Studying Conversation

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.