Greetings for Aspies: Butt Sniffing, Not Butt Kissing


"How are you?"

What a stupid question.  Or, rather, how stupid the way we ask and answer it seems to me, as an autistic person.  We tend to have problems with greetings, and that question in particular.  It's hard to understand why I'm supposed to ask it, when I'm probably not all that interested and the person answering is probably just going to say, "Fine," anyway, no matter how they actually are. And it's no fun to answer, especially since I'm just supposed to say "Fine," too, and, how likely is that to be true?

It feels hypocritical and pointless.  It feels like butt-kissing, forcing myself to undergo a humiliating ritual because more powerful people demand it of me. And it's not just me-- I hear this complaint from aspies I work with all the time.  Greetings are painful and meaningless to many of us, and it's hard not to resent being forced to do something that we don't understand.

In order for me to really understand how greetings work, and how useful they can be to me, I had to think about dogs and handshakes. 

  Watch this video, and exchange the word "dog" for "neurotypical people":

Dogs and neurotypical humans have a lot in common!

Okay, so neurotypical people don't sniff each other's butts when they greet each other, but people don't have the glands that Dr. Stephen Brammeier calls "anal sacs" (and that is what he says).

However, neurotypical people do exchange a tremendous amount of information nonverbally when they greet each other.  And it's information that we need.

According to legend, the handshake developed from the custom of letting people examine our arms to see that we are not carrying weapons.  Dogs understand that other dogs can be dangerous.  They use their greeting rituals to make sure that others are safe to be around.  Neurotypical people do the same thing.

When I am greeting someone, I have two goals:

1)  To show them that I am safe and pleasant to be around.

This is the handshake part-- I have to show people I'm not carrying any weapons. Other people need to know whether or not it's safe to be around me.  For strangers, this might be physical safety, but for friends and family it means that I am emotionally safe to be around. I also want people to have good feelings about being around me. 

Taking the time to say hello to people, look somewhere in the vicinity of their heads, and ask how they are shows that I am willing to engage with people according to the rules of behavior they expect.  That's a message I usually want to send.

2) To get information about them

I also need to know that other people are safe to be around.  Greetings are a time when it is socially acceptable to closely observe other people.  Start listening to how people say "Fine" when you ask how they are, and then try to link that to how they act later.  It's like a dog's bark-- different barks mean different things.  People are giving you information by how they say "fine."  Start to try to figure out what it is.  It's not easy, but you can improve.  Just pay attention.

Don't invest in getting better at greetings in order to make your boss or your teachers happy. 

Do it communicate to people that you are safe to be around, and to get the information you need in order to be safe around them.