In “How Do I Say ‘My Brain Is Not Like Yours’?” I discussed a lot of the frustrations I experience as a neuroatypical when I’m in social situations and attempting to navigate human interactions. Nowhere is this more difficult to me than in settings which people regard as “casual” and “low stress,” because these are the settings in which the rules I have carefully established through trial and error seem to break down, despite my best intentions.
I am speaking, here, of questions. Because, here’s the thing.
When you ask me a question, I assume that you are asking me a question because you would like to hear the answer. Thus, I am going to respond. And I am going to respond honestly, because I don’t have the social filter in my brain which tells me what is and is not appropriate; I take questions at face value. And sometimes, this turns very, very ugly.
“What you do think of the pie?”
“I think it tastes like shit. This is one of the most awful pies I have ever had. The crust tastes like cardboard sopped with simple syrup and the filling tastes like pureed ass.”
“How are you?”
“I feel like crap. This whole day is turning to shit, I think I am getting a migraine, and the fucking cat pissed on the floor again.”
“Oh.” [look of extreme boredom]
Questions terrify me. Because every time a question gets asked, I have to rifle through my mental notes. I have to think about other settings in which the question has been asked, responses which were greeted approvingly, responses which were not greeted approvingly, and I have to ask myself “is this person asking because they really want to know?” Which seems utterly alien to me, because, like, why would you ask a question if you didn’t want to know the answer?
For me, I only ask a question like “how are you” when I really want to hear the answer. If I don’t want to know, I don’t ask. (And thus, I also get confused and upset when people share information I didn’t ask for, and, hello, awkwardness.)
By extension, small talk also terrifies me, because I don’t know what kinds of topics are acceptable and which are not, and I am constantly crossing invisible lines which I don’t see until I trip on them and fall down. I am constantly fouling up in social interactions. When I was a child, it got me labeled as “rude” and “wild” and now that I’m an adult I’m “rude” and “blunt.” All because I interact with people in the way in which I want to be interacted with, clearly, all cards laid out on the table, all parameters clearly established. I fear human interaction on a deep level if it’s anything beyond an interaction with clear, easily negotiable boundaries.
Like with my accountant. I can say “hello Accountant, I hope things are going well for you at the moment, I need my taxes done now, here is the paperwork.” Or, at the feed store, when I pick up the cat food, I know enough to say “It’s a lovely day isn’t it?” or “I hope this rain lets up a bit.” once my credit card has been swiped and we are standing around waiting for the transaction to clear. When I worked in retail, I could follow the formula, the “I hope you found everything you wanted, would you like a bag, $32.16 please, sign here, have a nice day” rota. I understand how to navigate professional transactions and interactions because I’ve gone through them literally hundreds of times, and I know the formula. You want to throw me off? Introduce something unfamiliar to the formula. Introduce a question which is not related to the business which we are transacting. Introduce the X Factor, and watch me fall apart.
For me, social interactions are a minefield. I have no idea which step will be my last.