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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