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!
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!