“Big or small?” the barman asked.
I couldn’t believe my ears. Had he really just asked me that? This was just an ordinary pub, nothing particularly sophisticated, the sort of place where you order a pint and a steak and chips at the bar and eventually someone brings it over to a table with a gold number screwed into the corner.
We’d ordered our drinks, which were now sitting on the bar, and were just completing our food order. Steak and chips or something like that. Then the barman asked if we wanted any side orders. I thought that onion rings would be nice, so I said “Onion rings please” and received the answer “Big or small?”
I stood there at the bar, absolutely amazed that the pub sorted their onion rings by size. Utterly unable to comprehend this level of onion ring detail. I guessed that the big ones came from the outside of the onion and the small ones would maybe come from the middle. I thought the small ones would probably be quite cute.
I turned to my husband and asked him what he thought. He suggested big, and said that he might steal a few. I told him that he could steal a few if I had small ones…
And, of course, he laughed, because, on this occasion he’d understood correctly and I’d understood wrongly. This wasn’t anything to do with the size of the onion rings, but the size of the PORTION of onion rings. I’d completely misunderstood the barman’s question and gone off into a reverie of onion ring categorization that would probably only ever occur in some sort of gastronomic competition – certainly not in a very ordinary pub.
This is the sort of ambiguity that most people’s conversation seems to be full of, the sort of thing that people are supposed to understand as if by some sort of magic. The sort of thing that I’ve been trying to learn all my life, and have never quite got right. Close enough for survival most of the time, and because I’m generally quite affable and quite content to laugh at my own mistakes, it’s all just been put down to being a bit eccentric. Furthermore, there have been occasions where people have laughed at me and I’ve wondered what the joke was, until I realised I’d misunderstood and they’d actually assumed that my suddenly talking about, for example, miniature onion rings, was in fact my quirky sense of humour!
My husband is not immune to the “literal effect” either. He once volunteered to help at a party (partly because he had to be at the party and helping is one of his ways of avoiding having to make small talk – in general he’d much rather work than chat), so the hostess of the party said it would be really helpful if he could gather up empty glasses from around the house and take them to the kitchen.
A simple and understandable instruction – empty glasses to kitchen. Easy.
So, every time he saw an empty glass he took it to the kitchen. Each time someone took their last mouthful of wine or beer or whatever and put their glass down, he swooped in and took it to the kitchen, before there was even a microchance that it might be refilled.
The consequence was that people kept having to get new glasses and the supply of glasses ran out about half way through the party and the glasses had to be washed up so that people could carry on drinking.
But the instructions were clear – empty glasses to the kitchen, so that’s what he did!
I’ve apparently been making similar kitchen-related mistakes for many years. I go to have lunch fairly regularly with my best friend and his wife. I sort of know that I should help somehow, because my husband has told me that people are meant to offer to help in the kitchen, but to be honest it always seems so terribly complicated that I just sit there and hope that if I’m really needed to do something then someone will ask me – communal working is something I find really challenging.
Occasionally my friend’s wife has handed me 3 plates and asked me to put them onto the table. I have done this, reliably, exactly as instructed, for around 20 years. I take the stack of 3 plates from her and place them on the table.
About a week after it became obvious that the autism hypothesis was true and I told my friend and his wife that I was autistic, she suddenly said how much sense it made, and immediately mentioned the plates. Apparently for around the last 20 years, when handing me plates to put on the table, what she’s actually meant is that I should LAY the table, putting plates in situ in front of the places where people sit. And similarly with knives and forks.
I have been completely clueless about this hidden meaning. She’s always thought I was being slightly obstinate and unwilling to lay the table. I’ve believed I was doing exactly as I was told!!!
It seems that there are hidden messages all over the place in human communication that I often miss, even when they are apparently clear and written down.
Around 20 years ago I had a boyfriend for a year or so, and, as it became obvious that the relationship wasn’t going to be a permanent one and we started to drift apart, we both started to go our separate ways and move on. It wasn’t an acrimonious parting, just a recognition that things were now over.
I then got a new boyfriend, and started to move on with my life, and shortly afterwards received a letter from the old boyfriend. In this letter the old boyfriend wished me well, and told me that he had a new beautiful girlfriend and was very happy spending time with her now (or words to that effect). I read the letter and thought “That’s nice, he has a new girlfriend, I hope she treats him well and they’re happy together.”
The next time I saw my new boyfriend I reported that the old one had now moved on and showed him the letter. He took one look at it and said “There is no new girlfriend, he’s trying to get you back.” I was completely gobsmacked and couldn’t believe it for one minute. If he wanted to get me back then why on Earth would he invent a fictitious girlfriend? Why not say “I miss you, is there any chance we can see each other again?”
But my new boyfriend was right. Not very much investigating showed that at that time the old one didn’t have a new girlfriend. And the letter was just some sort of ploy – apparently I was supposed to feel jealous or something. One which, of course, completely backfired because I had no way of understanding this sort of game, no way of comprehending that there was some sort of hidden message in the letter – like almost everything in life, I simply took what it said at face value.
There have been many of these sorts of incidents over the years – too many for me simply to have been “a bit slow on the uptake” or to have just ordinarily misunderstood quite so often. I’m certain that everyone misunderstands communication from time to time, but I seem to do it rather more often than most people do, and I know I spend a lot of time deconstructing sentences in my head, trying to work out exactly what they mean and attempting to understand what the other person is really saying, and I often get it wrong. I’ve learnt and learnt and learnt to try to read what people mean when they communicate, but there have always been holes in the learning, and I’ve always been thinking very very hard and very very consciously about what things can mean. I learn from each mistake – I now know that onion rings come in portion sizes, not actual sizes, I now know that putting things onto a table sometimes means laying a table, and I now know that boyfriends pretend to have new girlfriends as a way of trying to persuade old ones to return to them. But all of this is learnt, consciously learnt, one mistake at a time, and I still don’t really understand why people don’t just give more accurate instructions.
I’m still learning, still working it out, but at least I now know that the reason I get things wrong is because imprecise instructions that assume I have a level of social knowledge that I don’t have are really confusing to me. As I start to remember these seemingly innocuous and isolated incidents they’re linking up to form a consistent pattern of things that I misunderstood, or didn’t pick up on. I’m a fast learner, so I keep learning, and I copy copy copy other people who seem to know what to do, but I don’t have the inbuilt social knowledge that other people have.
The social games that so many people seem so fond of are totally lost on me. However hard I try to learn how they work, I always seem to be running along behind all the social people, trying to catch up, trying to figure it out!
But the whole thing is a massive effort, and a whole load of trying to guess what exactly I’m supposed to be doing!