Tag Archives: control

To Ask and To Demand

I’ve been reading a little this morning about Pathological Demand Avoidance Syndrome. First described by child development psychologist Elizabeth Newson, PDA is a pathology on the autism spectrum characterized, as its name suggests, by avoidance of the normal demands of everyday life: things like getting dressed, going to school, eating one’s cereal, and so forth. It’s not procrastination: the avoidance is not of the task but of the demand, which is met not just with anxious defiance but with all sorts of socially manipulative behaviors (some of them charming) as well as violent outbursts.

I suspect that this diagnosis and its treatment will have lots to teach me about what I’ve been calling — not without misgivings — the power of asking. I’m also hoping that Newson’s work and other research on PDA will shed some light on the question Marc Tognotti put to me in an email after I posted my notes on Austin and Asking: namely, whether we can talk coherently about demands as a kind of asking. I’ve been satisfied with making rough equivalences between the terms, and in an earlier post I’ve even managed to cheat the idea of moral claims into the word “demand.”

Marc countered that he was surprised that I included demands in a discussion of asking and that there is a difference between demands and requests (or asking someone to) that’s probably worth maintaining. In short, to talk about demands and asking in the same breath confuses things, he says, because demands are more akin to commands or coercion than requests.

I admit there’s a lot here to sort out, including questions about the kinds of authority, moral or otherwise, we need to make commands, demands and requests. For the time being, I’m taking refuge in the etymological roots of our English word “demand” in the French demander, and I’ve also found some shelter in the Oxford English Dictionary, which lists “to demand” among the definitions of ask. But none of that will do for very long. It might be nothing more than an avoidance strategy.

Still, I think it’s clear that the verb ask can be used exercitively — to exercise power, and that using the verb ask in that way can be (let me put it this way for now) pretty much like making a demand: “I ask that you take your hands off me.” “I ask you to respect my rights.” “I ask you to come forward, so that you can see this for yourselves.” Maybe those examples are a little clunky and formal, and I admit that the last one can be construed as invitation rather than a demand. More importantly, I don’t want to limit the “power” that I am talking about here to the making of demands or even the kind of asking that is pretty much like a demand. Ultimately, I am more interested in the way that asking — or serious conversations about what to do — can give people an equal share in power.

I still have a lot more reading to do before I can tie all this back to PDA, but I’ve managed to grasp the basics. People with PDA experience demands as a complete loss of control: powerlessness. They feel coerced, not asked to or whether they would. Even the most trifling demand seems to eclipse their will. In this diagnosis, demands are more like commands, less like asking or the start of a conversation about what to do. Even the simplest request or suggestion can be mistaken for an order and resisted.

One parent of a child with PDA reports that her child misinterprets “everything as a demand” being shouted at her; and to overcome the child’s pathological demand avoidance she and her husband “always try to phrase demands in a way that offers…choices and we are always prepared to negotiate.” Many boundaries too, have to be negotiated, even when it’s a question of what’s safe or lawful, so that the child “feels that it is either her choice or is open to negotiation.”

Of course it’s deceptive, a manipulation to give the illusion of control and preempt the child’s manipulations. It’s not a serious conversation; it’s power play: the parents engage the child in mimicking the very real power we share when we have choices to make, nobody is in charge and nothing is settled. And that is what these children seem to want, but only because that gives them a chance to take back control.

Postscript: some readers have found my last paragraph controversial or just wrongheaded. Please take a moment to read the comments on this post from parents of children diagnosed with PDA.

The Whole Foods Language Police: Keystone Cops or Company Thugs?

Whole Foods now denies that Lupe Gonzales and Bryan Baldizan were suspended for speaking Spanish on the job. While the company does, in fact, have a written policy requiring employees to speak English while “on the clock” — in order to maintain what one Whole Foods manager calls “a uniform form of communication” — the employees, Whole Foods now says, were fired for being “disrespectful.”

The proof? A letter Gonzales and Baldizan wrote, asking why workers in the Albuquerque, New Mexico store could be dressed in Mexican bandito costumes (“sarapes and sombreros with fake mustaches”) on Cinco de Mayo, but are “forbidden” to speak Spanish on the job.

Nothing says respect like grotesque parodies of Mexican culture. As for the actual, living culture of New Mexico (where, by the way, not just Spanish but Ladino is spoken) — just keep it off the clock and preferably outside the store.

Ralph Arellanes, New Mexico director with the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he “almost fell off [his] chair” when he first got wind of this; now the League is threatening a nationwide boycott if Whole Foods does not drop the policy. The company says the English-only policy is necessary for “safety” and — incredible though it may seem — inclusion: if workers speak Spanish, “team leaders” and customers may feel “excluded.” How is a leader expected to lead, or customer able to shop, or feel that they belong at Whole Foods, or in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for goodness sake, with all that Spanish being spoken around them?

It’s tempting to write this off as yet another example of the folly of top-down corporate policy-making: policies imposed from above usually hit the floor with a thud; hilarity or disaster ensues. There’s also a cautionary tale here about policing language, which hasn’t worked since the days of Babel. The language police usually turn out to be Keystone cops.

Or, worse, they end up offending people, and the policy-makers look historically ignorant, culturally arrogant and out of touch.

I wonder, however, if there’s something else at work here. People who speak the same language — a language “team leaders” don’t speak — are able start their own conversations about work and other topics. They can talk about their lives and their families. They can form new bonds and build networks within and beyond officially recognized teams.

Those informal bonds can pay off. It’s been repeatedly shown that unofficial, loose, self-directed, peer-to-peer social bonds help people learn from one another and develop new approaches to their work: people who share a language can share practices that have proven effective, find new ways to do things, or create unwritten rules and new combinations that will help them collaborate.

On the other hand, of course, workers can use a language they share to talk about the realities of their jobs, the possibilities they see for themselves within the organization, the conditions under which they work as well as the barriers to their advancement. And they can talk about their Anglophone leaders, too. I suspect those are conversations Whole Foods — “a staunchly anti-union enterprise” run by a man who sees himself as the benevolent father of his workers — probably wants to nip in the bud.