Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Friendliness can come from a genetic disorder

Eli D’Angelo has a superpower: the ability to win over strangers in seconds flat.

I once watched the gregarious 12-year-old approach a scowling man in a leather jacket and chaps as he secured his Harley in a restaurant parking lot. He didn’t look like he was in the mood for conversation, but his expression softened as soon as Eli complimented his bike. When Eli reached out to hug him, he hugged back.

Even more intimidating was the group of teenage girls Eli once greeted at an after-school soccer practice. With smiles and flattery, he talked them into drawing him a picture of a two-headed guitar-playing zombie who shoots laser beams from his eyes. ...

Eli’s superpower is actually a symptom. He has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder sometimes called “cocktail party syndrome” because it makes people extremely outgoing and irrepressibly friendly. When I first heard of the disorder — before I knew much about the intellectual impairments and serious health issues it also entails — I was envious of the apparent social ease it imparted. ...

But Eli violated the standard rules of etiquette more often than he obeyed them. ... Again and again, people forgave Eli’s faux pas and responded instead to the earnestness of his interest in them and the sincerity of his care.

And Eli truly cares about people. He wants to talk to them, hug them, invite them over for a sleepover. He can’t help feeling this way; almost everyone with Williams does. It’s one of the quirks of the disorder, caused by the deletion of about two dozen genes from chromosome seven. The absence of these genes, it seems, produces an insatiable drive to connect with other people. ...

Spending time with Eli, and others with Williams, made me realize that this is the key difference between us: It’s not that they’re not awkward, it’s that they’re not afraid of being awkward. They don’t have the fear of looking foolish that holds many of us back. We’re so terrified of that one-in-100 chance of embarrassment or rejection that we avoid the 99 interactions that are more likely to be fulfilling. ... Lacking that concern, Eli grasped what has long eluded me: that most people aren’t excessively judgmental. They’re quick to forgive. And more often than not, they want to connect.
--Jennifer Latson, New York, on the darnedest genetic influences on behavior