not have. And that these are valuable.

      Your comment on 'inflexible and repetitive" reminded me of a post since this one on how decision making uses up energy and President Obama limits his trivial daily decisions (what to wear, eat, etc.) so he can save his energy for important decisions. It's here.

      You may also be interested in a post I did last November about a Sun Magazine article on problems with medication and diagnosing and labeling people who are different from the norm.

  4. I think Olivia is spot on. Mitt doesn't sound like an aspie to me either, just heartless.

  5. in my office, the office jerk is the owner/boss unfortunately. the only way to cope is to eventually find another job and leave. i don't think she has asperger's although she is socially tone deaf. i've been trying to figure her out for 5 years now. i think i stay just for the challenge of maybe eventually finding the key to her horrible behavior and changing her. LOL! as for romney - i've been opining that he has a form of aspergers for a couple months now, on other blog sites. i think his actions go beyond just growing up rich and privileged as many other wonderful, caring politicians have (the kennedys for example). he is very, very awkward in everything he does. his body language alone reveals him to be insecure in almost every setting. i will give him credit for the effort it must take to be doing something that is contrary to his natural inclinations. you could hardly find a more public social fishbowl in which to function than presidential candidate.

    1. As for R's awkward body language & his walk, I think Danny Ackroyd got it right when he said, "I think Romney wears a girdle."

      ...along with his magic underwear.

      Didn't I read somewhere that Ann Romney said "He doesn't NEED to get this job, you know."
      Perhaps he will just run away and hide and give us all a break from watching his uncomfortableness which makes me shudder.

  6. I have known many office jerks and they were just jerks, no Asperger's in any of them. I think the poster above at 6:37 is right. Romney is a sociopath.

  7. Thanks for all the interesting comments Kathy, Linda, Anon. I originally was going to put in a continuum from mild Asperger to sociopath, but decided that was too much to get into.

    Olivia, you make an important point about different Aperger folks showing different behaviors from the list. When you say, though, 'they're just jerks' I'd want to you identify the specific behaviors that cause you to label them jerks. Otherwise, jerk is just shorthand for "I can't stand them." "Jerk" doesn't allow a supervisor to develop a plan to improve the employee's behavior or a legally defensible termination. It doesn't give the 'jerk' any specific behaviors they can change if they wanted to.

    Labeling someone as Asperger Syndrome or psychopath runs into the same problems as 'jerk.' I think describing people's actions rather than labeling them tends to be more productive and offers more insight. For Romney I thought these behaviors seemed to describe some of his more publicized awkward moments:

    -often told has been impolite even though they think they have been polite (AQ7)
    -finds it hard to see why some things upset people so much (EQ21)
    -makes decisions without being influenced by people's feelings (EQ39)
    -is not good at social chit-chat (AQ38)
    -not a good diplomat (AQ48)
    -often finds it difficult to judge if something is rude or polite (EQ14)
    -is very blunt without being intentionally rude (EQ34)

    Whether that makes him Asperger Syndrome I can't say, but clearly these are behaviors he's publicly displayed.

    Here's the list of sociopath symptoms from Dr. Hare.

    Some overlap with Asperger Syndrome, others go well beyond. Some we can see in the public Romney, others not.

  8. What I find more disconcerting is how Romney represents to so many The Real American®™ by exhibiting said traits that also define a sociopath, in other words, he exemplifies the model businessman.
    Case in point is the hand-waving over that “47%” secret recording of the talk he gave to wealthy elite donors. But what’s most disgusting of all (and a most telling symptom that reveals more of our own culture) is how virtually nobody is focusing on his off-the-cuff recounting during that speech of his visit to the Chinese factory. This where the women workers were corralled and treated like cattle, even kept from escaping their barracks by barbed wire and guards.
    Romney never morally flinched, didn’t even think of them (or for that matter anybody poor today) as actual, live human beings, they were just assets, cogs in the machine he was buying. Ethically no different than the one-time revered pillars of society that upheld everything from the days of the robber barons to the horrors of institutionalized slavery in our own not-too distant national history.
    This is best described as “amoral capitalism,” and it is quite the bankable marketing tool for Romney’s campaign. Sadly there are millions of Americans who will willingly cheer such a hero to the wealthy, a proud poster-boy for all that’s good, clean and honest, and eagerly vote in to office such an outstanding asshole.
    Just look at the Alaskan political landscape.

  9. Feel sad about having an offspring as aspergers. Co-incidentally, my husband, my boss and my neighbour (she has only me as friend within the block) are all aspies. I will tell you I would not want to go near aspergers if I have another life. It is a sad situation. A lot of them does not realize admit, and reluctant to change. They just will not....What meaning do they have towards life? I wonder......no friends, no love....a robot?

  10. mm - Sounds like you have lots of experience. We listened to much of Temple Grandin's The Autistic Brain this summer. It really offers a lot of hope for people with atypical cognitive functioning if we all just recognize that autistic and Aspergers brains function a little differently and with some adjustments in how society reacts to them and supports them can make a big difference in how they function in the general society. I strongly recommend the book.


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