'You said what?!'



I want to gently butt at the behind of a slightly thorny subject here. I mean to do it gently because I don't want to offend myself too much. This is because I'm going to talk about something which is a particular, shining, glorious and wholly uncontrollable fault of mine. That would be - Saying the Wrong Thing.

Not just saying the wrong thing, mind you. That would be bad enough. How many of us know people who are famed (usually by themselves) for being honest and straight-talking? Yes, honesty is a good thing. Apparently it's also best policy. I'm just not sure how this all manages to unravel and fall apart when that same policy is let loose in the hands of an aspie.

I think what comes unstuck is that an aspie is always honest, except when they're trying to be normal. If an aspie is self-aware enough to know that you cannot, just cannot, tell Mrs Harumph her top lip looks more like Mr Harumph's, then the aspie will seek about for something more obliging to say, while trying not to stare at the bristles on Mrs H's moustache line. Finding nothing that can distract them from the gleaming black hairs standing out in the sunshine, said aspie will then look for stronger measures of distraction and will very likely say something along the lines of, 'Isn't Mr Harumph at home a lot these days?' (he'll have lost his job), or 'Aren't you glad you don't have those kids all over your garden anymore?' (Mrs H will have fallen out with the grandchildren), or, even more likely, 'I keep forgetting to shave!'

This last one is the one that gets me. Not that I tell people I keep forgetting to shave - I'm quite good at remembering, thanks - but when I'm trying to be tactful and avoid talking about something to do with the other person, I'll somehow work it round and bring up that exact subject but make it about me. So, you've been grumpy lately? I'll say I'm feeling moody, or that people can't stand to be around me. You look tired, I'll mention feeling old and haggard and various uncomplimentary phrases, which I'll think are okay because I'm talking about me.

Unfortunately, I will be looking and talking to you.

Yes, stranger or friend, this is a compulsive habit. I sometimes wonder if it would be better if I just came out and said, 'Blimey, could you be any more difficult to get on with today?!' and leave it at that. Sure, there would be a falling out, possibly an epic one, but it would all be over with at once. Very different from the atmosphere an aspie can build up without even flexing a muscle, when they give in to the tendency to talk around awkward subjects in what they think is a subtle way.

Related to this is my ability to put my foot in it in even more interesting ways. As an example, your teenager neighbour is pregnant and her mother is telling you about it. The keynote speech is full of upbeat optimism, aimed at making the listener aware that the mother of the girl will put up with no criticism or nastiness when it comes to the daughter.

You have no intention of doing either - in general, people with aspergers are pretty open-minded and, having suffered at the hands of others, are willing to live and let live. But this is where the other bane of my conversations comes in. If someone is telling me something and it's obvious I'm not supposed to comment very much on their part of the conversation, I'm so at a loss as to what I can say (chit-chat, a whole other language), that, again, I veer the talk round to me and try to link myself to it in some way.

Please, believe me when I say this isn't meant to build me up or show off. It's simply that other people are a mystery, as is a lot of what goes on around me, but I know more about me so I can talk about me in relation to what you have just said. That way, I contribute to the conversation in a way I am confident will make sense. By referring to myself I am also avoiding the stunned silence reaction, mentioned in an earlier post, where I say what I think is a sensible sentence and afterwards you can hear a pin drop.

So, when trying to be sympathetic and subtle regarding the teen mum, I am likely to talk about my own pregnancies and when my children were babies. So far, so good, but my desire to make this anecdote relevant to the matter in hand will usually divert me off down a tangled path. I'm bound to add comments like, 'but of course I was in my 20s', or 'I had my husband with me' and similar phrases, all of which point to the teen mum being on her own, too young and other matters her mother was trying to avoid when she took the ultra-positive note in the first place.

Do you see what I mean? With the best will in the world, and genuine, kindly intentions, I can still insult the most hardened individuals. Sometimes they won't realise why they feel insulted until afterwards, when they replay the conversation. Then they'll think I'm being snide or looking down at them, or wanting to talk about myself all the time.

It's an absolute minefield. I am still guilty of all the above, especially if I'm tired and not keeping an eye on myself. My coping mechanism these days is to stay quiet if it looks like a tricky conversation. I've learned, partly, to let the other person do the talking so that I am less likely to put my foot in it. This also gives me more time to formulate acceptable, non-offensive answers.

None of this helps all the time, though. It can even make it worse. Picture how attentive I must seem, as I stand, quietly listening, my whole attention on what you are saying (so I know when I'm supposed to talk and can work out what I'm supposed to say). Then , after all that, I slot in a comment I think is fine and it's one of my humdingers. That is worse because you have built up confidence in me as a listener and as a person, only to find I've waited all that time to verbally slap you up the side of the head. And then, to make it worse, I stand and smile, patiently waiting for you to carry on - as if I had never insulted you at all! How brazen I am, how hard-faced!

Oh dear, I do try. I want to be nice to people and I want to have conversations. I just don't want your mouth to drop open and for us both to end up blushing as I realise I've excelled myself, yet again, alienating someone who thought they would like to talk to me.

I should add that true friends, who know me well enough, they still take offence but they also give me the benefit of the doubt. They recognise the innocent expression that accompanies the insult. They often replay what I said, to themselves if not to me, and see how there is more than one way to take it. Then we have another cup of tea and a piece of cake and carry on talking.

You see, it's amongst these snippets of me trying to listen and be normal and include myself in conversations, that the real gold can be found. If you can get past that first red herring, flapping about on the coffee table next to the gingerbread, then you can carry on and have a really good, brilliant, gold-leaf covered conversation that will stay with you until you see each other again.

In other words, keep the faith and keep talking: it's worth it for the wisdom of the aspie, buried beneath the odd words, the tumbling logic and the strange fascination they have with your top lip.

Amanda

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