Concerning direct and indirect communication…

When I explain to others the communication difficulties I have because of Asperger’s syndrome, it seems people understand fairly quickly that I might have difficulty with irony, sarcasm, or other forms of humor that rely on context or body language. It’s not uncommon for me to just say to a friend, “I don’t get it,” and for my friend to explain what was said. Such misunderstandings are rarely an issue unless someone is actually making fun of me, but they are related to a much bigger issue – indirect communication.

Direct communication is communication in which the meaning is contained primarily in the words. As a parent, you might say to your child, “Tom, please stop hitting your sister.” This is very direct, as the entire meaning is contained in the words. On the other hand, indirect communication relies on mutual understanding of the context. In the above example, the parent might say, “We don’t do that.” The child then has to figure out whom is being addressed, who “we” are, and what “that” is. The process of analyzing this is probably second-nature for NTs (neurotypicals or non-autistics), but it is much the same as sarcasm to me and sorting it out can often take me quite a while.

For me, this problem is compounded by a few factors. In general, indirect communication is viewed as more formal, and its use is often expected between strangers or in more formal relationships. In such cases, when it becomes apparent to the other person that I’m struggling with the communication (either because I have told them or I just look confused), such people often repeat themselves more slowly or more loudly. The conversation usually declines from there and I leave it feeling confused and stupid, even when I ask direct questions or express a need for direct communication.

I think this explains why I communicate well with people after they get to know me, because the relationship is less formal and direct communication is more acceptable. I just wish I could find a way to help those that don’t know me so well understand that I need communication to be more direct. I’m open to ideas…



Filed under About Asperger's Syndrome, Communication, Relationships, Social Interaction

4 responses to “Concerning direct and indirect communication…

  1. Kristen

    If there’s any way to muster up the words “can you give me a minute to process” or something similar to gather your thoughts, I think that would be ideal. I’m not an Aspie, so honestly I don’t know how difficult that might be.

  2. Brian G.

    My philosophy is ask ask ask questions as you go in any interaction. The more small questions you ask, the less you have to ask big awkward ones after several minutes of feeling befuddled and then when having to respond, realizing you have no idea what they meant.

    People LIKE being asked questions – it makes them feel their opinion is valued by you, and that you care enough about what they are saying in order to actively engage by asking for clarification as they go.

    Plus, the more small questions you ask, the more info they end up giving to round out the edges of their point – and the more time you have to process it.

    I used to try to play the part of someone who understood what was going on, in order to appear normal. But then people assume you understand and then when you don’t have a socially appropriate response, they think you are insensitive or rude. And if you have to ask what the heck is going on at that point, they may think you are arrogant for not having been paying attention to what they were saying the whole time.

    At this point, I know I’m going to be awkward at some point in a social interaction. I figure if permit slight awkwardness in small things over time, if/when the big awkward interaction comes, at the very least people will have seen from my previous interactions that it comes from a place of being genuine, rather than being stupid or arrogant.

    • Thanks, Brian. That’s a pretty good strategy. I’ll need a bit of practice to use it, as I’m pretty slow to make the connections necessary to know what to ask. It’s weird. I can easily find problems in a computer system, but it often takes me several seconds just to figure out what I just heard. My wife will tell you that she can say something, then I’ll respond with “huh?”, and I’ll start answering her before she finishes repeating it. That’s because I heard it, but I had to wait for it to process.

  3. I am NT and yet I find indirectness extremely difficult to process and understand. I also do not understand many jokes, but have a terrific sense of humor and love laughing. So when you’ve gotten to the bottom of how to explain to people that they need to be more direct, please tell me, so I can use! It’s nice to meet you, by the way.

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