Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

The Un-Unwritten Rules

Posted by Neal on August 19, 2010

I don’t get too much use out of page-a-day calendars. I’ll rip off a page a day and put it in the recycle pile for a while, until I forget for a week or so, and then I just won’t bother catching up. After that, the page-a-day calendar is just an extra-fancy pile of scratch paper, which may take years to use up. I got a Latin phrase-a-day calendar in 1996 that I finally finished about three years ago, and in my office there’s a page-a-day calendar of brain teasers for I don’t know what year anymore.

However, Doug and Adam and I have been amusing ourselves with a page-a-day calendar called the Hidden Curriculum. It’s put out by the Autism Asperger Publishing Company, and is intended to provide written rules for many occasions, for people who don’t do so well with unwritten rules. For example, here’s a useful one that I actually learned on my own while growing up: “When your parents are lecturing your sister or brother about something they have done wrong, it is not a good idea to laugh or make fun. You may end up getting in trouble yourself.” Others, though, can cramp one’s style a little bit. “Don’t blow your nose on your napkin”? I’ll have to make a note of that one.

The rules are compiled from submissions from users of calendars from previous years, and sometimes I find myself imagining the circumstances that inspired someone to write down a rule. Was it an inconvenienced parent of a friend of an autistic kid who sent in “Don’t invite yourself to someone’s house. Wait for an invitation”? Was it an autistic kid’s own outraged parent who sent in “You should not have to buy gifts for or give money to your friends to keep them as friends”?

Many of the tips are translations of idioms like “Cat got your tongue?” or “I’m all ears.” Doug and Adam and I got a laugh when we pictured the inspiration for writing this one: “When someone calls ‘shotgun’ as she is leaving, that means she is claiming the front passenger seat in the car, not that there is a weapon.”

But some of these rules were not written with sufficient allowance made for an audience that has difficulty making generalizations. “If your grandmother tells you to “hold your horses,” she means that she wants you to wait or slow down.” OK, so what if your mother or a friend of the family tells you to hold your horses? Does it mean something else in that case?

And then there’s this piece of advice for people who might not know the social niceties:

If you meet a person with a service dog, ask if you can pet the dog. It may be busy helping the person, so you need to let it do its job. It performs an important function.

Reading this one, I imagined not the rule-writer, but the confused rule-reader, thinking, “But what if I don’t want to pet their dog? I never knew it was rude not to pet someone’s service dog. Good thing this calender has clued me in, so I’ll never make that mistake again!”

6 Responses to “The Un-Unwritten Rules”

  1. Stan said

    There’s also the potential ambiguity of someone saying “hold your horses” in an equestrian context. (Anywhere else, that objection might be regarded as excessively literal, but I feel safe enough airing it here.)

  2. Neal, I thought the same thing about “what if I don’t want to pet the dog?” Having raised an Aspie with hyperlexia, I spent many, many years explaining idiom and metaphors (which, when he was four, my son called “metaforms”).

  3. kip said

    I was taught to not even ask if you can pet a service dog–just don’t bother it or the person it’s helping.

    • Neal said

      Yeah, that would’ve been an entirely better tip. Who’s vetting these

    • The Ridger said

      Yeah, same here. That’s why they have those signs on their harnesses – at least the guide dogs I’ve seen – Do Not Pet Me, I Am Working.

      Of course, the one at the bus stop always used to shove his head at me and lick my hands. I guess he figured that just standing around like that he was only half on duty…

  4. Estel said

    It sounds like they need a more literal-minded editor.

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