What I meant/What I said

Connecting Cities 2013 - Networked City

I want to talk about a particular form of miscommunication that plagues me a bit in my life. When I have problems with miscommunication with people, it’s usually from this thing. That being – when what a person says and what a person meant are two different things.

Autism is defined by being a social disorder – that is what differentiates it from other developmental delays. As such, I do a lot of thinking about social things, including how I communicate. It is normal for me to spend a great deal of time thinking about what I want to say, why I want to say it, what my motivations and intentions are, what I am hoping to gain, and any number of other things that all culminate into the words I choose. This means that sometimes, especially for things that are personal or important, it can take me a long time to find my words. Weeks or months sometimes (and for the autism spectrum, that’s pretty fast. some people can take years). I also know that I can slip and mess up my words if I am in a situation where I am being pressured to find words before I can fully do my processing.

I have learned that other people do not go through this process. They just always have words. I have also learned, sometimes very harshly, that this means that people may not always be fully aware of what’s behind their words, or even believe that there is nothing else behind the words (this is almost never actually true). Additionally, allistic people are not immune to making errors in their communication or word choices.

What can be of profound frustration for me is what happens when those errors happen.

See, I try very hard to acknowledge my mistakes and do better. Other people… well, even if they have very good intentions, they are rarely happy to say “oh whoops, my mistake. let’s try again.” And that bothers me. A lot.

Ok, let me give an absurd example that probably never happens in real life that will hopefully help illustrate what I’m talking about.

Person1: I like baked potatoes!
Person2: What? I thought you hated baked potatoes.
P1: I do. What are you talking about? I like french fries.
P2. But you just said that you like baked potatoes.

It’s what happens next that can vex me. Now, it isn’t always bad. Nee and I seem to have a script that works very well when either one of us find ourselves accidentally using words that say something we don’t mean. So we would end the conversation something like this:

P1. Oh, did I? Whoops, sorry about that. I meant to talk about french fries.
P2. Oh, ok. I understand now.

This involves P1 admitting their mistake and acknowledging that what they said was not what they meant. It also involve P2 acknowledging that they meant something other than what they said. WIthout both parts, it does not really work. With this method of both parties participating and clearing up a word-usage error, meaning can come across more easily.

I think this has spoiled me, because I keep running into people who don’t work that way. Instead, the rest of the conversation goes something like this:

P1: I DID NOT JUST TALK ABOUT BAKED POTATOES! YOU ARE MAKING ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT WHAT I’M SAYING!
P2: Bwah?

It all tends to go downhill from there. And yes, some people really have gotten incredibly vitriolic on me about this sort of thing. From my perspective, now they are lying. I am willing to believe that they meant something other than what their words actually said, but if they insist that their words were correct and I’m just being awful then I cannot move forward. I mean, I guess it’s true that I made an assumption about their words – I assumed they meant what they said. As assumptions go, it’s one I am very comfortable with.

After my post on feeling broken people exhorted me to see strengths in my autism. And I do try to – I am very good with details, I can be extremely determined, I see the world in ways other people do not – but it can be challenging when most of the world seems to want to focus on, and constantly remind me of, my deficiencies. This is an area where it kind of seems to be both a strength and a weakness. I put much more effort than most people do on finding and looking at words. I do this because it is a necessity for me, but it also puts me in a position where it is habitual for me to inspect word choices, which can be helpful. Sadly, it means that when there is a disconnect between what is said and what is meant, I seem to stall. And the rest of the world does not seem interested in finding a way to clear it up. I am expected to simply ignore the words used in favor of what was “meant” (except, of course, when I am not to do that and I get yelled at and called rude for trying to fully understand what is behind a person’s words. I just cannot win).

I wish it was normal for people to inspect their words. I wish people didn’t take it as some kind of attack if I point out what was actually said. I wish people could just say “whoops, I made a word error. I actually meant this thing.” When I make a word error and acknowledge it and try to find better words, I wish people were more willing to accept that I meant something other than what I said. Sadly, none of that seems to happen with people other than Nee, and it can be frustrating for me.

Hey world! You need to be better!

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6 Comments

Filed under social skills

6 responses to “What I meant/What I said

  1. Tricia

    I try so hard to remember to acknowledge my wording mistakes. I know I can do a better job.

    And I try very hard to be patient with others when they have wording problems. It’s something that comes up a lot with my relationship with P. Due to her brain working differently, for multiple reasons including repeat concussions, whole words and concepts get dropped in sentences, making me do more work to *figure out* the conversation than to *have* the conversation. Some days I’m better at it than others.

  2. Trudy

    I love your blog. You put into words all the problems I have every day. Thank you for giving me words.

  3. Please excuse me – I hit enter at an unfortunate moment and posted a mutant unfinished comment by mistake. Here’s what I was trying to say:

    I don’t think it gets acknowledged enough that a LOT of people are just generally crap at communication, regardless of their neurology. The older I get, the more I think most of the human race just burbles around unable to express themselves clearly, or listen, or generally exchange ideas in a useful way. I think I notice it more since my job changed – I’m no longer a writery person surrounded by other writery people, I’m now the sole writery person surrounded by a bunch of people who do completely different, non-communication-related things. And it has brought home to me how many people, even when they’re a) lovely, b) clever and c) very good at their jobs, can still be really rough communicators. (As for how an Aspie ended up communicating for a living, that’s a long and really quite dull story.)

    So, yes – I’m with you on measuring words really carefully and putting a lot of thought into them, and then getting quite frustrated when the other half of the conversation doesn’t do the same. Also, because I’m used to weighing my own words so carefully, it took me a long time to realise people often don’t mean to be rude or thoughtless or cruel, they just genuinely didn’t think or couldn’t do any better. I still get bitey sometimes, but I try to take things a lot less personally these days.

  4. Oh how I wish I could get my Asperger-affected friend to accept that it’s OK to have different points of view and not hate each other’s guts. He’s cut me off yet again for months; and taken offense at things I said which referred to people in general, as though they were personal revelations of his private affairs. He seems to believe I am untrustworthy, stupid and a liar. My heart is broken. No further discussion will be entered into. What a waste of life.

  5. Counterillusion

    Wow. I know I get terribly embarrassed when the medication that screws with my brain causes swapped words, or drags them off to where I can’t reach the one I need; it must be really unpleasant to have stuff go that much further and have the world give you so much crap about it. (this may not accurately convey the empathy I’m trying to express, I’m having trouble with the words. Words shouldn’t be allowed to fight back, it really isn’t fair) I’ll try to do better at acknowledging my screw-up and having more patience with others when communication gets wonky.

    On the other side of things, your different ways of thinking about things and your incredible ability to piece together vastly disparate ideas can be mind-blowing and awesome, like the stuff about the Outsiders earlier this summer. My mind always feels bigger on the inside after talking to you, because I have to stretch to keep up. Not to be all creepy fangirl-y, I just want my friends to know how awesome they are. 🙂