People talk to me. I talk back. Sometimes I feel comfortable with it. But do they like me? I don’t know and there are times when that bothers me. Like many Aspies I have great difficulty reading people, recognizing and interpreting their body language. Together with the gaps in my understanding of social conventions this means I’ve got my work cut out trying to push the envelope of interaction.
There are a number of people I know socially; I talk with them sometimes and it all seems friendly enough. But that’s as far as it goes. I very rarely invite people to join me in some activity because I don’t know how they will react — I don’t mean whether they will say “yes” or “no” but whether they would feel I had crossed some boundary, broken some social rule.
From my observations of people it appears that it is common amongst friends to arrange to do things together, while people who are mere acquaintances don’t do this. I’ve never been able to grasp how one advances an interpersonal relationship beyond the initial stages. Sometimes it just seems to happen but I don’t understand the mechanics.
I suspect that conversation has a lot to do with the process. (Just my luck I guess – that’s not one of my strengths.) From what my wife and others have told me it appears that there are non-verbal signals that are used in conversations, perhaps below the level of conscious communication, that influence the other party. It might as well be telepathy as far as I’m concerned, but I’ve witnessed occasions where my wife has inferred accurate interpretations of people’s state of mind without even exchanging a word! It leaves me stunned, like seeing a great illusionist perform: I’m just left wondering “how did she do that?”.
Anyhow, I’m digressing a little. To get back to the main topic, I’ve developed a… theory, if you like. A working hypothesis, a conjecture, which is that these non-verbal signals are important in establishing and strengthening social bonds because they provide information about what the other person is thinking and feeling. I’m handicapped by an inability to recognize and interpret these signals, so all I have to go on is what the person says with a few tentative impressions based on tone of voice.
That’s all well and good but I’ve learned that you can’t always rely on taking what people say at face value. They might be teasing, they might be following social conventions (such as “being polite”, or, in other words, exhibiting socially-acceptable insincerity). I can’t tell so I behave with caution, treading warily up to the boundaries of what I know to be acceptable. My self-imposed boundaries, which are an amalgamation of the rules I’ve constructed to circumscribe my behavior.
There are different rules for different degrees of familiarity: I may act in certain ways with people I consider friends that I never would with people I do not know well. The difficult question for me is how do these other people feel about me? Do they consider me a friend at all, or am I just some guy they occasionally talk to in the pub? Am I being presumptuous by thinking that there is anything more to the relationship? And how do I find out?
This uncertainty underpins my insecurity about social relationships: I just do not know where I stand with people, I don’t know how they regard me. Perhaps I’m deluding myself and the people I think of as friends don’t reciprocate: perhaps they just tolerate my presence for some reason. How can I know?