Interpreting text messages as an Aspie
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This draft was published: October 18, 2019
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I don’t typically or publicly talk about mental health, but for several years now my closest friends have openly and jovially attributed aspergers to me. It started with a conversation with my mum who jokingly remarked “you’re so aspie” in response to something I had said. I didn’t question the comment at the time, but later during a conversation with my closest friend she very quickly explained aspergers and seemed surprised I hadn’t realised my relationship to the syndrome.
Off the back of these conversations I spent a couple weeks researching the subject and came to realise that it was probably a fair, even if unofficial assessment. As I understand it, the preferred terminology is Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) nowadays, but for the sake of brevity I’ll most refer to the term “aspie” for the rest of this article.
I now regularly bounce social interactions off of that same friend when I’m unsure about a given interaction (you’re the best, thank you C), and in turn I try to provide some suggestions and advice in respect to C’s eldest (I’ll refer to as B), whom we jokingly describe as “one of Tommy’s people” to describe her aspie attributes.
The latest of those conversations was looking at my process for interpreting text messages (be that an actual SMS, WhatsApp, e-mail, etc) to see if I could offer any advice. I’m 30-summit now so I’ve had a few years of experience to build up that process, and for the most part it serves me well, so hopefully it can be of use to others, whether you’re aspie or not.
I’ve included a pretty considerable intro so if you’re not here for that, feel free to skip to interpreting text directly.
For anyone that hasn’t come across aspies before (or haven’t realised you’ve done so), the symptoms are generally described as follows:
- Difficulty with social communication; more specifically, trouble understanding
- facial expressions
- tone of voice
- jokes (and sarcasm in particular)
- ambiguity (vague or abstract concepts)
- Difficulty with social interaction; more specifically we
- seem insensitive (have little to no empathy)
- prefer to be alone or in smaller groups
- don’t find comfort in being with people
- behave oddly or even inappropriately
- Restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests
- rely on daily routines to reduce unpredictable or confusing situations
- have rules for things that don’t fit into our routines, to achieve the same
- obsess and develop highly-focused interests
- often completely drop an interest (that we were previously obsessed with) in favour of a new interest
There are also some aspects of sensory sensitivity (being over or under sensitive), but if you want more details there’s plenty of resources online. Being partially deaf myself, I find this aspect the least relatable, or at least can’t distinguish any sensory sensitivity differences between being aspie and that of being a bit deaf. That distinction however leads me to my next point, personality.
I don’t suffer from Aspergers. Being aspie is not a bad thing. In fact, in many ways I think it’s a really great way to live.
For one, to many I can seem to have a prickly personality, or at least be a bit weird. Fortunately, I’m not weird alone, so much so someone decided to give it a label. My close friends know I’m aspie and if I lapse or do something odd it can simply be chalked up to that. If I don’t speak to my best friends for months it’s not because they’ve upset me or I don’t like them, I just don’t seek comfort from them. They mean a LOT to me, I rely on them being there, and I do try to be the good traditional friend when I can. But I’m not naturally inclined to stay in contact with them all the time.
My much better half, bless her, is also amazing in this regard. I don’t know we’ve ever talked about my being aspie specifically (though it’s pretty implicit), however she seems to have a limitless patience and is incredibly supportive (of me, not just being aspie). Being around large amounts of people I find incredibly stressful, but so long as my other half is with me, I feel like I can do it safe in the knowledge that I’ll be left alone, potentially for several days, to recover (thank you, beautiful).
Close friends aside though, I don’t go around telling people I’m aspie and expecting them to be supportive. I put considerable effort into fitting in; I’d like to think colleagues and such don’t think me (too) weird as a result. The point being, I don’t use being aspie as an excuse. I consider it part of my personality, and make adjustments accordingly.
To fit in aspies (or I, at least) spend an awful lot of time pretending. I feign interest, sympathy, emotion. I smile or “play nice” on queue, agree to attend gatherings I’m uncomfortable with, and repress to the best of my abilities any tells and symptoms. I spend considerable amounts of time analysing situations to try and determine what sympathetic or empthatic response is (or would have been) appropriate.
It feels like modern and emerging culture looks down on that approach, it seems to be more “you be you and others will adapt”. I’m a big fan of that culture in that I’ll do everything I can to be supportive and understanding of others, but (as a privileged white male) I’m against the inverse. I don’t expect or even want others to be supportive of “me unleashed”. To me, it’s not all that different to learning to have manners, just slightly more in-depth.
With all that said, it means I want to fit in, or probably more specifically, avoid being in awkward situations more than is necessary. And that means developing methods and processes that help me understand inflections and intent that others might find obvious or are at least more naturally adept at, but I have to infer.
The most relatable example of which is when you interpret textual communication from others. This is a problem I suspect every one has, and probably serves as a good example of how an aspie interacts with others. Imagine a face to face chat was done in the same way as a text conversation - you can’t see their smiles, you can’t hear their tone of voice. To an aspie, we do see and hear those things, but struggle to interpet how that affects the message being conveyed, so in some respects we’re always having a text chat.
That isn’t always the case of course; I’ve spent long hours researching body language and facial expressions trying to train myself to be more observant; I don’t think I’m too bad at face to face conversations anymore. In fact I occasionally find myself providing insights to others who relied on natural inference and missed subtle signs - it’s possible that by using what is effectively an unbias observation I can spot people being fake or lying a bit more easily than those whom I’d consider to be very social.
I find subjects like psychology fascinating, and strive to understand not only why people are the way they are, but also where there are differences between a typical thought process and my own. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t once wondered “how do people live like that” when constrasting a typical process to my own, but ultimately I see the differences as just that. People are different, and being aspie is neither better nor worse.
It’s also important to note that I’m not an expert on this or any other subject. I’ve no formal education so everything herein is my own opinion, experience, and speculation. I’d be very keen to hear other peoples opinions or simply be told I’m wrong on a given subject (so I can study it further and correct my misunderstandings).
First and foremost I want to state that there is no right answer to this problem as far as I’m aware. You can only understand the variables and possiblilties built largely on assumptions and then make a best effort guess. That said, you don’t have to blindly react to text-based messages.
I’m listing this aspect first because evaluating context can change all layers thereafter. For me, context has two key aspects, the first being “cause”. Are you receiving the message because you did something, because you sent something, because you are a point of contact for a particular thing?
Cause isn’t always present or more accurately the cause can be misinformed. If someone sends me a software developer’s CV or discount codes for spectacles, it’s because I’ve landed on some mailing list somewhere. However, more often than not, you’re receiving a message in response to something you’ve sent to someone, in response to something you’ve published, or in response to something you have done.
The second crucial piece of context is what you know of the sender. If the person is a complete stranger, even the entitled denizens of the internet have a somewhat limited context. They can only be responding to something public, which can make evaluating cause simpler and will also limit some of the aspects we evaluate later.
Friends, associates, colleagues, and peers. They are the hardest to analyse in my opinion. Your knowledge of this group’s personality is limited, and they have a broader scope of things in which be responding to.
Finally, there’s your closest friends and/or family whom you can hopefully consider to be in a safe zone. If I do or say something inappropriate with this group they won’t send me some snarky hard to understand remark, they’ll explain and help me understand.
The next step, once you’ve established a context, is to look at the language of the message itself. There is no single aspect you can look at, so you’re looking to build upon your context here but avoid making a decision.
If while reading through a message it starts to make you angry, sad, or any real emotion, you should stop. Easier said than done, but I highly recommend finding a mechanism that allows you to walk away, focus on something else, or do anything you can to put the message out of your mind. To effectively analyse a message you need to have a clear head. If you’ve finished the entire process and then find yourself responding emotionally then fair enough, but try to avoid it on your first pass.
To help clarify this, consider the following potential response to this article:
Them: Great article bro
I could read that and be happy that my article has been read favourably. I might respond to that with
Me: That’s so kind! Thank you!!
only to be slammed
Them: I was being sarcastic you turd
The inverse could also have been true though, my intial response being
Me: I didn’t force you to read it, bro!
Only to be told
Them: What!? I was trying to be nice!!!
The point of following this process of waying up the variables is to avoid these misunderstandings.
I’m not expert with grammar - I suspect there are countless mistakes in this article. However, that doesn’t mean I can’t try to understand a weigh up the grammar used by others. For example, proper use of punctuation or using an Oxford Comma might be indicative of the sender being better educated or taking time to write their message. A message being heavy in emoticons might indicate a younger person.
The goal here isn’t to judge the sender, but instead consider the likelihood of scenarios, and where appropriate include those scenarios in your final analysis.
For example, I once worked with a Project Manager who seemed to find a reason to include repeated punctuation in all their e-mails, so I might receive
Why are we doing this?????????????
To be honest, it drove me a bit crazy getting messages like this. But when analysing this message I can neither infer that the person is angry or joking on this alone. Only that whichever of those I decide is most likely is being emphasised
The final piece of this puzzle is to consider the consequences of responding to a message in a given manner. The aforementioned entitled elite of the internet (and myself included in this at times) are very poor at doing this.
However, when interacting with strangers in a non-professional situation, consequences are likely to be limited. The only reason to not offend a stranger, more often than not, is because you morally shouldn’t. I’m not sure whether it an aspie trait or not, but I don’t often feel guilt so if I accidentally or inadvertently offend someone, I don’t inherently care. I try to be a good person usually, so I may try to rectify that situation, but I’ll do so out of discipline, not because I feel bad (and yes, I appreciate that sounds worryingly sociopathic).
If you lack both the guilt and discipline to right the wrongs of offending someone, you should probably take a look at some of the cases of public outrage on social media. That entitlement works both ways and there are cases aplenty where individuals have been set upon for accidents and mis-interpretations.
When interacting with people you know, the consequences are usually a bit more immediate or obvious. If you call your boss an idiot, you’re probably going to end up chatting to HR. You have a much better context for those you know, so use that to determine plausible outcomes to your responses.
If you’ve followed the above, you should have all the pieces you need, or at least, all the pieces that are likely available to you. There is no equation to sum up all the pieces and determine the best outcome, and even if there were, it would only give you a likely intent.