I have always known exactly when I should be saying please or thank you. The problem with suffering from Selective Mutism is that it can make you unable to use manners, despite knowing exactly when you should be using them. Throughout my life, instead of saying thank you, I will instead smile; this has always been my way of saying thank you when I am unable to use my voice. Likewise, if I want say something such as “yes please” to someone, I will nod and smile as my way of saying please. However, whereas some people do accept these as a please or thank you, for whatever reason there are many people who do not accept them as a please or thank you and over the years I have been subjected to being called rude more times than I could ever count.
I am not a rude person. I am very appreciative when someone does something for me and the fact that I am not always able to thank the person and tell them how much I appreciate what they’ve done for me is extremely heartbreaking. Due to my high anxiety about communicating with people, even writing a thank you note down to someone is sometimes impossible to do. There are also times when I experience such extreme anxiety around someone, that communicating in any way is impossible, even smiling. If you do something for me and I give you a blank stare, I am not being rude. I am also not being rude if I seem to be giving you some sort of unappreciative look; this is just my frustration coming out. I may not even look you in the eye; eye contact is extremely difficult for anyone with someone with Selective Mutism. My eyes have a tendency to wander around the place but never directly look at someone due to the extreme anxiety I am experiencing. If I do experience anxiety this severe around you, I want you to know that it is nothing personal, I cannot choose who I can and can’t communicate with; my anxiety is the decider of that. I am also not behaving like that because I am ungrateful, in fact I am very grateful for whatever you have done for me.
Wherever possible, I will try my best to use manners. If there is a way that I feel able to use them some way or another, I will make a point to do so; if I don’t, it means I really feel unable to do it. Sometimes, this can mean asking someone who I am able to communicate with, to tell the person I want to thank for me. Of course it’s not the same as doing it myself, but it does help to give me peace of mind that they won’t think I’m just being rude. I am extremely thankful for the technology that we have in this day and age as it means that even if I am unable to thank the person at the time, I can sometimes send them a message later on. Of course this does depend on the situation because for example, I can’t exactly send a message to a stranger.
One of the problems I have to deal with is when I actually am able to speak and I say thank you to someone but they don’t hear me. There have been times when for example I have gotten off a bus and said thank you to the driver, only to have a sarcastic, “THANK YOU!” shouted back at me. This at first confused me, especially when I had only just started to be able to talk in public because I couldn’t understand why this was happening; I had said thank you! It’s only when I’ve mentioned it to friends that I’ve been with at the time and they’ve told me that I do tend to talk pretty quietly that I’ve realised that they just simply didn’t hear me. Volume is a big issue for me. I can often think that I am talking at a reasonable volume for the other person to hear me, but really they can barely hear a word I am saying. One reason for this is because when someone with Selective Mutism is completely unable to talk, their throat muscles tense up and they can’t get a single word to come out. With me, there are times when I am able to physically talk, but only just; this means that my throat muscles aren’t too tense to not allow any words to come out, but it does mean that the words may come out very quietly and even a bit more high pitched than what my usual voice is. This can create a massive misunderstanding because I don’t actually realise how quiet I am talking, so when I do say thank you to someone, I know that I have said it but the other person hasn’t heard me, which makes them presume that I haven’t and that I am just being rude.
Although these days I am able to talk in most places in public, I still have good days and bad days. My anxiety can also switch from being low to high in seconds. For example, if I go into a shop to buy something, I may either be able to say nothing at all to the cashier, or be able to manage a little bit of small talk. However, since my anxiety can switch from being low to high in seconds, I can go from suddenly being able to talk perfectly fine, to not being able to talk at all. Of course since the very last thing you say before leaving is thank you, it then makes me unable to say thank you, so I have to go with the smile that I go with when I am unable to say thank you. Of course, this can create a lot of confusion since I was able to talk perfectly fine to them seconds before so of course they know I am able to talk so they will expect a thank you before I leave, but when I smile instead of saying thank you, it can make a lot of people think that I am being rude.
Another issue I have is the fact that if I am to smile at someone as a way of saying thank you is the fact that they have to be looking at me for me to smile at them. Sometimes for example if I am in a shop, the cashier will be looking to see who the next customer is whilst listening out for me to say thank you, instead of looking at me. This means that there are times when I do have to walk away without ever being able to thank them in any way whatsoever. Believe me, I feel just as rude as they believe I am when I am unable to thank them in any way. It is one of the things on the never ending list of all the frustrations that you have to deal with when you live with Selective Mutism.
So the next time someone smiles instead of saying the words, “thank you,” please don’t presume that they’re being rude. They could, like me, have an invisible disability. When you look at me from the outside, you wouldn’t be able to tell that I have any kind of a disability. This is one of the many reasons I am working to spread the awareness of Selective Mutism, because of course I know that it is not the fault of anyone else when they believe my silence is my way of being rude; they just don’t know what Selective Mutism is. Of course most people can speak perfectly fine, and most of the time if someone doesn’t say thank you it probably is just them being rude, however, please keep an open mind. They could have Selective Mutism, and that smile or very quiet thank you that they gave you? That could’ve taken every last piece of strength that they had.