‘Do I look fat in this?’ Truth, lies and codes

As a child I became aware of the following facts:

  1. that I don’t lie
  2. that not lying is considered a good thing that people should attain to
  3. that the reason I don’t lie has nothing to do with wanting to be good
  4. that I don’t lie because it feels uncomfortable and confusing if I do, so my reasons are self-serving
  5. that people who say not lying is a good thing don’t act as if they believe this

Let me give an example. When I was 14 and my sisters were 12 and 10, we would watch certain TV shows that our mother had told us not to watch. My sisters would lie to her and tell her they hadn’t watched them. I would be truthful and tell her that I had watched them. I was the one with whom my mother got angry, despite the fact that I’d done the supposedly ‘good’ thing and told the truth.

But I was well aware that the reason I told her wasn’t for her benefit, nor for any abstract idea of goodness. It was more that I felt that if I said something that wasn’t true, I’d be compromising myself. Somehow I’d lose my intactness, my sense of self, my sense of reality. Telling the truth is easy and natural. Telling a lie is like turning myself inside out.

I realised that my mother didn’t really want us to tell the truth, if the truth wasn’t something she liked. I knew in theory that lying was the preferred thing. But it had nothing to do with what others said they wanted or really wanted. It was for my own benefit.

Back then, I didn’t know I had Aspergers, so I didn’t have a frame of reference to understand these facts I’d observed. They were just random odd facts about lying and myself. Now I know that telling the truth is a typical trait of people on the autistic spectrum. In trying to analyse this in terms of what I understand about the autistic spectrum, and what is going through my mind that stops me lying, I have come to the following conclusion: it’s about difficulty multitasking. In the same way that I want to correct people if they state something that isn’t true, I also don’t like it when someone believes a lie – and if I lie, this causes it to happen.

I have no problem in stating something untrue as a joke, knowing that the other person knows it’s a joke. It’s only when they believe me that I am bothered. I don’t want two contradictory statements to be ‘out there’ – I instinctively find it confusing and distressing.

Sometimes as a child I would say something untrue, assuming that the other person would know it was untrue and that they would say ‘That’s not true’ – but sometimes they believed me, in which case I would immediately say ‘Not really!’ When I realised people could believe things that weren’t true, I would sometimes test this to see what sort of thing they would believe, but it was always as a sort of experiment to help me understand. If they believed it, I would always say at once ‘Not really’, because I would have found it very disturbing if they’d actually believed it. I just wanted to know if it was possible that they could.

An example of this is when I was six years old and I’d just gone to bed, and was lying there waiting for my mother to come and say good night to me. I’d just farted and so my bed smelt like fart! When my mother came over to my bed, she made a face and said I’d farted. I said ‘No I haven’t’. I said this because I was aware that she had no proof that I’d farted other than a smell, and that I was the only one who’d been able to feel the fart and therefore know for definite that it came from me. So I was curious if she would believe her lack of definite proof over my definite ability to know if I’d farted.

She didn’t believe me at first. I found it quite fascinating so I kept denying having farted, in a serious voice, and I pointed out to her that she couldn’t know I’d farted because she couldn’t feel it. I was the one who would have felt it coming out of my bottom, so I must know. Eventually she believed me and apologised for disbelieving. At that point I grinned and told her that I had farted really!

She was angry that I’d lied – and she wanted to know why I’d lied, when there was nothing wrong with farting and she wouldn’t have punished me for it. I had no way of explaining why I’d lied – only in retrospect can I put it into words. But I was aware then that she didn’t really want me to tell the truth after she’d believed a lie – that she’d have been happier if I’d continued to pretend I hadn’t farted. But I was also aware that I wouldn’t have been able to do that. It was an odd conundrum to me, as I tried to understand other people and myself.

As an adult, I have made myself analyse social interaction in great detail and I realise there are some situations where lying is considered the polite and considerate thing to do. In fact often it isn’t really lying as such – as in it’s not truly deceiving people – because there is a shared unspoken understanding that lying is what people do in such situations. So it’s more a code. A code in which telling the truth may mean ‘I don’t care about your feelings’ and telling a lie means ‘I care about your feelings’, and the actual thing being discussed isn’t really what’s being discussed at all.

For instance:

  • Do I look fat in this?’ is code for:I am feeling insecure about the way I look, because I see my sense of beauty and worth as having a negative correlation with my size, and I would like you to reassure me that I don’t look fat even if I do.’
  • Yes, you look fat,’ is code for: I don’t care about your feelings or reassuring you. I know what you want me to say, but I refuse – instead I am deliberately saying something insulting which I know will hurt you.’
  • No, you don’t look fat at all,’ is code for: I care about you and your feelings, and I want you to be happy in yourself, and I want you to know that I am a nice person and I care about you and I care about our friendship.’

This is where people on the autistic spectrum are at a great disadvantage, because we don’t automatically understand these hidden codes, as they are never explicitly explained, so, in focusing on literal ‘truthful’ meaning, we are oblivious to how what we are saying is being decoded. Furthermore, we may not even see ‘fat’ as a bad thing – just a description of a shape, like round or square, with no emotive value. Saying that someone looks fat may just be the same as being shown a picture of a circle and asked if it is a circle or a square. We automatically look for the right answer, and the idea that someone will be offended at being told they look fat can seem as bizarre as a circle being offended at being told it’s a circle and not a square.

People on the autistic spectrum may learn the social codes and conventions, but they don’t come naturally, so we don’t automatically think of them – it requires being alert, focused and consciously trying to remember. So, while I have taught myself by observation and analysis many different examples of situations where the truth is unwanted, because a certain ‘code’ is going on, I still may not immediately remember this in the situation when it occurs – I will automatically process the literal meaning and if I don’t remember to pause and think of other meanings, I may remain at the literal meaning and say the wrong thing.

An example of this can be seen in the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, in the scene where Sheldon, in working out the approximate weight of Penny’s car with both Penny and him in it, makes a guess at Penny’s weight which Penny immediately corrects. Sheldon says ‘Oh sorry, did I insult you? Is your body mass somehow tied into your self worth?’ Clearly he is aware of this idea that people’s self worth can be linked with their size, but he doesn’t automatically take it into consideration because it’s such a bizarre idea to him, quite unrelated to the world of numbers and calculations.

However, the fact that there are social ‘codes’, where saying one thing really means something else, is a very useful thing for people on the spectrum to become aware of. And calling it a ‘code’ is a helpful way to describe it, rather than simply saying ‘people say things they don’t mean for politeness’. The idea of a code is one that can be more easily grasped, because it is more concrete, and often people on the autistic spectrum like codes – I used to have great fun as a child making up all kinds of secret codes. The social ‘codes’ that non-autistic people generally use in society are so engrained that they often aren’t aware that they are using a code – it’s just automatic. But it is not automatic for a person on the autistic spectrum, so it has to be spelt out.