Aspergers, reading faces and cultural differences regarding ‘smiling’

One of the questions get asked most often when I reveal I am an Aspie is when/how did I get diagnosed with Aspergers’, as I am of a generation when this was not a commonly known about thing.  As a matter of fact, growing up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, I am pretty sure this was not recognized as a physical thing.

Completely irrelevant factoid:  From a very early early age, I used to suffer from crippling migraines.  My mom took me to specialists and they told her that unofficially, these are migraines, but that because ‘migraine headaches’ have been ruled by the Communist Party to be ‘something capitalist rich ladies with nothing better to do make up to be interesting’, so they are no longer permitted to diagnose or treat this condition.  So,  I highly doubt ‘Aspergers’ Syndrome’ was something that anyone was willing to even mention…

To answer that question, I explain that my older was always an atypical learner.  For example, when he was 4 years old and I was pregnant with his brother, as per the advice of the parenting books and with my obstetrician’s permission, I brought him to one of the pre-natal ‘well-baby’ checkups.  When the obstetrician walked in, he pointed to the big poster on the exam-room’s wall and asked my son:

“Do you know what this is?”

My 4-year-old looked him seriously in the eyes and replied:

“That is the female reproductive system.  Would you like me to explain it to you?”

As a matter of fact, when he was just about 18 months old, we took him to the Science and Tech museum – he loved trains.  He would go into the room displaying train engines and, whether anyone was listening or not, would point to parts of the steam engine and explain, in detail, how the machines worked (using half-baby, half scientific language).  He was mobbed by a large group of camera-wielding Japanese tourists, who were convinced he was part of the museum exhibit…

Yes, he is a genius:  after all, he IS your humble blogger’s son!!!

(Explanation: from selecting a mate to timing the pregnancy to choosing rearing techniques, I had optimized primarily for intelligence, so the proven fact that my sons have both scored in the ‘genius’ range ought not be a surprise.  The fact that they are not emotionally damaged beyond repair is just a lucky bonus!!!)

What I am trying to establish is that he was both a smart kid and an atypical learner.  So, it took until grade 2 that he hit the metaphorical wall – until then, he could use his intelligence to hide the depth of his difficulties.  But, by grade 2, his cognitive skills were so high, and his ability to express them in writing so low, because here, in Canada (unlike where I grew up where it’s half-and-half written and oral testing), marks are awarded ONLY for written testing and that just kills young Aspies’ spirit.   He turned out to be above the 99.98% range of his peers in cognition, but below the 40% range of his peers in ability to express it in writing…  So, the gulf between what he knew and what he could produce in school was so huge that he began to fall into a deep depression.

Thus, when he was in grade 2, we sought help.  Luckily, there was a very well respected psychologist who had office hours once a week at my son’s school and we sought her help.  Frightened by his depression at such a young age, we got the ‘deluxe’ package of evaluation.  (This was not an indulgence, we just did not want to take any risks with 50% of our retirement plan.)

So, he went for many hours of tests.

And, so did we – the family.

Each one of us, parents, went for a 3-hour evaluation and then we had an ‘all 4 family members interacting’ evaluation session.

I don’t know what went on in the other sessions, but when it came to my evaluation, they gave me a series of totally messed-up tests.  Like – 150 ‘facial expressions’ where I had to say what the person in question was ‘feeling’!  Like – who CARES what they were feeling – that’s involuntary and thus irrational and thus, obviously, irrelevant.  I’m only interested in what people are thinking because I respect other people enough to presume them to reign in their in their irrationality and show me the respect of acting logically and rationally!!!

Isn’t that obvious?!?!?!?

After all, I do this for them – and I have been told that reciprocity is the cornerstone of civilization!  So, why would they not reciprocate and do this for me?


Ok, ok, I did not do so well on that test.  To my credit, I did get 7 right…

But, having studied Konrad Lorenz’s books at great length during my teens, I did much better on the body-language one:  I got almost 25% on that one!!!

Aside:  I have worked on this really, really hard for many years since that fateful day, taking internet classes, and am now at a little over 40% on the facial expressions one!  And, I totally get like 45% on the body-language one!  I don’t mean to be boastful, but… I’m close to 50% on the ‘real-woman/she-man’ ones!!!

Needless to say, the psychologist identified (much less pejorative than ‘diagnosed’) both me and my hubby as Aspies….though, my hubby is way closer to neurotypical than I am – so I always take his lead when it comes to all that ‘human interaction’ nonsense.  After all, men are so much better at this touchy-feely-relationship stuff!  Sometimes I feel so sorry for those poor, poor, emotional creatures…  But, I digress…

It may seem like I am changing topics here, but, please, do bear with me…  Are you familiar with the atheist argument that once all the theists come to an agreement about what is the precise definition of ‘deity’, come talk to us, but, until then, please work to get a functional definition before you try to get us to ‘believe’ in this?

Well – here is the ‘facial equivalent’ thereof for us, Aspies!!!  (Yes, the link is coming – just a little more ranting….)

I recall that when Ivan Lendl first came to play tennis in North America, reporters kept asking him why he does not smile – and he replied that nobody had given him a reason to smile – and this was touted as weird in the press and all….but as he became more integrated into North American society, he learned to smile whenever there was an audience.

Keep this in mind, please – especially with respect to the atheist argument about getting an agreed-upon definition of ‘god’ before asking us to believe in one…

SOOO much was explained to me when I came upon THIS blog entry:

‘In Russia, it is not common to smile at strangers. When you smile at a stranger in Russia, you may get the question “Have we met?” in return, because Russians normally smile only to people they know. Also, this is not common to smile when dealing with more serious issues. You wouldn’t see many smiling faces in business meetings, because business is serious, and by smiling, you show that you either don’t take it seriously or you distrust your partners’ words. Russian shop assistants are trained to smile, because smiling while serving people is unnatural for Russians. “I’m taking you seriously, you are important to me, so I don’t smile” is the natural Russian approach to a smile. ‘

It is a short post and chock-full of useful data, so I recommend reading it.

But, what it demonstrates is that facial expressions are culture-dependant and NOT in any way universal.

So, I urge you, neurotypicals:  Please, first come to an agreement what do particular facial expressions express AMONGST YOURSELVES and only THEN come and demand that we, Aspies, try to decode that crazy mumbo-jumbo!!!

3 Responses to “Aspergers, reading faces and cultural differences regarding ‘smiling’”

  1. CodeSlinger Says:


    There definitely is a universal foundation to facial expressions and body language, but in humans it is so conflated with culture and custom that the universality of the core is often very nearly irretrievably hidden.

    Think about it: can you tell when a cat is smiling? A dog? A horse? Can you tell when animals are happy, sad, excited, angry, calm, confused, confident, affectionate, aloof, and so on?

    Of course you can.

    So why not humans?

    I think it’s because humans lie; they deliberately hide or falsify their feelings.

    Animals don’t smile or snarl unless they mean it. Nor do they exaggerate or downplay their expressions. One glance at an animal is all it takes to know precisely what emotional state it is in.

    With humans, you have to dig through multiple layers or culture, habit, and deliberate intent to mislead.

    But under all that, there is a universal foundation that’s common not only to all people, but to all of the higher mammals.

    • xanthippa Says:

      Thank you, CodeSlinger, for this insight!

      Perhaps that is why I am so much more comfortable with animals…

      When one of my sons was about 5, he explained this side of me to his friend: ‘Animals treat my mom as if she was not a human, but one of them.’

  2. CodeSlinger Says:


    I think it’s a great compliment when animals treat you as one of them! This matter-of-fact mutual acceptance is true “tolerance” and “inclusivity” – but it doesn’t work well for dealing with people who expect nonverbal communication to be as obfuscated as possible.

    Most people nowadays have the exact opposite problem: they are so adept at ferreting-out the feelings other people are hiding that they think you must have some kind of “syndrome” if you find that hard to do – yet they have no idea whether a barking dog wants to play or rip their throats out.

    My own tendency (at least among those I trust) is to clearly show how I feel and thus make it as easy as possible for others to be considerate of my feelings, if they’re so inclined. In turn, I try to be as considerate as I fairly can, but if you want me to be considerate of your feelings, then don’t try to hide them from me!

    As a result, children and animals find me very open and easy-going; they know where I’m coming from right away. But most adults are not used to taking interpersonal communication at face value; they get disoriented and confused when they try to read between the lines and find nothing there.

    Over the years, I’ve learned to turn down the “transmit gain” and turn up the “receive gain” of my nonverbal communication. But to be honest, this makes me feel uneasy. I find it hard to feel like I’m among trustworthy friends when we are doing our best to hide our true feelings and second-guess each other.

    There is a deeper problem with this. When people are accustomed to communicating with the transmit gain turned way down and the receive gain turned way up – like cupping their hands to their ears to catch each other’s whispers – it will hurt their ears when someone speaks at a normal level.

    They become overly sensitive, and so they try to force everyone to whisper. This applies not only to how people say things, but also to what they say. Anything that isn’t whispered is treated as a shout; anything that isn’t understated is seen as offensive.

    And this becomes a motivating factor behind the drive to “regulate” speech – which is readily exploited by cultural Marxist apparatchiks.

    It’s yet another example of Krishnamurti’s observation that there is nothing healthy about being well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

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