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.

Filling in the Blanks

Filling in the Blanks

“Yeah, mumble mumble last night mumble mumble meal mumble Friday?” Oops. You just asked me something. What did you just say? Well, based on what you were talking about before – the bits I managed to catch – I guess you just asked me if I want to go out for a meal Friday. I’d better see if I’m correct – ask a hopefully relevant question and see what you say: “A meal this Friday? Where?”

At this point I either come across as “normal”, following the conversation, or I just dropped a spanner in the works and confused the heck out of you. And I never know which it’s going to be! The problem is that if there’s any distraction – background noise or movement in particular – then I fail to distinguish the speaker’s voice. I know they’re talking to me, I can see their lips moving and hear sounds, but even concentrating intently I can only interpret the odd word and have to guess the rest from context.

More often than I care to admit somebody will say something to me and I’ll respond with some acknowledgement. It’s several seconds later that I finally work out what they said and can tell whether my response was appropriate. Or whether I just looked stupid again.

See if you can work out the meaning of this short extract. To make things easier I’ve left in most of the nouns:

__________ impairment ___ social _________ stereotyped and restricted patterns ______ activities and interests, and _____ally signi_____lay in cog______opment or general _____ language.

This is from a description of Aspergers Syndrome that I’ve quoted previously. I admit I’ve been selective in the bits I blanked out, but this is only for the purpose of illustration. In a real situation there would be snatches of other conversations interleaved with this one, and the whole would be obscured by background noise:

The thing is, I don’t have hearing problems. I can pick up faint sounds like the clock ticking at home. I score in the average range in hearing tests. But if somebody says something while the TV is on – or there’s music playing or other conversations going on around us – then although I can hear all the sounds, I can’t separate them very well. It’s a problem with processing the sensory input and I find it hard work and very frustrating, so I often keep out of conversations in noisy environments. In fact I prefer to avoid noisy social environments altogether.

With all this it’s no surprise I prefer to communicate in writing – through email, text or similar mechanisms. The words are in front of me, not obscured by noise, and there is no need for an immediate response. I can take the time to compose my reply, re-reading their comment if necessary and thinking of le mot juste – the right word that will exactly convey my intended meaning.