Friday, November 30, 2012

On Human Interaction and Actual Social Skills

I've been rewatching "Sherlock" for the third or fourth time this week.  It really is a gorgeously done thing.  As someone who's had lots of friends (sometimes casual, sometimes close) most of her adult life, and who's never really had trouble making friends with people, watching the evolution of the relationship between Sherlock and Watson sparks my empathy.

Over the years I've known a lot of brilliant otherwise incredibly competent people who simply could not master the murky waters of social navigation.  These were not dumb people.  They were poets and physicists, artists or mechanics or warriors, who could pick up the tools of almost any trade and master them easily.  They weren't antisocial people, either.  They genuinely wanted a circle of trusted friends and loved ones.

But they spent years, most of them, viewing human interaction as an incomprehensible and illogical morass of hurt feelings and hidden rules.  They'd watch and observe those around them, noting appropriate behaviours and responses, and then try to use the data they'd collected.  It would go well, for a while, and then they'd say or do something wrong and everything would explode.  Everyone would be hurt and upset, and they could not explain why.  They just knew that somehow the technically correct action had been wildly inappropriate, and that everyone around them appears to have known, by secret communication, that it was wrong.  When someone more socially savvy would point out, "Well, here is why the people are upset, and what they expected you to do, and how you can apologise and explain to them that you didn't mean to hurt them," they would ask, "How on earth did you KNOW that?  Where did you learn it?  How do I know not to upset people in the future?  Who taught you the right things to say?"

The answer I give to that isn't very satisfying:  I just know.  I learned it by making the mistakes you're making now, when I was younger and there was more forgiveness for them, when the stakes for upsetting a friend were not as high.  You can't keep from upsetting people, and you won't always know the right things to say.

There are tools in all human relationships, but they're not the tools you see from the outside.  Small talk looks stupid and pointless, but it's not just small talk.  It's 'listening' and 'paying attention'.  Just learning to repeat the 'right' phrases means you respond to "My dog died today," with "Well, it was great weather for it!"

The other tools are no more obvious or apparent.  There's empathy, sympathy, intuition, and compassion, all of which involve a risk.  You cannot feel empathy for another person unless you're willing to actually open up your own thoughts and feelings to them and be affected by theirs.  Most of the compassionate people I know got that way by learning firsthand how it feels to be hurt.  You learn how to be a friend by sitting, talking, and listening, not by working out the statistical frequency of when it's your turn to buy the beer.  When I talk to people about my depression, many of them want to know the thing to say or do to 'make it better'.  Nothing will make it better.  Just be there and be present and I'll work my own way back to better, because being there is more helpful than any action you might take.

Most people out there started life no better at human interaction than anyone else.  Some had really good teachers, some had really bad ones.  Some have added barriers like Asperger's or social anxiety, and some have a natural knack or charm for dealing with others, but for the most part people all eventually blunder through learning how to relate to other people by a trial-and-error process.  If they're lucky, it happens sometime in elementary school and they manage to enter adult life knowing how to make friends, chat up an attractive person, or make small talk with a prospective employer.

For smart people, especially people who know they're smarter than those around them, it can be doubly challenging because learning to relate to people doesn't feel like other kinds of learning.  There's no way to assess or measure your progress, there's not really any research literature to review, and your test subjects cannot be relied upon to provide accurate feedback.  You have no way to know if you're getting it right, until you're not.  And when suddenly you're not, it's usually in front of a large number of people, some of whom you really do care very much about, who can all now see how incompetent you are at this thing everyone else does (apparently) effortlessly, and the penalty for failure can be brutal.

It's terrifying, and it's no surprise that a lot of people just give up entirely. They say, "Fuck them and their games, I'll just be alone."  The difference between them and people who are simply antisocial is that antisocial people never particularly cared enough about connecting with other people to try and learn the skills, but a certain number of people who DO care resign themselves to loneliness halfway through learning that skillset, because it's incredibly discouraging.  Many of them end up angry, bitter, and frustrated by the fact that demonstrably less-competent people are able to accomplish more because they learned how to navigate the system instead of relying on technical brilliance alone.

Some people resolve to master it, no matter what it takes.  They keep making the mistakes, painful as they are, and refining their approach.  They watch obsessively, observing every example of human behaviour.  They read self-help and management technique books (the closest thing to 'how to relate to people' really does seem to be 'how to manage people'), and eventually they manage to cultivate enough of the technical skill set that they proceed through life without making major gaffes.  They've learned the wrong skills, though:  small talk and when to give flowers and that you have to help people move, instead of genuine empathy and active listening.  At best, they end up as early Data from Star Trek: TNG, who has calculated the exact force appropriate in a handshake, just firm and friendly enough to inspire the right level of confidence.  At worst, they can come off as false and abrasive, and occasionally a little bit creepy.

There's a third option, but not a lot of people have the courage or opportunity to take it.  You have to be willing to be really, seriously hurt.  You have to admit that learning to figure out how others are thinking and feeling, and being willing to respond to them in a real and genuine manner, is worth the risk.  You have to find friends who won't tell you "This is what you should have said or done," but will tell you "This is what you should have heard" and ask you "How would you feel in an equivalent situation?"  Feelings are always going to be a complicated and irrational business, but once you start listening to how people talk about themselves and trying to work out what they actually need from you, it does get simpler over time.

And if, like me, you're one of the lucky ones who does understand human interaction even when you make mistakes at it, the best thing you can do for your friends who don't seems to be to say, when they have misunderstood you or don't appear to be hearing you, "This is what I was saying, what I was trying to communicate to you.  This is the experience I am having and I need you to be aware of and sensitive to that."  It's also a hard thing, but ultimately worth it.


  1. Thank you. I needed and gratefully received your wisdom. I find myself being overly sensitive to many human interactions, especially at work with people I do no know well. However I am learning, and growing with every new mistake I make and I am happy to know that it is not only me. I need to accept the lesson and move on. Sadly I will probably never be completely rational when it happens again, and I will have to take a step back and learn a new lesson, but alas, such is life.

  2. This is beautiful writing. I like that you use tv shows and the death of a pet as illustrations. It's innocent and deep at the same time.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this. I will be pointing many of my aspie friends to it.

    You wrote, 'Small talk looks stupid and pointless, but it's not just small talk. It's 'listening' and 'paying attention'. Just learning to repeat the 'right' phrases means you respond to "My dog died today," with "Well, it was great weather for it!"'

    In my fifty years on this Earth, almost twelve since my Asperger's diagnosis, it never occurred to me that "small talk" might be practice for the real thing. This idea stands to reason and experience. I find that as I have become better at dealing with it, I have become better at the rest. It's a feedback loop, each reinforcing the other.

    Also, there is one more thing that a lot of us don't understand that has taken me many mistakes and much pain to simply figure out: some words have baggage far and away beyond their literal meanings. To say that something cost very little is not the same as saying it is cheap. Learning these things is ridiculously difficult, and not the least of these reasons is that unlike other learning, the only time you find out you need a lesson is when you've already failed a test you didn't know you were taking.

    Thanks again for a well-written article.


  4. I should add that that baggage varies with individuals and social contexts, making it very hard to predict, and it's probably the source of many of the unwritten social rules that exist.

  5. Listening is a great lesson for everyone, not just the socially awkward, but there is a big part missing to what you way here, and that is the fact that people rarely say what's really bothering them. They say something else, what they think they should say, or what they think others wan to hear. There is enormous misdirection and spuriousness in most human communication. Listening can lead to just as much misunderstanding in my experience as not. I suspect socially adept people like yourself are cuing in on the nonverbal at least as much as the verbal. Trying to memorize and categorize that many cues by rote eventually grows exhausting no matter how badly one wants to join in the human race. And the misdirection means a lot of learning is wrong for the next person necessitating relearning rules for each person.

    As a socially adept I suspect you don't grasp something else. For the socially un-adept, fumbling through years of confusing interactions, especially in school, there are no second chances from which to learn from mistakes. One is pegged from mistake one and that's it for the remainder of all interaction with that person. Unless they are drunk. That's probably the only time one can "practice".

    I've observed that charisma makes people forgive everything from someone. Maybe that's what you are really gifted with.