Monday, August 31, 2009

Missing in Translation

Have you ever been in a situation in which two or more people are speaking in a language you don't understand? They are just chattering away and yet you don't have a clue what they are talking about? Well, if you've been in such a situation, then this should give you a good idea of the way I feel every single day!

You see, there is a language used all around me that I don't comprehend at all -- body language. It's a bit unnerving to know that people are using this mode of communication all the time and yet I can't see it. Believe you me, I try so hard to pick up on it, but I simply can't decode it.

Today I had to go to the local print shop to get some copies made. The proprietor, Michelle, is a very nice woman and we often get into interesting conversations. The last time I was there we had talked a bit about Asperger's Syndrome and today we picked up where we left off.

Well, we had talked for about 20 minutes -- me doing most of the talking -- when all of a sudden I began to feel very uncomfortable. I realized that I might be keeping her from her work, so as I talked I tried to see if I could read her body language. Alas, it provided me with no clues at all!

At this juncture, some of you might ask why I didn't simply ask her if I was keeping her from her work. I've learned that direct questions such as that don't really help. Many times people will respond, "Oh no, I'm fine," but I later learn from someone else that the person was just being polite. The person was utilizing body language to give me the hint to stop talking and go away, but I completely missed it.

As I grew more uncomfortable by the second, I abruptly ended the conversation and left. I don't know if my abruptness rubbed her the wrong way or if she was merely glad that I had finally shut-up. Since I didn't have my social translator with me (my dear wife), I have no idea if I did the right thing or not.

This whole deal is very maddening because I'm a very articulate person. I actually like blogging far better than face-to-face conversations because they are, in truth, one-sided. I write down my thoughts, then post them. I don't have to try to figure out what the people around me are indicating or not indicating because no one else is here.

My wife was telling me today that she misses the more confident me, the person who would go charging into a wall, if the situation called for it. I'm still that same confident fellow when I write, but I'm no longer that person in social situations. It's next too impossible to be confident when you know that everybody else is speaking a language you don't understand and never will.

There's one other facet of this problem I realize I didn't address. When a person speaks to you in a language that you don't understand, it is readily apparent to both participants. One person says something and the other person looks completely bewildered.

But body language doesn't work that way! The default position is that people assume you are fluent in it. However, if you're unable to see it or decode it, you simply go on as if it's not there. Later, you find out that people think either you selfishly don't care about their feelings or you're seen as arrogant and pompous.

If you happen to be a considerate and compassionate person, such opinions are very frustrating. There's no real way to deflect them.


  1. Hi RT, let me assure that you are not the only one that is unable to pick up body language. As with any other language it can be missed, misunderstood or simply misinterpreted with all the dire consequences that may follow.

    Case in point. I was watching Bruce Lee in The BigBoss yesterday on DVD. At the end Bruce Lee wants to confront the Big Boss with all the problems. The Boss waves with his hand in such a way that in Asia it means to approach. However in The Netherlands this means to go away in a very deragatory manner. It took me awhile to understand the correct interpretation of that wave.

    But there is probably a difference between being deaf to a language or hearing the language but not understand it.

    Take Care,


  2. HI R T -
    Great post. I happen to be one whom picks up on all body language, subtle or otherwise. I am very sensitive and intuitive and I "know" what someone is RALLY trying to say. It is both a gift and a curse. :-)

    Love to you

  3. Nico,
    I DO realize that body language can be difficult for anyone. Neurotypicals often misinterpret what they see. The difference here is that I don't know how to interpret ANY of it. ; (

    Would you explain the curse part? : )

  4. I'm like Gail and I know what she means about it being both a blessing and a curse. I don't know how many times I've been told how lucky I am to have this insight into the non-verbal world, only to respond, "Really? It feels more like a curse?" Then I get this weird look and I know the person hasn't a clue of what I mean.

    As I've aged, I've actually become less social as well but it's because it's exhausting not to only comprehend the spoken word but also to read the cues of the unspoken word via body language. As well, I can also read between the lines and I get so I want to turn my brain off so as to not carry anymore of "other people's stuff" then is necessary. Does that make sense? :-)


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