What NBC's the Office Teaches Us About Autism and Communication

Published January 13, 2022

Many people love comedy shows like “The Office,” but most of us don’t think too hard about why exactly these programs have resonated with viewers so much.

As an autistic person, I feel that what helps make these series successful is the way that the characters violate fundamental, “common sense” social rules in exaggerated, disastrous ways.

These shows, written by and for non-autistic people, also speak volumes about the nature and mechanics of non-autistic people’s communication rules.

Reliance on social humor in “The Office”

Much of the iconic humor in “The Office” revolves around the characters making social faux pas.

“The Office” offers countless examples of this. In the episode “Valentine’s Day,” Michael breaks traditional rules for behavior in professional settings. During a prim and proper business meeting in which Michael is expected to present the financial results of his branch, he instead displays an amateurish video tour of his branch with schmaltzy music in the background. He then proceeds to blurt out to his colleagues that he was involved with his boss, Jan. His move is unbearably cringy because Michael carelessly disregards the unspoken rule that private relationships are inappropriate to discuss in business settings, especially ones that forbiddenly cross professional boundaries. His utter obliviousness, the way that he is the social equivalent of a bull in a China shop, is the joke.

In an arguably even more uncomfortable episode, “Phyllis’s Wedding,” Michael again fails to understand social boundaries. Despite the fact that he and Phyllis have a strictly professional relationship, he misunderstands his role at her wedding as one of a father-like figure. He sneaks into her dressing room before the wedding ceremony to discuss topics that are extremely out of place for their relationship, such as her impending wedding night. Again, this scene is wince-inducing precisely because Michael is not close enough to Phyllis to share such a conversation with her. He doesn’t have the right to barge in on her in a time and place that are so private. Furthermore, this is not the appropriate context to discuss intimate matters in the first place. He ignores all of those social tenets.

During what I feel is the most awkward Office episode of all time, “The Dinner Party,” both Michael and Jan again break a cardinal rule of communication: One absolutely does not bring negativity or deeply personal matters into lighthearted social situations. They break this rule in spades. Michael calls communal life with Jan “hell,” the couple argues over the personal matter of having children in public, and Jan breaks Michael’s TV in a fit of anger. They stroll past the boundaries of what should only be said “behind closed doors.” They displayed their dirty laundry in a social situation where such behaviors aren’t expected. They also did so in front of people whose relationship with them doesn’t warrant such disclosure.

The importance of social pretenses in “The Office”

Much of the comedy in “The Office” is based around people’s desperation to maintain social pretenses, as well as the tension between maintaining those pretenses and addressing the reality one is facing.

For example, in “Dinner Party,” Jim desperately wants to leave Jan and Michael’s get-together, but that desire would offend the couple. Thus, he has to repackage his needs into a purely mechanical, logical excuse that sidesteps the emotionally complex nature of his true reasoning: he is uncomfortable. He must reframe his socially unacceptable wants into a socially acceptable manner in order to act on those wants.

When the tension between Michael and Jan escalates into a dumpster fire in that episode, Jim, Pam, and the rest of the guests feel the need to muster a polite goodbye. Despite how Michael and Jan broke their part of the social rule contract by fighting in front of guests, the guests felt that they had to maintain their end of the bargain. They still had to follow the social convention of saying their goodbyes before they left instead of doing what they likely really wanted to do —wordlessly sneak out, even if they had to jump through a window to get out.

The moment in that episode in which Michael points out that Jim is not having a good time is especially painful to watch because he exposes the true, muddy feelings behind the pleasant pretenses that everyone in the ordeal is struggling to maintain.

The very concept of the episode itself is built upon the tension between pretenses and reality. The reason that the episode is so iconically agonizing is because of the broken social expectations underpinning it. Dinner parties are supposed to be light and fluffy, no matter what the participants are experiencing on the inside. Real-life and its real problems do not have their place at a dinner party. Such events (and by extension, social rules, in general) are all about preserving an illusion of happiness and cordiality, no matter the cost. Michael and Jan failed to follow this rule, to prioritize social order over their own feelings, and that’s what makes the episode so fascinating.

Takeaways

Most of the communication flops in these episodes stem from people’s communication being too direct, as well as being ignorant of boundaries and pretenses. The fact that these themes are examples of how not to behave shows that mainstream, non-autistic society dislikes these styles of communication.

The communication likes and dislikes that a non-autistic society explains why autistic people are so stigmatized. Some autistic people have genuine difficulty understanding pretenses, indirect communication, and boundaries, albeit in a much more innocuous, less obnoxious way than Michael Scott. “The Office’s” popularity reflects how invested non-autistic society is in following these rules, so it is no wonder that it shuns people who cannot follow the rules they worship.

Non-autistic society’s preference for certain types of communication is valid. However, it’s not valid to exclude from society people who are unable to follow those preferences because their brain is physically not wired to do so. Even when we are able to accommodate non-autistic people’s communication wishes, doing so takes a lot of energy, effort, and mental health strain.

Rigidity and inflexibility are supposed hallmarks of autism, however, I would argue that non-autistic society has the same symptoms when it comes to having things their way with communication. Non-autistic society loves to claim that autistic people lack empathy or emotions. If non-autistics are really the experts on those concepts, I encourage them to show it towards autistic people. A little patience and grace go a long way. After all, nobody deserves to be treated like they’re Michael Scott. Everyone deserves to be treated the way Jim treats Pam.

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