Social Intercourse 101

Got the title. I can almost imagine the students flocking to my door. Now all I need to do is figure out the content for an introductory course in Social Intercourse – interacting with people in social settings… I think I’ve spotted the flaw in my plan here – I don’t know much about the subject. Still, on the grounds that ignorance is the first stage on the path to knowledge, I won’t let that little fact stop me. On we go!

Module 1: Choosing Your Setting
I guess a good place to start would be finding some subjects – sorry, I mean people – to interact with. What we need is some place we can just walk into where there will be other people who are not busy doing something already. (This teaching business is harder than it looks – I think I’ll leave finding the place as an exercise for the reader.)

OK. You’ve found some place with other people (well done! – you’ll have to let me know how you did it.). What’s next? Oh yes, that would be…

Module 2: Making Contact
You’re in your chosen place. Take a look at the people around you. You need to pick one to approach. It’s probably best to go for somebody who’s on their own and not involved in talking to other people – I’ll leave that scenario for the advanced class. Right. You’ve chosen your victim – sorry again, I mean subject. No I don’t – I mean person. Or do I? This is supposed to be academic – I think I’ll stick to “subject”. You walk up to your chosen subject, and…

..that’s where it starts to get complicated. I’ve got a person here in front of me that I want to talk to and I don’t know what to do next. I mean you don’t know what to do next. I am supposed to be teaching you. Don’t look so sceptical. Of course I know what to do – how can I teach you if I don’t know what I’m talking about? And what do you mean it never stopped your other teachers? Bloomin’ cheek! Pay attention class, back to business.

Does anybody know what you do next after you’ve walked up to somebody? Anybody? Please? No? OK, I’ll tell you. You talk to them. What do you mean, “what about?” How do you expect to learn anything if you’re forever asking questions? I’m just getting to that – be patient.

Module 3: Starting Conversation
Say “Hello” (or “Hi” – that might be easier; it’s only the one syllable). This is harder than it looks. You’ve got to get the volume, pitch and emphasis right. Something between a whisper and a shout is good, and it’s got to sound “friendly” rather than “aggressive”. Best to concentrate on that – it’ll help take your mind off feeling nervous.

Sorry – didn’t mean to mention “nervous”. It’s normal – everybody feels nervous when they’re standing in front of a stranger. How do you deal with your nerves? Well, that would be another class – you want “Handling Social Phobia 101”. No, I don’t teach that one. If you must know I flunked it. OK, happy now? Let’s continue…

Ignoring how you feel about it, say “Hi” to the person in front of you in a normal voice. Oh wait – I forgot – look them in the eye first. Don’t stare – that’ll make them as uncomfortable as you. No I don’t know when a look becomes a stare – do I look like an expert on “looking”? You want “Body Language 101”. (Better sign myself up on that one while I remember.)

Where had we got to? I’ll recap: you’ve walked into this place, gone up to somebody who’s not in the middle of doing something – remember not to stand too close! You’ve looked them in the eye – without staring – and said “Hi” without whispering or shouting: in a normal tone of voice.

Recess
That’s a lot for anybody to take on board. I know I’m worn out and I guess you are too. We’ll take a recess now – any questions? I’ll see you all back here for “Social Intercourse 201” – how to keep this stimulating conversation going.

But Seriously…
I’ve tried to present this in a light-hearted way, but there are serious obstacles I – and other people on the autistic spectrum – face in social situations. Approaching people and starting a conversation is hard. If I can get past the anxiety, I have to consciously think about all the “body language” things like proximity, eye contact, posture, limb position, facial expression. Once all that’s sorted I need to modulate my voice appropriately and, finally, remember what it was I wanted to say in the first place. Sometimes I’ve not got enough motivation to even start! I find that as my anxiety levels decrease it takes less concentration to handle the rest of it.

But as well as concentrating on myself I’ve also got to concentrate on the other person to try to pick up non-verbal signals. Sometimes I lose focus on what they’re saying because I find it hard to separate voices from background. It takes additional effort to fill in the blanks. On top of that there is the distraction of figurative speech and choosing between the obvious literal meaning and the learned definitions.

So much processing takes place at a conscious level that I often can’t start to consider my response until the other person has stopped talking. I find it’s manageable one-on-one, but in a group with a dynamic mode of interaction (not turn-taking like in a structured debate) there’s just too much going on for me to focus on. That’s why, in a group of people, it usually ends up with me sitting quietly, picking up fragments of different conversations going on between subsets of the group without being able to join in because I can’t handle the volume of information. Maybe somebody out there really does have a “Social Intercourse 101” for people like me. With diagrams and worked examples!

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