Studying Conversation

Partly as a result of my anxiety therapy I have been paying special attention to conversations recently, both those I have been involved in and others that I’ve observed, to learn more about their structure and the behavior of the participants. This has involved paying more attention than I would normally as well as trying to watch people, which I have found to be difficult for a number of reasons.

That first part, focusing on what the people are saying instead of considering my own responses, has had three effects: I find I am better able to recall details of what has been said, I interact less because the time I take to build a response means that the conversation has usually moved on, and it takes considerably more energy to maintain the level of concentration which leaves me feeling tired.

The aim of watching people was to try to observe non-verbal signals. Now, I didn’t expect this to be easy but it was worse than I had anticipated: in the nearly forty years of my life I have managed to gain no more than a very basic knowledge of body language. I can recognize smiles. I can sometimes pick up when somebody is angry or upset. But that’s about it: how do you look for signs when you don’t know what they look like? It’s not like people are holding up little flags. So if there are any signals that people use when they’re conversing they’re lost on me. It’s like the patterns that flowers have that only show in UV light which bees and other insects can see but humans can’t: if you can’t see anything there you can’t begin to interpret it.

The one thing I did think to try to watch was people’s direction of gaze… which involves looking at their eyes… in other words, eye contact. This is a common issue for those on the Spectrum: it’s difficult to strike a balance between obvious avoidance and staring. I tried it out on my wife, concentrating on her eyes while she spoke, and she told me it was intimidating and off-putting because I was staring so intensely. After that I decided not to try it out on others. Besides which, I rationalized that it would probably distort the behavior I was trying to observe in the first place!

My limited observations did allow me to hypothesize up to a point. I identified a distinction between functional conversation where the aim is to convey or acquire information, and small talk which doesn’t appear to fulfill any purpose. I tentatively suggested that it was a mechanism for establishing and maintaining social bonds, which my therapist agreed with. I have little or no problem with functional conversation because there is a purpose to the exercise. Whereas small talk… feels pointless. Do I really want to go around commenting on the weather to people? Why?

I guess a large part of my problem is that I don’t really understand social bonds (maybe I’ve just identified my next area of study). No real conclusions yet from all this: even with a focus for my observations I have not been able to gain much insight. But then this is a very common area of difficulty for those on the Autism Spectrum.


9 thoughts on “Studying Conversation

  1. Oh my that sounds exhausting! Does your therapist know how much energy these actions cost you? I'm asking because I'm wondering if you're not asking yourself to do too much at once.When I did job coaching, my coach asked me to do a similar thing (observe conversations and analyse my own role in them – yes, you got that right, not only participate which is bad enough but be constantly aware of what I am saying and what they are saying and analyse it afterwards and oh f***). Suffice it to say I told her I couldn't do it. This was before I realised the extent of my autism, by the way.It was one of the reasons why I stopped with the job coaching. Because I hit this enormous brick wall, asking too much of myself at once. Simply because things like conversations and body language are so much harder and take so much more energy than the non-autistic therapists/coaches of this world realise.

  2. My therapist has intellectual knowledge of ASD but I get the impression she has had limited experience working with people like myself. I have tried to pace myself to avoid getting exhausted, so I just observe for a few minutes at a time and then take a break. Seems to be working.I find the thought of me doing something like coaching or counseling people scares the heck out of me: I can't manage to observe at the same time as actively participating: it feels like juggling and takes way too much coordination. Ends up with me not achieving either. I can't even cope with two people talking at the same time without flip-flopping between each of them in turn and not following what either is saying. It's a similar situation when I've got my own thoughts competing with the voice of somebody I'm trying to listen to.

  3. Yes, that is a lot all at once, I think. It has taken me years to be able to handle more of these sorts of situations. I'm much better at it than I used to be, but I do hear the words "intense" and "passionate" from people to describe the way I pay attention to them or my conversation. I do much better with people I have known for a very long time, or even with people I am talking with at, oh, a store, for example. I know it's going to last only a short time, it's about something very particular, and it's not going to involve me having to get to know them a good deal, I can look at things while they talk to me, especially if they are talking about something on a shelf or a book they have in their hand, or something. It helps create enough of a cushion so I can do better at the conversation, I suppose. I am working on a post to put on on my blog about this too. My therapist says I've come a long way and she told me to look at friendships and getting to know people as a series of individual short meetings, since I do so much better in brief conversational situations. Long ones make me exhausted, but I do have to do those at times as well. I think I am actually doing better, but I think it has to do with getting older and becoming more at ease with myself and not caring so much of what others think, even though I do care at times and sometimes I'm a little clumsy inside myself. I hope that makes the sense I think it does.

  4. It makes sense to me 🙂 I like that phrase "a little clumsy inside myself" because I can relate to the feeling.It's funny that you mention talking to people at a store because I did exactly that last night. I agree completely with what you say about the setting creating a cushion: also whether it's at the deli counter or the checkout I find what I'm doing gives me something to talk about. That's my biggest problem in general conversation: finding a topic.

  5. I've been following your blog for a while now and posting the articles I really like to Facebook. Because of all the Aspies out there writing blogs and stuff, your experience with it and how it affects you seems the closest to my own experience. Almost everything you describe is how it goes for me, too. Plus you're a great writer and I'm also a writer, so I appreciate that.I'm hoping that sharing these things from someone else's point of view will help the people I'm around to understand that it is a very real thing that I can't necessarily just "get over". Have well-meaning people ever told you that you just need to figure out how to not let things bother you?

  6. Hi Matthew! Thanks for your comment: I'm glad you find my writing accessible and relevant.In answer to your question I have had people tell me I just need to "get over" something that bothers me. How I respond depends on how comfortable I'm feeling; I might try to explain but this is difficult. Words come much more easily when I'm writing and in a face-to-face situation I can end up tongue-tied and flustered quite easily. So that leaves the option of listening to them and hoping they'll go away.Because the fact of the matter is there are things that do affect me to a great degree — to the point of overload. It's often because they trigger a strong emotional response which I am ill-equipped to cope with.

  7. Funnily enough, if I say I've learned how not to let things like noisy environments and crowds and bright lights bother me, and it's by simply removing myself from that situation… the kind of people who make the kind of "stop letting things get to you" comments never think that's an acceptable solution. What they MEAN is "stop making such a drama because it inconveniences and/or embarrasses me". What they need to understand is that nobody, autistic or not, can make themselves magically less upset. Ask them if they ever have been really upset about something, like having a car accident or someone breaking their heart or someone dying. Yes, the upset feelings get less intense the further you get away from the situation (the moment it happened). No, it would not have been helpful if someone told you to simply stop being upset straight away. That's not how it works.You should be allowed to cope with things that upset you in a way that works for you, as long as you don't harm anyone.Oh, and if they mean you shouldn't let people or people's remarks get to you, then they're just wrong. Bullying is never ok. Pretending someone isn't hurting you with their words has never stopped a single bully from trying until they find your weaknesses. It would be a lot nicer if you could get some comfort and understanding from those people, instead of them telling you it's your own fault for "letting it get to you". That's blaming the victim instead of the person who did something wrong.

  8. Nicely put. Another example: my wife handles being unable to swim by avoiding deep water. Avoidance is a great strategy unless it prevents you doing something necessary. That's why I'm working on handling my anxiety with phone calls and some social situations. But the important thing is that it's me in control: when I feel I've had enough there's no shame in walking away. It would be foolish to try to cope in an unnatural way that causes you harm just because others think that's the "right" way to do it.

  9. "Words come much more easily when I'm writing and in a face-to-face situation I can end up tongue-tied and flustered quite easily. So that leaves the option of listening to them and hoping they'll go away."Yes, yes, this is exactly what happens to me.Mainly I was told that I had to figure out how to not let noise and other sensory things bother me. That's it exactly…they don't see avoiding those things as a valid solution. Even though it works to achieve the result I want.

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