Last semester, I interned at Chapel Haven, a residence for individuals with autism transitioning from living with their parents to living on their own. The internship was part of a class — “Autism and Related Disorders” — so, at the end of the term, I left to make room for the new interns who would join them the following semester.
When the nightly recap meeting let out, one of the residents with whom I’d become close over the past few months asked if it was my last day. It was, I said. He nodded and walked away. No goodbye. No hug, no handshake, no jocular jab on the shoulder. Was he oblivious to the emotional connection I thought we’d forged over the past few week — as the articles we read in class would have me believe? Or was he, like me, just bad at saying goodbye?
Think about what you do when you say goodbye, especially when you plan to leave for good or to be gone for a while. There’s a standard procedure, right? You scrunch up your eyebrows, which makes you look really serious, and you tell everyone how much fun it’s all been and how much you’ll miss them. And everyone looks a little sad and you hug and get in a cab, feeling like you wrapped things up nicely.
I’ve done this a lot, and at this point I’m never sure if I’m actually sad to be leaving wherever and whomever I’m leaving or if I’m just running through the leaving protocol.
The leaving protocol is part of social etiquette. It’s like looking someone in the eyes when you’re having a conversation. I do this when I’m interested in what someone is saying because I can pick up more subtle communicative cues this way. I am also indicating to my conversation partner that he has my full attention.
But I also look people in the eyes even when I’m not actually interested in what they’re saying. I do this to be polite. It’s polite to look someone in the eyes when you’re having a conversation because it mimics the genuine behavior associated with real interest.
It’s easy for me to figure out the contents of politeness protocols because I simply imagine what an infinitely caring, respectful version of myself would be compelled to do. Sometimes I do what’s polite because I’m inherently motivated to do so. Sometimes I just do what’s polite because it’s polite — so I can avoid insulting someone or causing them undue strife.
The Chapel Haven students struggle with politeness protocols because their genuine caring behaviors are different from the ones most people have. For instance, even when they are genuinely interested in a conversation, they don’t find it helpful to look at people’s eyes. They don’t pick up emotional information this way, and they often don’t realize that other people gauge attention based on gaze direction. Since they don’t look at eyes when they’re actually interested, it would be impossible for them to figure out that the politeness protocol for conversation involves looking at your partner’s eyes.
To help them function in the social world, the residents at Chapel Haven are taught many of these rules explicitly: When you’re going on an interview, you have to look your interviewer in the eyes three times — once at the beginning, once in the middle and once at the end.
But the students don’t know the leaving protocol. It’s subtle, it’s advanced, and it’s not as important to social functioning as some of the other skills they’re trying to master. So they can’t fake it.
And, maybe, so much the better. On my last day, I got into a cab, wondering if — sans leaving protocol — we’d done and said everything there was to do and say.