The Art of Conversation

“English is my 2nd language. Autism is my first,” Dani Bowman

I was having a conversation yesterday with my husband about the art of conversation. I always knew conversing with others was a difficulty for me, but I never understood why.

One of the things that bothered my husband about me is my lack of communication. It never dawned on me when my husband would ask how my day was, he was looking for a monologue type answer. Instead it was always just answered with “good” or “fine”. Because it usually was, and well, what else needs to be said about that?

My husband told me, however, is that good or fine was not, in fact, what he was looking for. What he really wanted to know was, what I had done during my day.

Well, why didn’t you just ask that then?

Because it’s considered polite conversation to ask how my day was.

Really?!?

Why doesn’t he and other neurotypical people understand this is confusing language? Why can’t he just ask me what he really wants to know?

I have often been accused of being too direct. I find it refreshing when people shoot straight with me. Like it or not, I know where someone stands, and I don’t have to guess at it. And I really suck at guessing.

Then the question I have is, how do I know what people are really trying to ask me? If a checker at a grocery store asked me how my day was and I said fine, is that an acceptable answer? What else are they really trying to ask me? How would an autistic person know these subtle differences in the art of conversation? How do non-autistic people know? Is this just something most people are born with? Do they learn it in school? Or growing up, do they just pick up on these subtle nuances in conversation?

The worst is the drive-through at our favorite coffee shop. My husband loves the barista’s chit chat with him while he is waiting for his americano to be brewed. Often when I’m driving he will lean over and make polite conversation to compensate for my lack of dialogue. I don’t know if he feels like he needs to do this to make me look better or to make the barista feel better about talking to me. Either way it bothers me sometimes because I feel like I’m not doing conversation correctly.

When I do try to engage in conversation it can sometimes drive me crazy. I have to think on my feet and insert random phrases I’ve learned over the years to make the conversation go smoothly. If I’ve been successful at it, people don’t notice I have struggled to find the words to say to these perfect strangers.

I realize the baristas are trying to be friendly and they are good at the art of conversation. I, on the other hand will go out of my way sometimes to avoid a conversation with someone. I realize neurotypical people do this as well, but I do it because I literally have nothing to say to someone, and I would prefer not to have to go through my stored data files in my head of what and how I should say things to said person.

It’s a lot of work.

It’s exhausting.

When I know ahead of time I have to talk with someone, I can practice what I am going to say to them. I talk to myself a LOT in my car when I’m alone. I work a lot of things out that way and drum up the courage of talking with others.

It was sometime in my mid 20’s that I realized I needed to learn how to talk to people. I was at a gathering at a friend’s house and everyone was hanging around chatting with one another. I was sitting alone on the couch observing when I realized I had no idea how to talk to people. I had never gone up to someone and started talking to them. That was when I consciously decided I needed to learn this skill. It was really hard until I realized a few things.

1. Once I learned how to ask questions, conversations became a lot easier to manage.

2. People love talking about themselves.

When you meet someone new, it is polite to ask them where they are from and what they do. After doing that, typically I can find other questions within their answers to ask. I discovered when I did this people thought I was interested in what they were saying and interested in them. You become likeable when you do this.

Second thing I realized, is people love talking about themselves. Well, most people. I hate it because, like, what the heck do I even share with someone? But most people know how to share. When people share with you and you listen well and ask questions, they think you are the nicest person on the planet.

This is the formula I have discovered works best for me. I admit I still have not figured out how to talk about myself yet. That’s ok though. It makes me mysterious in some ways and I kind of like that.

In social situations, I get more exhausted much more quickly than being at home, alone. There is a price for talking and socializing. If I do it for too long, I will need plenty of down time. That might look like retiring to bed at 8pm (or whenever the kids go to bed) or just not making any social obligations for a while (until my batteries are recharged).

This makes friendships difficult sometimes. For the longest time I didn’t have a “friend.” I had lots of acquaintances, but the friend thing is hard to navigate for me. I find it to be less stressful but lonelier when I don’t have friends.

On the flip side, I am already so introverted I don’t crave much girlfriend companionship most of the time. When I do, I need it to be meaningful.

My best friend is someone I see occasionally, and I rarely communicate with her. I love her dearly, but am grateful she doesn’t require much of my time or energy. She always seems to feel bad she is so busy, and we can’t really hang out, but I’m good with that. She has kids all the same age as mine and our husbands enjoy each other’s company, so when we do get together it is rather a great experience for everyone.

My best friend and I share so many things in common. We grew up together and have known each other forever, but only recently have we reconnected. I feel like I could use a little more companionship with other females, but most of the time they just wear me out with the idle gossip or meaningless social conventions.

I tend to prefer my conversations to go deep on topics I love. I don’t do well with drama or gossip. I tend to come off as harsh or unfeeling when these topics come up. So many females seem really good at those things too.

Will I ever be able to converse without internally struggling?

Probably not.

Will I be able to get to a place where I won’t get burned out so quickly and easily with conversations?

I hope so.

Until next time…

Published by Women and Autism

I turned 40 this year and just recently discovered I'm autistic. This is the story of my life and my discovery.

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