The other night I was attempting to purchase cigarettes with my credit card. Now, being 28 years old, there was no issue with looking my age. However, the clerk was dubious that I was actually the person whose name was on the credit card that I handed them. I suspect it was because I am fairly androgynous to begin with and I was wearing androgynous clothing as well and no cosmetics. A silverado-style hat, military-esque blouse, and black dress pants further confused the gender I was presenting. I saw his hesitation and handed him my identification. From there he cracked some idiotic smile, rang up the purchase, and I was on my way. I could tell that he was not sold, but in the end I got what I wanted. Even though my presentation was intentional, the lack of congruence between his expectation and my appearance was enough to poison that interaction. Now imagine if we were dealing with empathy…
Every time our mask cracks, we run the risk of having to do damage control. If my gender presentation was enough to leave a clerk wondering if his store just got scammed, what would the neurotypical think if I was even more ambiguous regarding something as sacred as empathy? Yes, wearing a mask is taxing. Yes, the stakes are high. We do what we must, however.
The clerk may have been left with a host of thoughts on my way out. Maybe he thought that I was a lesbian. Maybe he thought that I was, correctly, transgender. Ultimately, he had some thought and some impression of my presence. The “slip” of my mask by dressing so androgynously had already damaged the interaction. Proper recovery was not possible.
I’ve seen my mask slip with those that I consider friends. Whether they are talking about the epidemic of street drug deaths in the area I hail from or their dying pets, I often find it impossible to present a consistent and empathic face. These friends know me well enough to not hold it against me, but even they are reduced to a look of puzzlement and disgust. Every time I crack a smile when they are describing tragedy, they reevaluate something regarding our friendship. Every time I say something off the cuff and inappropriate given the situation at hand, they wonder how I can be so alien.
It is so important to not let the mask crack in the first place. A shattered cannon will never have the same strength, appearance, or ability to fire upon being glued back together. Such is the same with any interaction that is tarnished by the inconsistency between the target’s expectations and reality. I may have gotten my cigarettes at the end of the day, but at the same time the clerk was left with a bitter taste in his mouth. I may still be friends with those that I described earlier, but they realize more and more that I will never be able to provide the empathic support that they crave. Every time my mask slips, my scars show more and more.