Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Social Heuristics/Rules of Thumb

Being a person on the Autism spectrum, successfully navigating social interaction does not come easily for me. I have developed my own set of heuristics that I apply to social situations because the things that come naturally for neurotypicals are not natural for me.

Heuristics are rules of thumb. They are not fool-proof (unlike algorithms). I say that I have developed heuristics because applying these doesn't mean that every conversation will go off without a hitch...because people are unpredictable (which is frustrating, but that's another topic for another day).

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list. If you think of other things, feel free to mention them in a comment.

Note: In this list I use the pronoun "you" because I say these things to myself. "Rae, remember that you need to do this."

My general heuristics for everyday conversation:

1. If you see someone you know and they smile at you, smile back.
2. If someone says hi to you, say hi back. (WITH A SMILE)
3. When you're talking to someone, look at in in the general vicinity of their eyes as often as possible (it's okay to look away when you're trying to gather your thoughts).
4. If someone says, "how are you doing?" answer with, "fine" or "I'm good" and then say, "how are you?" Usually this phrase is used as a greeting, NOT as a real question. Do NOT start a monologue about how you're feeling--unless you're pressed for more details (usually by a close friend), but even then, don't go on and on. Same goes for "how was your day/week?"
5. Remember personal space. Stand about an arm's width away unless they're an intimate friend/partner. Getting too close can make the other person feel uncomfortable.
6. Do your best to make sure your facial expression matches the topic of the conversation. E.g., knit your brows and frown a little if they're talking about something sad. IMPORTANT: Do whatever you must to make sure you NEVER laugh or smile at someone when they're angry or upset.
7. Try to keep things as back-and-forth as possible. E.g., if they ask you a question, give an answer and then ask a question back.

Heuristics for how to show that you're listening/paying attention:

1. Look at their face as much as possible
2. Nod every once in a while and say, "uh huh."
3. Tilting your head a little and leaning in towards them a bit shows that you're really concentrating on what they're saying.
4. Use some of these words/phrases when appropriate: "yes/yeah," "I see," "that's interesting," "okay," "right," "that makes sense," etc.
5. Try not to cross your arms when standing and talking to someone. It gives a "closed off" impression.
6. Do NOT interrupt. What they're saying is just as important as what you want to say. Wait your turn.

Bottom line:

If you don't use these heuristics, you'll probably end up doing something outside of the expected social  norm. People don't like when others do unexpected things. It can make them feel uncomfortable and embarrassed. This is BAD. People will always remember how you made them feel, and if they remember feeling uncomfortable or embarrassed around you, they won't want talk to you or be around you.

Handy tips:

1. It's okay to ask clarifying questions. If you're not sure if someone is joking or using sarcasm, it's okay to ask, "Were you joking just now?" Just make sure you keep your tone friendly. It's also okay to say, "That was really general and abstract. Could you give a concrete example?" It's ALWAYS better to ask for clarification than to risk misunderstandings. Misunderstandings often lead to discomfort and embarrassment, which we know is not good.

2. Offering a brief explanation is sometimes the best thing you can do. For example, you're with a person who overuses sarcasm and non-literal language. Saying to them, "I tend to interpret things literally and I'm not good at catching sarcasm, so sometimes I might ask you if you're being serious or not" offers them extra information for how to understand and relate to you.

Like I said, these are things I use for myself. Other Autistic people may or may not find them helpful. I wrote this up because I thought it would be interesting to discover what exactly I'm doing as I work to navigate social situations as "normally" as possible. I realized just how exhausting it is. No wonder I'm so wearied after hanging out with people. Thankfully I do have some people in my life around whom I don't have to work so hard and I don't have to use these heuristics all the time. It's mainly in professional situations and when I'm meeting new people.

In my next post, I'll talk about why sometimes these heuristics don't work and how things can go awry.


  1. LOL- I Do ALL OF these and constantly remind myself of this exact SAME list...if people only knew all the effort that went it to talking to them:) Great list!:)
    P.S. I sent you an email...

    1. i'm glad that you could relate so much to this...we both know how great it is when people can make us feel like we're not alone. :)


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