Speed kills

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As a political junkie, I often think of campaign adviser James Carville’s famous motto / catch-phrase during the 1992 presidential election: “Speed kills.” He meant that campaigns must strike quickly and respond quickly to attacks from the opponent. And that’s exactly what he did. The message is: move fast … or lose the race, literally and metaphorically.But the speed that makes me most anxious is the speed of social interactions. It’s ironic, because I have an overactive thyroid which accelerates many physiological processes. But as an Aspie, I am slow to process, and to respond to, the words and body language of others.

You know how every school or office has a “clown,” the person who, in a group setting, always delivers a witty retort that makes everyone laugh? Well, I’m the anti-clown. I’m the one who thinks of a response several seconds (or minutes) later. By then, the conversation has progressed. My response isn’t necessarily glacial or tortoise-like. But it’s slow enough to be a problem in social settings, where information is being communicated at lightning speed.

The vast majority of communications, and responses thereto, happen extremely quickly and almost imperceptibly. When a person is talking, very little is communicated through the spoken words themselves.  A UCLA psychology professor famously claimed words account for only 7% of the message communicated. While the research behind the 7% claim has been criticized, there’s wide agreement that words are only a very small part of interpersonal communication.

I think everyone recognizes there are non-verbal aspects to communication. But I don’t know if their speed is fully appreciated, or how many of them happen simultaneously. The term “body language” is often used. When it’s unpacked, though, it turns out there’s a lot to communication that the listener must process to understand the speaker.

There’s the way the words are spoken: their tone, pitch and emphasis, whether the statement is ascending or descending, the volume, the speed, how much the speaker articulates. And there’s the face: how the eyebrows move, the eyes’ gaze, the shape of the mouth, the movement of the eyes. And we can’t forget the arms and hands (positioning and movement of the arms, movement of the fingers, what part of the speaker’s body she touches, whether she touches and listener and where), or the feet (tapping, etc.) or the shifting of the body, proximity to the listener, and so on.

Aspies, myself included, are notoriously bad at reading all these non-verbal forms of communication. I’ve gotten better, now that I learned the “rules,” at least for some things, like rolling of the eyes, the “eyebrow flash,” tapping of the feet and folding of the arms.

But here’s the thing: even now that I know a lot of the non-verbal cues, I often process them too slowly, kind of like how a computer overwhelmed with commands, exhibits “lag.” I know the obvious signs of impatience (blank stare, folded arms, tapping feet, rapidly nodding head) But conversation, particularly in group settings, involves so much more, and it’s-all-happening-at-the-same-time.

Neurotypicals also forget, I think, that our environment is composed of nearly an infinite number of stimuli. We unconsciously filter out all but a select few. But Aspies tend to filter out a lot of the socially-related ones, whereas we notice many things that most people probably find boring and irrelevant — maybe the shape of the computer keyboard, the arrangement of cabinets in an office, the number of cars in a parking lot, discolorations in the carpet, unusual colors or shapes. By observing and processing these things (which don’t involve interpersonal interactions), our personal computing power is necessarily slower to observe and process other things (which do involve interpersonal interactions).

One-on-one, I’m now usually able to process non-verbal signals with sufficient speed. In fact, even my wife and psychologist — two of only five people who know I have Asperger’s — say it’s almost impossible to tell I’m an Aspie from one-on-one conversation. But add a bunch of people into the mix, and it’s a different story.

The problem is that when, for example, ten people are sitting at a table for a meal or other social gathering, the amount of non-verbal communication increases (almost) exponentially. Now, it’s not just about reading body language but figuring out who to read it from, and when. It’s information overload. I think this explains, in part, why many Aspies get mentally and physically exhausted from being with large groups of people.

Information overload and exhaustion. That’s probably as good a place as any to end this post. (Not a very smooth transition … but then I’m an Aspie.)

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts (and tricks, if you have any) on processing non-verbal cues. Or speed. Or both.

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10 thoughts on “Speed kills

  1. More laughs of recognition from me here! 🙂 Being overperceptive about my surroundings is definitely an issue – people will say ‘how did you even notice that?!’ when I point out something unusual. I guess that doesn’t help with the social interaction processing ‘lag’ – too much going on all at the same time…I’m the same with one-on-one conversation; perhaps eight people now know that I consider myself to be an Aspie, and the people who have only known me for a short while (ie. after I had already put a lot of effort into acting ‘normal’) say that they’d never tell. Ten people in a social gathering would also be too much for me; I tend to be almost mute in large gatherings as I just can’t judge when to speak or what to say that will interest a whole table. I usually end up making little comments to the people sat next to me, though I don’t know whether they appreciate me doing that or not! I like a small group of three or four, ideally, so that the conversation keeps going if I run out of things to say, but if I do have something to say I can actually get an opportunity to say it.

    I also agree that social interaction like that can be tiring. I find my best method is the abovementioned sit-next-to-someone-you-know-and-address-your-comments-just-to-them one! Otherwise, observing and learning are good things to do – what with us Aspies being generally quick learners, it’s a good way to pick up ideas and tricks for future social interactions 🙂

    • Hey there! I’ve been waiting for another one of your astute posts on your blog … but I guess I’ll have to settle with a comment 🙂

      I tend to be almost mute in large gatherings as I just can’t judge when to speak or what to say that will interest a whole table.

      I feel exactly the same way. The psychologist who diagnosed me helped open my eyes to the “rules” most people subconsciously play by in these settings. Many times, the person speaking is trying to achieve a greater goal — maybe impressing his companion, asserting himself to the other men at the table, demonstrating how smart/successful/rich/connected/athletic he is (I’m using male pronouns because, unfortunately, it is usually men who engage in this behavior). But, and this is the part I have trouble with, the comment must be consistent with the flow of the conversation, not just a particular topic. I’m not sure that can be learned (although I’m trying).

      When I’m at a large table, I, like you, often engage with the person next to me, or try to. But I learned several years ago that it’s impolite to speak only to one adjacent table mate, especially when it means turning my back on the other. So now I try to periodically switch. Yet another thing to remember! I envy those people who have the ability to flit around the room, sitting in unoccupied chairs and meeting new people or greeting old acquaintances. For me, I put my energies into picking a “good” seat, one where I’m more likely to be next to a good conversation companion.

      So is there an ETA on your next post? 🙂

      • Aw, I’m glad someone likes my writing! I’ve actually got a few posts in the pipeline and I’ll be looking to write them over the next week or so. Things have been ridiculously busy recently so I’ve had loads of ideas but no time to write anything!

        I guess my thing with interacting only with my neighbours in a large gathering is also due to my voice – I’m not the loudest person and people often struggle to hear me, added to which I seem to have the common Aspie traits of fast speech and verbosity. So in the unlikely event that I’d be able to get a word in to the main conversation, everyone would have to ask me to repeat myself anyway! Leading to me being embarassed and getting flustered, so you can see why I do what I do 🙂

      • And I’m glad you posted another entry (and have more on the way)! I can identify with fast speech and verbosity, having to repeat myself, and getting flustered. I often have to repeat the first couple words I speak. I have a tendency to under-anunciate; it’s almost like a laziness with spoken words, and assumption others will know the ideas percolating in my brain without me needing to clearly state them!

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  3. In a group setting, I tend to focus on the speaker and then do a quick sweep or two to check the reaction of the audience. I am an introvert who can behave like an extrovert, but that was a skill that I had to work on to hone over the years. I think its amazing that you do so well and as they say awareness is half the battle. I go a bit like the commentor above, I engage on one to one conversations with my closest companions and then switch sides to keep from seeming rude 🙂

    • Hi Arman!

      Thanks for commenting … and for the positive encouragement. You’ve given some very good — and concrete — tips. Communicating in group settings is one of those skills many people take for granted as intuitive. But it’s not, especially for Aspies — it’s incredibly complex. It’s heartening to hear that even non-Aspies struggle with it. 🙂 I’ll be checking your blog for more tips.

      • hahahaha… most people who has only just met me think that I am a natural at this.. or that I am the life of a party… thing is … internally I struggle with it. Over the years I simply learned to fake it till I made it. Smile, nod, touch people lightly to show them that you are paying attention to them… pretty much all that is needed for people to start communicating exclusively wtih you. Most people don’t want to listen, they want to talk, about whatever is on their minds. So if you are a quiet person, its easy to start them talking with a few questions, a few “aha’s” and then just sit back and relax 😀 lol

      • You are so right about most people wanting to talk and not listen. I think that’s why I’ve done well one-one-one but not in groups. When it’s just one person, I don’t have to do much talking — just a little here and there, ask a question, smile, make eye contact but not too much. Yet they leave thinking it’s been an amazing two-way conversation!

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