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The art of the conversation-stopper

Why people have to make life so complicated, I don't know! I do realise that my aspie viewpoint is uniquely annoying a lot of the time and that I do and say confusing things which make no sense in the normal realm. But in return, when I really get it wrong, day to day, being told how and why can be a big help, an important step in my ability to understand and try again the next time.

I really do forget things in the middle of conversations. There just doesn't seem to be enough space in the Current folder of my brain to keep these things in. As soon as something new comes along, or even the memory of something old, the object I need to keep hold of vanishes over the side of the box and is lost in a dark corner.

In the case of forgetting, it is a genuine forgetfulness. I'm not being careless. I may be distracted, so lose part of a conversation that way, but equally I can interact with you and then still forget what was said in a very short space of time.

Sometimes, this can have a lot to do with how the information is presented. If we were talking about Aunt Aggy's bunions and I was listening, then we skip to another topic, it can be helpful if you come back to Aunt Aggy in a clear way.

Often, when people return, they say something like, 'So, Aunt Aggy was telling me she was going to get them sorted out on Tuesday'.  I know this might seem strange but this doesn't help me remember her bunions. To me, it introduces an element of mystery into our conversation. I'm wondering what the unidentified 'them' means in this sentence.

Why? Well, when you first mentioned Aunt Aggy, I registered who she was then moved onto the new topic of the bunions. As they were new, they required more of my attention and were much more interesting than poor Aunt Aggy herself. If you had come back to the subject by saying, 'So, these bunions,' I would have picked up what you meant.

As aspies, we are all about processing and managing information. There is a lot of it and we have to learn all the time, to cope with what people do and say and what happens in life. Conversations in themselves are awkward, even with loved ones, as you never really know where these chats are going. You need to watch them carefully. When they divert, you divert with them, following like a dog following a bouncy red ball. You jet off across the garden and fetch it back.

When the subject changes in a conversation, it's a new blue ball. The other is dropped and forgotten and off we go, after the new ball you want us to chase and bring back. Happily, we pick it up and fetch. There: we've interacted and coped with the conversation. We're standing in front of you with the blue ball, waiting to see what happens with it now.

What happens is, you've already picked up and thrown the red ball in the other direction, while we were still running with the blue one. We were facing you when you did it, so you naturally expected us to see it go. But we were concentrating on getting the blue ball back from where it fell, to you.

You stand, looking at us. Why haven't we gone for the red ball? Why are we still all about the blue one? You've finished with the blue one. We look confused and you repeat what you said. Then we realise what you meant, also recognising the irritation as you say it.

Off we go, tail down, willing to fetch the red ball again. Some of the lustre of the game is lost, but we still bring it back. Now, please, if you decide to swap back to that blue one, hold it in the air first and let us see it, before you throw it!

Another conversation-locker is the one where we're talking happily, relaxed and knowing what you and we both mean. This is great; a break from the confusion of what can pass as asperger conversational skills. Suddenly, you look at me and raise an eyebrow. Or your lips thin. Or you blink a few times, pause, then move on.

What was it? What happened? What did I say or do?

I hate this, the inevitable moment when you know you've said or done the wrong thing but have no idea what. This isn't as all-encompassing as the moments when you make a room fall silent, like in the You Said What? post. This is like a mini-version of it, but one that stings more deeply a lot of the time, because this often happens with people close to you.

You see, if you're talking to people who don't know you well, they are more likely to stop in their tracks and you have the silent room. But people who do know you are more used to making allowances or re-processing what you just said, to see what you meant to say. Usually, this means they don't make a fuss and just try to carry on as if nothing happened.

The trouble is, we want to know what happened! What we said or did. It's a compulsion, really, to find out where we went wrong so we can look at it, roll it over and inspect it, see what it is exactly and how we can deal with it in future. This is the way we deal with the imbalance between what we know and what happens next. Inspection is vital for our peace of mind.

What often happens, though, with our loved ones who have reacted without explanation, is that they don't want to let us inspect what we did wrong. They want to carry on, so we don't get upset and, sometimes, because they know the whole conversation will be de-railed if we stop to give our attention to the other thing, the one they want to leave behind.

Our loved ones may be feeling hurt themselves - often this is the impression the aspie has of the situation. They don't want to feel any worse by discussing it. And, I'm sorry to say, they do occasionally think we should know what we've said and don't want to repeat it because they think we're trying to get out of trouble by pretending we don't know.

Whatever the reason, I've often fallen foul of saying something within a normal conversation and not being able to find out what it was. I just hate it. It's the equivalent of when you can't hear what a person is telling you and you really want to know, but they won't repeat it. It's rather like the other person is the holder of secrets, or of knowledge. They know what you want to know, but refuse to tell.

This is a conversation-killer, however you look at it. If you were to come out and say, 'Look, I've told you not to bring up my ex-husband!' then we'd know what was wrong and be able to apologise. By not saying and expecting us to know, or by deciding you are not going to share so that we can move on, the niggle of a mystery stirs the muddy waters within and we are now focussing on that, instead of the conversation.

I can guarantee, for the rest of the time we are together, I'll be looking at you, waiting to see if you react again, so I can gather clues as to what I did. I'll be trying to remember exactly what I said, or what I was doing with my body, in case I unconsciously insulted you.

Much, much later, the revelation may descend upon me. A bit like not being able to remember something until you stop trying, the secret of the conversation and your reaction will suddenly reveal itself, when it's too late to resolve it. I'll be left, considering what I did or said and replaying the whole thing, trying to see it from your point of view, so I can work out how hurt or upset you were.

The hurt or upset will be magnified as I fret over it, followed at some stage by anger or irritation that you wouldn't just tell me at the time so I could say sorry or explain what I actually meant.

Don't withhold things from me. Understand that I probably didn't mean what I said, or intentionally forget what we were talking about. This is not a reflection on you, it's simply Me.

I realise this can be an impossible problem, though. How are you supposed to know the difference between when I'm bored or distracted and when I've said something upsetting or shocking for the sake of it? The answer is a very simple one, Reader: just ask me. That's all. If you want to know what I meant or why I did whatever it was, just ask.

And when you divert off into other parts of the conversation, do look back occasionally to make sure I'm following. It can be very strange to see someone zooming along, unhindered by the overgrowth and tree branches. Aspies don't always remember that, to other people, none of these obstacles exist. It's only the aspie who has to fight through to reach the clearing in the centre of the forest. Other people think they're standing in the middle of an open field.

This is why, when you think you've made everything as clear as possible and we're still meandering along, looking confused and wondering where you went, please bear in mind we may not be able to see you through the branches. Call out and give us a helping hand. That way, we'll both reach where we're going a lot faster.


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