Wednesday, August 1, 2012

What’s the harm in asking?

image by Laurel Fan
On a trip I was on recently the phrase “It can’t hurt to ask.” came up several times. The time that stands out particularly in my mind is the possibility of asking if I could have beef and snow peas instead of the beef and broccoli that was on the menu at a restaurant. I often have a hard time asking people for things and this seems to be not uncommon for people with Asperger’s syndrome. I’ve been encourage to overcome this phobia by phrases like, “The worst that can happen is that they say no.” It makes me wonder if they think I’m afraid of being arrested or of tripping a breaking a bone. After all, people saying no can be accompanied by a lot of other things. People getting upset, people feeling uncomfortable. People misunderstanding you and making assumptions about you. No, it’s not the sky falling on you, but there are negative consequences that can accompany some “no”s.

    There are some situations where asking for certain things really is socially inappropriate. I want to start in a roundabout way with an example from fiction. In Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance we get a chance to see the perspective of a supporting character who has seemed to be a bit of a ladies man. He explains his pick-up technic something like this, “go to a place where there are a lot of girls in a partying mood; go up to  girl and try to make her laugh, if you succeed try to get a date, if you get shot down, pick another girl and repeat. The fact you only get one date for every ten attempts is not a problem if the initial pool of usually has more than ten prospects in it. This represents an entirely different attitude from his cousin, who thinks in terms of ‘I might be able to fall in love with this girl’ before he tries to hit on them. But the thing is in all the previous books (from the cousin’s point of view) he never explained the one in ten success ratio His advice was simply: keep trying, be more persistent.
Reading about this recent real world situation at Readercon I was struck by what bad advice “keep trying, be more persistent” could be in a social situation, and how right we, on the autism spectrum are to resist it. I totally agree that the situation at Readercon is not the sort of thing you expect from someone with Asperger’s syndrome. But looking through the comments you can see that sometimes just asking for something can be extremely offensive. I think I  remember the this sentiment also on comments about the open source boob project. Asking for something implies that I think there is or at least ought to be, a possibility that they will grant me the request. In some ways it’s more presumptuous than making a declarative statement about the other person, because it skips over the part where they have an obvious opening to object.
Of course the people who advise me that “there's no harm in asking” would say well, of course you shouldn’t ask things like that. With assumptions that some things obviously too presumptuous to ask. But we some like me, who is used to constantly being wrong about what seem like obvious and straightforward implications of others actions, it makes sense to be extra wary of an action that can have such a negative reaction.
Moreover saying no can impose a cost on the refuser. There are studies showing that if you ask someone to do something outrageous first, to which they say no, it can make them more likely to say yes to another, more reasonable, request afterwards. It seems that people don’t like continually saying no. A refusal has put the assumption of community and mutuality in doubt. It needs something, like a question that can be answered yes to, or the assumed bond of friendliness might break. Actually a single no to a polite request doesn't do that much damage to friendliness. But for someone with for whom the assumption of friendliness might already be strained it can be an unnecessary liability.
So when the question of asking for a substitution at a restaurant came up, I don’t think it was inappropriate that I gave detailed thought to whether this was a reasonable request to make. I know from making my own version that it isn’t a big deal to substitute one vegetable for another, check. They had other items on the menu featuring snow peas, and so would likely have some on hand, check. The were a high service restaurant projecting an air of personalization, so dealing with customer’s special requests shouldn’t be out of their range, check. I decided I did want to ask if the substitution was possible. But I still felt the anxiety of venturing off the standard script into this whole unpredictable area. So I was very glad when another person in the party made the request for me. And yes I got to eat beef with snow peas.
image by stu_spivack

No comments:

Post a Comment