Friday, 11 March 2011

Aspie Rambling on and on (and on and on...)

It’s been brought home to me lately that we aspies tend to ramble a lot. Someone asks us a question, or makes a comment, and it sparks off a train of thought in our minds, and we’re away. We rabbit on and on. We digress. We ‘perseverate’, we go off on our own tangents, talking about what interests us, what stray thoughts are passing through our minds, and don’t stop to notice the other person’s reactions, consider their feelings and needs, or even whether we’ve really answered the question or not. The result is something like a good friend says -
“Like if someone comes to you and says, “Let's go eat out. Where would you like to go?" Instead of answering that question, which is a basic question, you go on and on about where you ought to not go, and how one time you went to this one place, and it was awful, and you don't like this, or that, and while you're on the subject you don't like this or that sort of activity, either. And really, how important is eating anyway? Why do people eat?
You see, now you're not even on the subject, you didn't answer the question, give any advice, or really share any important info. Your intent was not to upset the person asking you to lunch, but that is what would happen."

The way I see it, there are three types of ‘ramblings’ we tend to do.
1) The ‘TMI’ ramble. In this case, in answer to the above question, we might start out saying something like “Well, ‘X’ café has nice salads…” If we stopped there, things would be fine. But we feel compelled to add “…and restaurant ‘Y’ does nice bagels, but they aren’t gluten-free; that little coffee shop down on the Main Street however does do some gluten-free stuff, while restaurant ‘Z’ has…” and on and on. Though we’re still ‘on topic’, it’s as if we feel we have to give a review of every eating place in town! The usual reaction is a blank stare indicating the other person is overwhelmed, or an irritated “make up your mind!”
2) The ‘Negative’ ramble. The above quote from my friend is a good example of this. We say all the places we don’t like, all the foods they have we can’t or won’t eat, how the music is too loud at one place, and the chairs uncomfortable at another, and yet another the service is bad, etc etc. The usual response I get to this is a grumpy “well is there anywhere you do like?!”
3) The ‘Completely-Off-Topic’ ramble. This is also happening in the above quote. We may start out talking about coffee shops and the like, but then we remember a bad experience we had in one, or a thread of thought we were following the last time we were there, and we’re off. Bunny-hopping from one topic to another, following what seems perfectly logical connections to us, but not to those we’re with. Again, the other person is likely to be overwhelmed, irritated, or even upset. They may even feel like we don’t really want to go to lunch with them, and that this is our way of avoiding it, when we didn’t intend that at all.

I have to confess, I have been guilty of all three of these, and I suspect if we were honest with ourselves, most aspies have been. I believe this phenomenon of ‘rambling’ comes from a capacity within us that can be both an asset and a liability.

It’s an asset, becos it’s the source of much of our creativity and originality of mind. We follow our own path, paying little or no regard to such limitations as fashions, conventions, traditions, getting along with the neighbours, workplace politics, sucking up to the boss to get promotions, or the straight-jacket of the ‘it-can’t-be-done’ mentality. We have a thought of “I wonder if…” or “what would this look like…?” and go with it, for however far or long it takes us, producing amazing inventions or far-reaching scientific discoveries; we listen to the depths of our own souls and minds and produce paintings, books, songs, etc, that come from our unique viewpoints, and not from following what is ‘fashionable’ in the world of contemporary art, literature, or music. We go for what appeals to us, and leave others gasping in our wake.

It’s a liability, however, in the social arena, because it’s the source also of much of our inability to get along with others – even, at times, other aspies. We bore, we irritate, we bewilder and annoy. Occasionally, we infuriate, and people cut off all contact with us. They think us boring, stupid, snobbish, weird, arrogant, rude, and/or selfish. We can be misunderstood even by other aspies, who sometimes aren’t any better at understanding where other aspies are coming from than NTs are, and make assumptions about the motives for this behaviour which would probably astonish the offending one, if they knew them. It is, I believe, the source of a great deal of misunderstandings and quarrels and upsets, in both aspie-NT and aspie-aspie communications.

And of course, in its origins, it all boils down to one thing – that old lack of ‘theory of mind’ - ie, how much (or more likely, how little) we understand about how others feel or think, what their likely reactions are to what we’re saying, in short ‘where others are coming from’, and being able to ‘put ourselves in their place’. We all suck at this, it’s part of being aspie, though some of us get better as we get older. I’m feeling more and more that the theory of mind issue is our biggest problem, and the one that most gets in our way in our dealings with others. It is, I feel, at the base of many of our social interaction struggles. Some seem to think it’s our lack of social skills, but if we don’t have theory of mind, we struggle to understand even why we should develop those skills. We don’t ‘get’ superficial conversation, or the rules of ‘politeness’. We don’t need them, so we struggle to see any point to them, and hence struggle to develop them. Some point-blank refuse to even try. To us, it might as well be hieroglyphics (in fact, many of us would be more interested in the hieroglyphics!). Yet to others, strange as it may seem, they are both necessary and wanted.

So here is my thought – that we allow ourselves to ‘go for it’, when alone, when working, when ‘doing our own thing’, and being creative. BUT when trying to ‘socialize’, to communicate and interact with others, we follow one basic rule – DON’T RAMBLE. Say something brief – and then SHUT UP. If the other person needs or wants more info, they’ll ask.

If you want to take it a step further, and hone emergent social skills, ask yourself one simple question – did I actually answer their question? Or, if it was a comment or general conversation, was my comment actually ‘on-topic’? It’s possible, in this way, to pay attention and stop ourselves when we feel that we’re about to ‘go off’. Generally speaking, if we’ve spoken for more than ten seconds in response to another’s question or comment, we’ve probably gone on too long, and it’s time to stop! This can apply online too – before posting an answer on Facebook, Twitter, a forum or message board, etc, go back to the original comment, question or post, and ask yourself – have I answered it? Or have I waffled on about something else entirely?

The rules of social interaction are too complex and too ‘non-verbal-cue-dependent’ for us to ever truly and entirely ‘get’ them, but I believe it’s possible to improve at least a little, or at least not to seriously bore, overwhelm or irritate others, through using simple rules like these.

1 comment:

  1. Your description of that rambling issue is spot on. Rambling may be a subset of the possibly even more significant "black and white" or "all or nothing" issue though.
    Think of the opposite extreme response to that question "Where would you like to go?" The response: "I don't know". An Aspie would regard "I don't know" as a mindless useless response containing no information and not something that a thinking intelligent person like an Aspie would say even if they really didn't know.
    So since our Aspie wants to avoid such a mindless response at all costs, and also wants to try and say something helpful towards getting an answer to the difficult original question, they go to the opposite extreme of trying to share all the possible thoughts in their brain that might give some clue towards finding an answer.
    Whether rambling is worse or "I don't know" is worse doesn't really matter because they are the black and white extremes, neither of which are much good. The right approach of course lies in the grey area in between, and it's the Aspie's inability to navigate in that grey area which is the root cause of rambling.