Whether I like it or not, I am making unconscious decisions everyday on the people I meet. Is a person listening? Are they engaged in our conversation? What are they thinking?
And I have come to realise that my answers to these questions – and the unconscious assumptions I make about people around me – have been driven more by cultural ideas about behaviour than the reality I face each day.
It’s steep learning curve to to step away from my own ingrained ideas. Particularly when I am not always consciously aware I hold them. But I work at it day by day, assumption by assumption. I’m not there yet.
I have a child who uses a completely different set of body language to me. Which I often get wrong. And that was and is, eye-opening. But realising that I understood things about neurodiversity and difference in my head – but not in my heart, or in the way I acted, has helped.
Just because my kids didn’t look engaged, didn’t make it true. My kids love to dive around while they think, jump on trampolines, wander off, wander back, or half listen while watching something completely different. But their recall is razor-sharp, and both, in their own way, show how well they understand. From their body language, it was easy for me to assume they weren’t taking in anything. But I was wrong.
Everyday, I exist in a house where the smartest people in the room are kids who like to make loud random explosion noises; need to bounce on furniture while explaining complicated maths ideas; and dive under the table and cover their ears when random loud noises from outside intrude.
For years now, I have lived daily with the fact that my normal social conditioning gives me all the wrong signals.
That the smartest one in the room was not necessarily the charismatic and engaging talker who captured people’s attention, but is probably the person in the corner studying the fall of light through a window. Or bouncing on the balls of their feet near the snack table and covered in crumbs. Or they could be sitting on the steps outside where it’s quiet.
And these days, when I see, say, the women talking to herself on the train, I like to break my inherent cultural assumptions. Maybe she’s arguing through a complicated part of her thesis and just forgot she was talking out loud. It’s possible. Or the guy with the wistful look in the wheelchair who is randomly grabbing at rays of sunshine is actually studying Brownian Motion and is travelling to his lecture on the uses of applied mathematics.
Because that’s the kind of crazy life I have at the moment. That when my son seems to do nothing but watch endless Minecraft videos, he can still floor me with a conversation on the finer points of, say, the different types of infinity; or an excited analysis on the use of statistics in Minecraft; or the finer points of Boolean Logic.
Living with my children has made me a better person. At the least, it has taught me that looking engaged and interested in an idea and being engaged and interested are not the same thing. Not even close. And being the smartest person in the room, and looking like the smartest person in the room can be two wildly different things.