Stating the problem
This article is about learning social skills. But first, let’s talk about abilities! People with Asperger’s Syndrome have many strengths to balance out the difficulties life throws in their direction, like high IQ’s, amazing mathematic and scientific skills, and a quick, punny sense of humor. Socially they tend to be honest, straight-forward friends. They don’t play games. They don’t use people. As colleagues at work, they’re matter-of-fact, precise, persistent, and not given to gossip.
But these strengths don’t always make it easy: people with Asperger’s still have to survive in a neurotypical society (neurotypicals are people without Asperger’s), where communication is often tied down by social rules that don’t make sense.
How do you connect with your peers when they seem to speak an undecipherable, nonsensical, alien language? Where are the neurotypical-Aspie bilingual dictionaries? What about books for outsiders on neurotypical culture and behavior?
That said, we desperately need more social skill guides for adults with Asperger’s. Here’s an effort to fill that gap, even if it’s nothing more than a post on a website.
Before you move onto the next section, don’t forget to look at the first article in this series, tips for talking to neurotypicals.
More tips for talking with neurotypicals:
Neurotypicals connect better when they feel understood and appreciated, but for someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, grasping another’s perspective is hard. How do understand neurotypicals when they have so many illogical social rules? No worries: the trick is to show interest. We’ll start super-easy and go from there.
(1) Acknowledge their presence
You’re busy on your computer at a local café when someone sits down nearby. Do you greet them? This might seem too basic, but let’s start simple.
- No need to greet: if you don’t know the other person, your best bet is to not say anything unless they greet you first. You can then return the greeting. There’s a system to this: eye contact + hello.
- Need to greet: if you recognize the person, you probably aught to greet them. Again, eye contact + hello. Consider including a smile or nod in the mix, and you’re looking good. Next, you have to decide whether to pursue a conversation…
(2) To converse or not to converse
So you recognize the other person and greet them accordingly. How do you know whether to engage in conversation?
- No need to converse: if the other person counters your acknowledgment with a smile or “hello” and nothing more — then looks away and does their own thing — go back to what you’re doing. Unless you want to talk, there’s no need for conversation.
- Need to converse: if your acquaintance says “hello” and offers a statement or question, then it’s best to stop typing and focus on the conversation, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
(3) Remember names
You’ve acknowledged your acquaintance’s presence, and they’ve started a conversation. They say, “Remember me? My name is Lucy. We met at school last semester.”
What do you do with this information? Remember, people like to be appreciated, and knowing someone’s name is a great way to show you appreciate them. Try to memorize your acquaintance’s name.
If you have problems holding onto names, don’t fear! Use a mnemonic device to record names in your mind: associate the name with a memory, idea, song, play on words, or an alternative catchy method.
For example, how would you remember the name “Lucy?” Lots of ways! Consider associating your new friend “Lucy” with:
- Lucille Ball on TV’s “I love Lucy.”
- The Rolling Stone’s song, “Lucy in the sky with diamonds.”
- Lucy from Charlie Brown’s Peanuts (“The Doctor is in” Lucy).
- Lucy the Australopithecus (who lived 3 million years ago).
Come up with a visual link between the other person and the association of your choice. For example, if you chose the Rolling Stones, imagine your acquaintance Lucy dancing in the sky with diamonds.
Once you’ve got the name memorized, use it for greetings and good byes. Insert it occasionally into the conversation too. Lucy will appreciate the recognition. Small things go a long way!
(4) Learn the details
So far, you’ve bumped into Lucy and offered a greeting: eye contact and hello. She says “hiya,” tells you her name, then mumbles something about an aquarium shop next door. She’s waiting for the store to open. Now it’s your turn: how do you respond?
The easy answer: you keep talking about the current theme. Since she’s mentioned the aquarium shop next door, ask her questions about aquariums. “So you like aquariums?” or “What did you say about the aquarium shop?”
Lucy tells you she came to get an aquarium for her mom’s fish, since it’s huge and outgrown its current aquarium, but the store is closed. Hmn. Closed stores, aquariums, and mom’s oversized fish? What do you do with all this information?
First, you listen! A friendly ear is a godsend.
Second, if this is someone you wish to impress or “understand,” try to remember the gist of their story. Why? For future conversations. Next time you see Lucy, ask her about her mom’s fish and whether she was able to get a bigger aquarium. Everyone knows it takes time and energy to remember these small details, and chances are Lucy will appreciate that.
Remembering old conversations is great for future conversations, but don’t go overboard. Avoid prying for information; let the facts unfold naturally. Don’t share person X’s history with person Y. And take care not to scare people by stating every detail of their lives. While it’s okay to research someone online out of curiosity, studying their secrets and telling them everything you know can make the other person run in the opposite direction.
(5) Changing the topic of conversation
So Lucy and you have struck up a conversation. She’s still talking about aquariums, something that definitely interests her, then pauses. It’s your turn to say something again.
Still not sure what to say? Listen for things the other person says that interest you. Shared interests are always good material for conversations. If you like aquariums, here’s your chance to shine.
What if you don’t care about aquariums? If that’s the case, it’s best to talk about aquariums for a few minutes, then shift the conversation forward, looking for a different shared interest. That is, change the subject gently.
How do you transition the conversation to a new subject? Here’s a three-step process. (a) Mention the old topic. (B) Introduce the new topic (you must provide a link between old subject and new, otherwise you confuse your listener). (C) Invite the other person into the new conversation by asking a question, preferably one that links A and B.
Whew! That does sound complicated. Basically, you’re switching from old to new. In equation form, it looks like: (old topic ==> new topic) + question linking both topics. Here are some examples:
- “I don’t really know a lot about aquariums [old topic], but I love aquatic animals, especially jelly fish [new topic]. I wonder if you can keep a jelly fish in an aquarium? (question)”
- “Aquariums aren’t my thing. I’m awful at caring for fish, so aquariums intimidate me [old topic]! But I do like aquatic animals, especially whales and dolphins [new topic]. Too bad they don’t fit in aquariums, right? Wouldn’t you love to have a miniature dolphin or whale in your living room? (question)”
What do you do if the other person shifts the topic themselves? It happens to the best of us: we find a subject that fascinates us, and the other person starts talking about something else. No matter how tempting, don’t force the conversation back to your interest. Follow the flow and look for a new shared interest.
(6) Handing the conversation over to the other person
You’ve talked about jelly fish, whales, and dolphins with gusto, only to realize you’re hogging the conversation. You have to pass the conversation back to the other person without saying “it’s your turn.” But how? In general, there are three basic ways to signal it’s your companion’s turn to speak. Check out a, b, and c below.
(a) Ask a question and wait for an answer:
Remember the first article in this series? We introduced some helpful techniques, including “listen + ask a question” and “share + ask a question.” You’ll notice each technique ends with a question. A question lets the other person know it’s their turn to speak. But don’t ask nonstop questions, otherwise it’ll feel like you’re interrogating your acquaintance! Consider alternating questions with sharing ideas, stories, and general information.
(b) Have a meaningful closure point
Transfer a conversation over by catching your listener’s interest, compelling them to say something. Have a “meaningful closure point.” Or simply reach a conclusion!
Ideally, this conclusion would be earth-shatteringly fascinating. It would jump start your acquaintance’s emotions, curiosity, humor, or fascination. But an adequate conclusion is one that gets a response. How do you find a meaningful closure point, or an adequate conclusion?
In general, you want to tell a brief story from beginning to end. If the end is clear in sight, the listener will know when you reach it and be ready to start talking when it’s their turn.
“Beginning to end” is a simplification. Neurotypicals aren’t always 100% linear in their conversations. Instead of beginning ⇒ end, you get a thousand variations of beginning ⇒ early-middle ⇒ beginning ⇒ late-middle ⇒ early-middle ⇒ end. Yep, sometimes they even start at the end and end in the beginning. Also, tiny differences in tone, tense, vocabulary, speed, candor, and level of formality change the meaning profoundly. These things alter how the listener reacts. How do you share a story and reach a conclusion with all that going on? Here are some tips to help you create a meaningful closure point:
- Avoid talking to people about subjects that don’t interest them. Recognize signs of boredom, like when others avoid eye contact, yawn, don’t ask questions, start checking their watch, or become very distracted.
- For typical day-to-day conversations, keep your story brief. In the beginning, don’t go over 30-60 seconds.
- Avoid repeating yourself or making cognitive circles when speaking. Focus on reaching your conclusion smoothly.
- If you’ve talked longer than originally planned, admit it. Say, “I’m almost finished, I promise…” or “To make a long story short…” and finish what you’re saying as quickly as you can.
- Avoid large, stuffy words, unless you’re absolutely sure your listener is familiar with those words.
- When needed, use cue words to let others know you’re ending your story: “In the end…” or “It turns out…”
- If you’re having problems, ask a friend to help you hone your story-telling skills. Are you including too much detail? Varying the tone of your voice enough? Choosing topics that interest others?
(c) Honesty and humor.
The third method involves honesty + humor. Honesty is easy enough to grasp (just say what’s really going on), but neurotypical humor can be inconceivable. Your best option: prepare simple emergency phrases for those fiasco moments. Check out the following scenarios and their emergency phrases below.
You find yourself so anxious/overwhelmed that you blank. Rescue yourself by smiling and say, “Wow, I completely lost myself in that one. I think it’s your turn to talk.”
You look at the clock and realize you’ve been talking nonstop for the past fifteen minutes. Consider smiling and say something like, “Wow, I just hijacked the conversation, didn’t I? I think it’s your turn to talk.”
You come to a conclusion, pause, and your audience says nothing. You believe you’ve said something inappropriate. Don’t fret. Simply smile and say: “Wow, it looks like I’ve scandalized everyone in the room without meaning to. I think it’s someone else’s turn to talk.”
(7) Observe, practice, and get a little help
We talk about social skills training and interpersonal equations and the “rules,” but the greatest tool you have is your brain. Approach life like one big experiment. Observe, secretly take notes, and ask yourself “what?” and “why?”
First, pay attention to how people interact. Sit back and monitor their volume, eye contact, personal space, posture, how they start and finish their statements, and how often they ask questions. Watch for patterns. Notice what they’re doing. Are they leaning forward or back? How are they holding their heads? What are the possible reasons for each behavior? It’s difficult to observe all variables at once; consider monitoring each factor in isolation. What do you notice? If you can’t observe real people, watch sitcoms, soap operas, movies, and talk shows. Lots of questions will come up. Why does that person move that way? Why does that other person do the opposite? Write your questions down and a neurotypicals friend what they mean.
Next, live your life like an enormous science project. Go forth and interact! Each positive and negative reaction happens for a reason. Try to identify that reason and learn from it. Again, observe, take notes, and ask yourself “what?” and “why?” Each time you receive a good response, hone in on what you did right and keep doing that behavior. When the response isn’t so inviting, identify which rule you broke (if you did break a rule) and how to do things differently in the future. Remember, a less-than-positive response isn’t always your fault.
Finally, invite your neurotypicals friends into your science project. They’re a good source of information, an extra set of eyes, and (like mentioned above) can answer questions and help interpret your observations. At work or school, your friend can also give you real-time feedback about your behaviors, letting you know if you’re missing a grand social point or committing a faux-pas you hadn’t recognized. It’s like having a friend on the “inside.”
In closing, while I’ve had my share of autistic spectrum patients, I’m not a specialist in Asperger’s and social skills training. The above tips don’t arise from hard science and placebo-controlled research; they’re anecdotal at best, which means they work for some people, but there’s no proof they’ll work for everybody. Will these ideas help you? As mentioned above, the best gauges you’ve got are your brain and your neurotypicals friends. Use both to determine what’s right for you!
Thanks for reading!
Why should us people with Asperger’s cater entirely to neurotypical bodylanguage? That’s way too exhausting. I think it should be a two way street and that they have to meet us in the middle. It’s really too much to ask for us to fluently speak neurotypical bodylanguage etc. You’re always going to make mistakes and offend them somehow. They’re not better than us. They should facilitate us a little bit and we should facilitate them a little bit.
It WOULD be nice to have a society where people understood and “facilitated” for one other, both ways, Aspie and neurotypical. (Or between genders, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, political views too!) But, you’re right, it isn’t that easy. People try. I think we understand Asperger’s better now than before, and hopefully that goes both ways. But neurotypicals themselves often misread one another’s body language or verbal expressions, taking away different messages from the same conversation, and there are millions of books written about trying to find that one rule that brings everyone onto the same page. No one knows that rule.
What I’m waiting for is a book written by someone with Aspergers teaching neurotypicals how to function in an Aspie-centric world. How to be friends, how to date, how to work with, how to communicate like, how to fit in with people with Asperger’s, etc.