By Dan Coulter
I got a jolting lesson in how appearance matters while sitting in a small-group writing seminar. Jennifer, the speaker, made a point, looked at me and said, “I can tell Dan disagrees with me. He's frowning.”
Whoa. I actually agreed with her.
In my mind, I had a neutral expression on my face. But Jennifer saw the corners of my mouth pointing down, and misread my attitude. I should mention that when I relax my face, the corners of my mouth naturally point down, so I have to actively move my facial muscles to put a neutral expression on my face.
My involuntary smile looks the same as most other people's. But when I'm getting my picture made, arranging my face to produce what looks like a small smile to the camera makes me feel like I'm grinning like a fool.
When you have Asperger Syndrome, you may have to do things that feel unnatural or illogical to send the social signals you want others to see and hear.
It didn't seem fair that after I'd worked for years to learn to read others' thoughts and feelings (and gotten pretty good at it) that my face could make people misread me.
Of course, working to send social signals to others goes beyond your expression. And where do you draw the line? When does doing what people expect you to do to fit in and be accepted cross the border into hiding who you really are?
From my experience, it's a moving target.
I know a young man with Asperger Syndrome who started sporting a fedora hat like Indiana Jones wore in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He thought it made him look cool and wanted to wear it everywhere. But his mom and others told him it was inappropriate.
Should he stop wearing the hat?
Of course not. Not if it makes him feel good. But he might want to seek out places and people who will appreciate the hat as he does – such as wearing it to a role-playing game group. That could make it easier to stop wearing the hat where it just makes people see him as odd.
Ultimately it's your choice. In some areas, you may decide your need for personal expression outweighs having people possibly misunderstand you. In other areas, you may want to modify your dress or other behaviors to get the benefits of having people accept you.
Anticipating how other people might react to your appearance will help you make those choices. And getting input from parents and others who know you can help you make decisions that have the outcomes you want.
In any situation where you want people to like and accept you, here's a tip I picked up from a TED Talk by Ron Gutman, the founder and CEO of a company called HealthTap.
Ron cited a study at a Swedish university that found it's difficult to frown when looking at someone who smiles. Smiling is evolutionarily contagious. It triggers a reaction in our brains that stimulates us to smile back.
Speaking of brains, Ron described a British study that showed a smile can create as much brain stimulation as 2,000 bars of chocolate (a noted brain pleasure stimulator) or receiving $5,000 in cash. (If that sounds extreme, you can Google and watch Ron's TED Talk, “The Hidden Power of Smiling.”)
If your smile causes others to smile back, you can think of it as using behavioral conditioning to train them to feel good when they see you.
What a great way to help people to get to know you well enough to appreciate the real you, quirks and all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR -- Dan Coulter is the author of the video, "Manners for the Real World: Basic Social Skills," available via both DVD and download. You can find more articles and information on his website: www.coultervideo.com.
Copyright 2015 Dan Coulter Used by Permission All Rights Reserved