Dog training instructor: “Get excited! Look happier! Make your voice happy! You have to sound HAPPEEEEE! If you don’t sound HAAPPPPEEEEE!!! your dog won’t know that she’s doing it right.”
Random stranger, after a 5-minute phone conversation: “You don’t seem like a very nice person.”
The Scientist, after sharing something meaningful: “Do you have any feelings about what I just said?”
Phone interviewer, mid-conversation: “I’m glad I’m recording this. You talk so fast, I could never take reliable notes.”
Many people, in many situations: “Shhh. Keep your voice down. The whole floor/house/airport/neighborhood doesn’t need to hear your story.”
More people than I can count (sarcastically): “Don’t sound too excited about it.”
Who Needs Prosody? Not Me
The first time I ever heard the word prosody was when Jess was in high school. She went to a performing arts magnet school, where she majored in creative writing. Occasionally her report cards would mention that she was working on prosody as part of a poetry class.
What is it about Asperger’s that makes talking on the phone so anxiety-inducing?
When someone says “I’ll call you” my first reaction is what can I do to make that not happen? This is especially true of social calls, the kind that many women think are a pleasant way to connect with a friend. Business calls are slightly less stressful because they have a goal and I can formulate a script ahead of time that will get me to that goal. Assuming the call goes mostly to script and is short, I can power through it.
But why should something as simple as phone call require “powering through” like it’s the social equivalent of an Ironman triathlon?
The phone should be an ideal means of communication for someone who isn’t good at reading body language or making eye contact. All you get over the phone is a voice, right? Communication distilled to its essence: words.
It turns out this isn’t exactly true. Unlike written communication, which is truly nonverbal, phone conversation relies heavily on prosody (the rhythm, stress or intonation of speech). Prosody often conveys the emotional content of language or signals the presence of irony, sarcasm, emphasis or contrast.
Suddenly this one aspect of speech looks pretty important, doesn’t it?
If you can’t interpret prosody, you don’t get certain types of humor, you miss the subtle emotional shifts in the conversation, you fail to recognize which details are being emphasized. That’s just on the listening end. If your own speaking voice lacks prosody–a common trait with Asperger’s–your conversation partner will probably feel ill at ease too.
This explains a lot about why my phone conversations are often punctuated by:
“No, you go ahead.”
and . . .
“What were you going to say?”
and the much loved:
“Are you still there?”
I have a tendency to pause for too long before my turn to speak, which makes the other person anxious. He or she will start speaking again, often right as I start to reply to the previous comment or question. This results in a lot of false starts, interruptions and awkward, “no you go first” encouragement.
The Delicate Balance Between Knowing My Limits and Limiting Myself
If I know that these ill-timed pauses are the problem, why don’t I do something about it?
Sometimes I miss the little cues, like a change in intonation, that indicate the other person has finished their turn and it’s my turn to talk. Sometimes I’m using that long pause to collect my thoughts or compose a reply. If the conversation is particularly unstructured, I may start to drift off and lose track of it altogether. Unexpected questions can leave me tongue-tied. In the worst case, I might have no idea what the other person said–at times words sound more like noise than language.
When I first saw the question “do you dislike talking on the phone” on an Asperger’s Syndrome screening questionnaire, I was mystified (and more than a little relieved). Did Asperger’s cause people to dislike the phone? What a strange and specific condition this is, I thought to myself.
After much reading and thought, I’ve realized that Asperger’s itself doesn’t make me dislike the phone. Plenty of people with AS don’t mind the phone at all. What makes me uncomfortable (with all but a few people who I know well) is the cumulative effect of a lifetime of stumbling encounters.
I’m realizing that much of the anxiety I have surrounding social communication has formed in this way. I struggle with processing some aspect of communicating, the negative experiences pile up, and in time I find myself avoiding situations to avoid what I’m certain will be more negative experiences.
Intellectually, I know that I’m creating negative feedback loops, but emotionally I find myself on the defensive, wanting to protect the comfortable bubble I’ve created. I teeter back and forth between seeing the importance in knowing my limits and questioning whether those limits are too . . . limiting.
At some point, I know I’ll have to face this conundrum in a more organized way but I also know that I’m still learning what my limits are and how they protect me and that’s enough for now.