Social Language: Swimming with Whales


Two autistic adults started a discussion about the social language continually used by NT (neuro-typical; i.e., non-autistic) people. Examples include How are you? and Happy Holidays! One man noted that this type of language use is believed to have evolved in human pre-history, before language had developed to the point of coding and conveying information about the world (e.g., I saw some gazelle over there or Is today payday?). This man noted that it is very hard for him to participate in this kind of social language. Even when he does have positive feelings about someone, he finds it irksome to perform verbal behaviors that are not natural to him. A second autistic man agreed, adding that, in his view, this kind of language-without-substantive-content is silly. On the other hand, he said, when he notices someone doing it well and compliments that persons skill, his compliment often is not well received. He resented being penalized for not participating in the ongoing routines of social interchange but asked for strategies others might have developed in this regard.

I wrote:

I think you are not being completely logical here, nor are you integrating [the previous posters] points into your response. (That's not a criticism, simply an observation.) As he wrote, and as you agree, that level of communication is something NTs do automatically. It is not performed as a conscious decision, it is the outward expression of pre-conscious neural development that has been wired into the (NT) human brain since pre-history.

It is not "silly" for NTs, nor is it "empty." For them, it plays an important role in social interaction -- and social interaction is ubiquitous in most NT lives, so this kind of communication is like breathing for them. They do it all the time and rely on having it occur automatically. It supports them in crucial ways, makes their world meaningful and comprehensible for them. There is no need to compliment them on it, any more than you compliment them on breathing. (Though it's true that some NTs are especially good at performing social language as a form of "outreach," where they layer it onto the basic, unconscious level in order to achieve a specific purpose -- e.g., being attractive as a job candidate, or making a new-comer feel comfortable.)

I think the best solution for autistics is to grow up with two older sisters who are normal (unique but socially adept). That way, you get to spend a lot of time watching good models at work, and you eventually find yourself imitating them in tone of voice. It helps. But, alas, it's too late for most autistics who didn't have my good luck.

How about a compromise? We will ask the NTs around us to understand our difference in this regard. We will ask them to remember that when we do not send out the expected "signals" (non-verbal communication or the routine responses to their verbalized non-verbal communication), they should assume our intentions are benign. If they need to know more about our state of mind at any point, they can ask and we will be patient in trying to reassure them.

In exchange, we will try to understand and tolerate the constant chirp of NT-to-NT communication that seems meaningless/useless to us. Pretend they are whales who need to echolocate constantly. Since we are not whales, the noises mean nothing to us and may even be irritating at times. That's what earplugs are for, I guess.

At work, I have discovered that a good-humored "You, too!" will cover a multitude of situations. It is my attempt to imitate a whale. Although my inevitable instinct, when I realize someone is talking to me, is to try to figure out what that person is saying and then formulate an appropriate response, I have come to accept that it is easier for everyone if I repress my instincts at times. Nobody really wants me to tell them the answer when they say, "How are you?" Nobody wants to hear my opinion about either religion or commercialization when they say, "Happy Holidays!" And since nobody is really listening to these ritually-voiced forms of verbalized non-verbal communication, it is fine to respond "Fine!" or "You, too!" to almost anything, as long as you say it so you sound friendly and/or happy.

That's my take on the subject, anyway.



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