Getting Down to Detail

In his book, “Language: the Cultural Tool” Daniel Everett writes,

We can understand information [as] … all the things there are to talk about. It is perhaps infinite. But culture and circumstance will severely restrict what might be said in a particular exchange between two people … human cultures narrow the things there are to talk about and keep the flow of information manageable.

Is this what we autistic people don’t see, or don’t need? This restriction on conversation topics? It’s what costs us friendships (albeit with the wrong kinds of people – those who never really liked us in the first place), and stops us making social connections; because we talk “too much”, and/or about the “wrong” things. We obviously don’t have this cultural “information filter”. But is that really such a bad thing?

I have my own interests, those “hobbies” psychologists so patronisingly like to call “special interests”, but I’m generally interested in a much wider range of topics than other people, and can be interested in almost anything… but only as long as it contains detail. For example, I’m quite happy talking about the weather, but if the conversation doesn’t quickly move on from nice-for-the-time-of-year-isn’t-it to dew points and adiabatic lapse-rates (or whatever), I’ll get bored. Skirting about on the surface of a topic is so dull! I could listen all day to a meteorologist, or a rare-breeds sheep farmer, or an art historian – anyone passionate about their subject, and willing to talk about it – to discuss the detail… to provide that “restricted information”. But find someone like this at a party – the chap who “only talks about honey badgers” – and he’s called THE BORE? Not fair! I’d go to more parties if only they were full of people willing to talk dirty detail with me.

I love other people’s passion in their subjects; but although asking newly-met people what they do for a living is a socially acceptable question (resulting in a socially acceptable response), asking them what their job actually entails, on a day-to-day basis, elicits raised eyebrows and awkward foot-shifting. Why is that? People are said to be at their happiest when talking about themselves, but asking them about what they actually do is considered too personal – that is, unless you’ve known them for a while (a “while” being hours, days, or weeks – and somehow you’re supposed to know which). Ask someone about the details of their job, and they blush and bluster, and say, “it’s all a bit boring really.” But it rarely is.

In some ways, autistic people are much more socially adept: we don’t spend our lives as slaves to social etiquette, trawling through the standard (acceptable) “levels” of conversation, before being allowed to get down to detail – the place where people make connections and build real friendships.

©Leigh Forbes

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