I grew up in Brazil, South America. Actually, I was born there.
You’d think I would speak Portuguese fluently. But I don’t.
I went to half days of Brazilian school through third grade. During that time I had Brazilian friends and learned to speak Portuguese well.
But from fourth grade through the rest of high school, I attended an English speaking boarding school on the Amazon river.
During summers and Christmas breaks, I spent time with my parents, who were 500 miles away. I loved seeing them, of course, but when it came to getting together with other Brazilians my age, I had a really hard time.
It’s not that I didn’t want to connect with them. Rather, I couldn’t always understand them. And there were certain expressions or idioms that I could not pick up on.
For example, I was talking with one Brazilian, and told him I had arrived late to a meeting. In Portuguese, the way that I said arriving late, means sexually delayed! Everyone was laughing, and I couldn’t understand why!
Other times, my Brazilian acquaintances would ask me questions, and I didn’t know what they were saying, so I just nodded my head yes, not knowing what they were asking, nor how I should respond.
Like me, you may feel that connecting with other non-autistic people at work feels like speaking a different language. It’s a common Aspergers workplace challenge.
Here’s a quote from an Aspergers young woman on a Reddit thread –
I recently got a job as a counter girl at an extremely busy store for Christmas (honestly I’m surprised I got the job) and I’m having issues with interactions with both customers and co-workers.
With customers, I can ask generic questions and remain chipper for the entirety of my shift, no problem. I never stray beyond “would you like a bag?”, “have a good day”, and whatnot. Looking around at my co-workers, however, they have no problems asking questions and formulating small talk, even joking around and laughing. It hurts a little inside, because I’d love to be able to interact with customers like that.
Apart from two people, I feel that most of the people at my workplace are part of a massive clique with in-jokes and things in common. They’re not bullies, they’re all nice people – they’re just hard to interact with.
Fortunately, other autistics have faced the same difficulties connecting effectively with other co-workers at work. I’ve gathered some of their tips, mixed them together with some of my own, and I’ve come up with a list of tips to help you more effectively communicate and connect with co-workers.
Learn to Navigate Small Talk
Rudy Simone, author of Aspergers on the Job, tells us why small talk is so difficult for people on the autism spectrum.
First, because because autistic people have more focused interests, they may just not be small talk subjects, which seem unimportant or boring.
Second, because social interactions feel so unpredictable, they can feel downright scary.
As per Rudy Simone,
A person with AS wants to connect with others; he/she just doesn’t know exactly how to go about it. But social habits can be learned. The brain creates new neural pathways over time and is constantly forming new understandings.
Read Aspergers Employment and Small Talk, where I summarize some of Rudy Simone’s tips.
Learn to Start and Maintain Conversations
Conversations are the building blocks for friendship.
Like small talk, conversations can feel confusing. But, with practice, you can succeed.
Dan Wendler, who I mention below, says about his journey into small talk, conversations, and friendship:
Social skills are a skill, and like any other skill, they can be learned. If you want to cook and you go to a cooking class or just practice in the kitchen a bunch, you’ll get better at cooking. The same thing is true for social skills. Connecting with other people isn’t magical. You can learn how to make conversation, read body language, and see the world from the other person’s perspective. So if you are struggling socially, don’t give up! Try to improve a little bit every day, and you’ll get way better over time.
Visit Dan Wendler’s ImproveYourSocialSkills.com website. Dan, a young man with Aspergers, has taught himself to become more comfortable socially and to make friends.
Watch his video:
You’ll also enjoy reading through this Reddit thread he moderates.
You can also read my series of articles about conversation skills.
Be Aware of An Irresistible Urge To Inform
Rudy Simone talks about this Aspergers characteristic in Chapter 4 of Aspergers on the Job, called “Bluntness, Perfectionism, and that Famous Asperger’s Arrogance.”
Strengths can be weaknesses in the wrong context.
One Aspergers strength is the ability to tell the truth about how you see things. Simone quotes a study from DeVries, 2007, which shows Aspergians to be perfectionists, always looking for a better way of doing something.
Ms. Simone also quotes a study by the Department of Neuropsychiatry at Keio University School of Medicine in Tokyo, which found that “individuals with Aspergers have higher fluid reasoning ability that normal individuals, highlighting superior fluid intelligence.” (Hayashi et. al. 2008)
This explains why those with AS can feel superior to others who don’t see things the same way. “If their abilities are not recognized, the person with AS will often feel unfulfilled, unutilized, unappreciated, and resentful.” (Simone, pg 21,Aspergers on the Job).
Ms. Simone recommends the following tips:
- Curb your urge to talk too much about your ideas, unless you are being asked for advice or information.
- Learn to say things tactfully. I like Ms. Simone’s visual metaphor about tact:
“If you shoot your words like an arrow (directness) at their recipient, that person will likely recoil from them. If you gift wrap your words (tact), the recipient will be more likely to want to accept your package (the point you want to make) and take it in.”
- This How To Be Tactful wiki has 15 steps to learn tact in your conversations.
- Take pride in your intelligence and ingenuity, but learn how to share your insights with tact. Tact is the means by which we earn the right to be heard.
Many thanks to @InViennaVeritas for suggesting this book to help Aspergians understand how non-autistics converse.
— InViennaVeritas (@yousitonmyspot) January 20, 2015
Going Back to Brazil
If I were to go back to visit Brazil, I’d do a few things.
I’d search the Chicago area to find and introduce myself to other Brazilians. (I just did a quick search and found the Chicago Brazilian Culture Meetup Group).
I’d spend time with some Brazilians, familiarizing myself with language and culture again.
It would take time and energy, but over a course of a couple of months, I’d feel more comfortable talking with Brazilians.
In the same way, you can spend time and effort learning about small talk, practicing initiating and maintaining conversations, and practicing tact at work.
What tips have helped you better connect with others at work? Please leave a comment below.