There is a moment I dread in conversations with strangers: the moment when that stranger–that person I’ve been talking to for a minute or two or five–decides I’m “a little slow.”
It doesn’t happen with every stranger, but it happens often enough that I can pinpoint the moment a conversation turns. To start, we’re both on our best interacting-with-a-stranger behavior, a bit wary, a bit too friendly, whatever. Then I slip. I miss some key bit of information, ask the other person to repeat something one too many times, stutter, backtrack, repeat myself, interrupt again, lose the thread of the conversation, take a joke literally, perseverate. There are a lot of ways it could play out.
The response–the one that makes my skin heat up and my heart race and the blood in my ears pound–is subtle but sudden.
A note of condescension slips into the other person’s voice. I may suck at reading body language, but I’m pretty good at gauging voice tone. Maybe they start speaking more slowly or repeating themselves. They downgrade their vocabulary to smaller words. They repeatedly ask questions like, “are you following me?” and “does that make sense?” They get pedantic, having decided I require some sort of instruction.
In short, they’ve decided I’m a little slow on the uptake.
At the first sign of this shift, I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’ve been categorized by this person who knows next to nothing about me and is forming an opinion based on my spotty verbal skills, tallying them up with my inconsistent eye contact and my incongruent body language and all the other ways my body says “not like you.”
Am I Slow?
Literally speaking, I guess I am. My verbal processing–both receptive and expressive–is impaired to the point that I often need more time than the average person to understand or respond to someone.
I have all sorts of communication glitches. I struggle with verbal instructions. If there’s background noise or other distractions, my auditory processing lags to the point that it can take a few seconds to process speech from noise into words. My verbal responses default to scripts–sometimes not even the right scripts–or become minimal when the conversation takes an unexpected turn, moves too fast or is too unstructured.
There is a significant disconnect between my verbal skills and my intelligence or literacy or whatever you want to call it.
In short, I look better on paper. If I was a shelter pup, there would be a note in my file that said, “Does not show well.”
Generally, this isn’t a problem for me. I’ve engineered my work life so that I first “meet” people via email or some other text-based correspondence. By the time we talk on the phone or meet in person, the other person has (hopefully) formed an opinion of me that will withstand some verbal glitching.
I’ve gravitated toward text-based medium in general, spending my days working primarily with the written word. Still, I have to do things like go to the doctor, contact the super in my building for repairs, and navigate the university records office to correct my transcript–all situations in which I’ve encountered the dreaded conversation shift. Situations in which I went from feeling like I was on equal footing with another adult to feeling patronized, belittled or ignored.
And here’s the thing: I am an adult. Whether I speak eloquently and fluently or not, I’m still an adult. My ability to communicate verbally has no impact on my ability to understand the way a ground fault interrupter works or what the risk factors for breast cancer are or how to read my college transcript. I don’t need to have these things explained to me like I’m a child.
What do I need, you might be thinking? My wishlist:
Treat me like a competent adult.
Be patient. I might need a little extra time to compose my answer or to process what you’ve said.
If I ask for clarification, try explaining in a different way. If I didn’t understand the way you explained the first time, an exact repetition probably won’t help.
Assume that if I don’t understand something, I’ll say so.
Don’t rely on my body language or other typical cues for feedback about whether I understand what you’re saying. Unless you’re also autistic or know me very well, you probably can’t read my body language any better than I can read yours.
Give me time to write down key information if I need to.
Don’t oversimplify your language or speak unusually slowly or loudly.
If you’re giving me verbal instructions, break them down into specific steps and explain one step at a time.
If I keep repeating a question or statement, I need a stronger acknowledgement that you’ve heard and understood me.
Treat me like a competent adult.
Some of the stuff on that list comes under the heading of accommodations. These are things I have to ask for because they are outside the norm and others may not know that I find them helpful.
But some of it–like #1 and #7–those should be the bare minimum we can expect when interacting with other adults, regardless of how typically or atypically we present.