I’m Not an Extrovert, But I Play One on TV

Over at Mris’s journal, there’s a great post about social skills and Asperger’s. People with Asperger’s are often told that they need to “learn social skills,” but M’ris asks:

I’m curious, though, about what you all think this “learn social skills” thing
actually means, or should mean. What are we taking for granted that “of course
everyone knows” that may well be learned behavior on the part of neurotypicals?
If you’ve got Asperger’s yourself, what social skills have you learned the hard way,
or what did you wish someone had explained to you in your late teens and
early twenties?

I commented briefly at M’ris’s place, but here are my thoughts in more detail.

I don’t have Asperger’s, but I am an introvert. When I was younger I was so awkward that I was basically unable to deal with anyone other than close friends and family. Often not even them.

At college I was suddenly cut off from the friends that I had (somehow) made in elementary school, and it soon became clear that I was hopelessly at sea. My classmates were generally very nice, but I had no idea how to chat with strangers and make new friends, even surrounded by fellow geeky engineering types. Social circles gelled far too quickly.

During college, particularly my miserable sophomore year, I did a lot of re-thinking. It was clear I couldn’t exactly count on Eric and Pat and Sam and Mike and Byron and Nancy to parachute in whenever I wanted company. I needed to learn to make new friends. But that required talking to strangers, for extended periods of time, without wanting to run away. Impossible.

I would have been in even bigger trouble if I’d had Asperger’s. But I didn’t, which meant I already had the skill set of reading and processing facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language without having to consciously think about what I was doing. So what I needed to do was start putting things together. Is this clump of people at the party interested in welcoming a stranger? Was that an opportune moment to join the conversation? Or am I just going to tick them off? Solving this kind of problem requires processing countless tiny cues very quickly in parallel. If “social skills” are analogous to “math skills”, then understanding nonverbal cues is the equivalent of arithmetic. Meanwhile, we neurotypicals are yelling at these kids to go run off and learn Algebra I.

Fortunately for me and my particular goals, I did know arithmetic. A decade later, I’m still introverted, and proudly so. But I have gotten better at schmoozing. I can talk to strangers at parties. I can speak extemporaneously. I can give presentations to groups — badly, but I’m getting better. I can make new friends. The reason I’ve worked on these skills is that to me, these skills are important and worth exercising. I actually like talking to strangers now, up to a point. I’ve also chosen a career that requires a fair bit of socializing. If you’re an engineer and the other engineers don’t like you, you can still be successful if you’re really, really good at the technical stuff. But if you’re a tech writer and the engineers don’t like you, it doesn’t matter how good a writer you are: you’re screwed.

These skills are important to me for various reasons, but to others, not so much. That’s why the injunction to “learn social skills” is so pernicious, particularly when directed towards people with Asperger’s. First, you haven’t given any specifics about what skills you should be learning. And second, you haven’t stated what the end goal should be. Being able to politely convey information to another human being? Running for Mayor? What, exactly?

Anyway, the weird thing about this shift is that I’ve made friends in my late 20s and early 30s who never knew me in my younger days. They think I’m an extrovert.

But they’re wrong, and the reason I know they’re wrong is that even though I enjoy socializing, it’s draining. I get my energy from being alone, and I burn it up by being around people. I do have friends who are real extroverts, and they actually gain energy from being around a whirlwind of people. I’m thinking, “I’ve been enjoying this party for three hours, but now I just need to crawl away and hide.” My extrovert friends find this baffling. “As long you’re still enjoying the party, why would you ever leave?”

Hoisted from Comments: Magazines for the West Coast Elitist

A little over a year after the Smugger Than Thou discussion, Damon chimes in to say:

You people suck at being West Coast elitists. I herby and forthwith look down my Birks
and Vespa at you all.

UTNE, Mother Jones, and without apology, The Economist (ne’er a rag written with less
genuine concern for the human person as such;let’s face it, elite is elite. Only the
material of selfishness changes, not its form.)

And there we have it: the definitive list of magazines for the West Coast Elitist, suitable for strewing over any coffee table. And we didn’t come up with any of it. We do suck. (Certain elitists might still take Jemaleddin‘s suggestion of Variety, but I think this is only permissible if you’re in the movie or television industry.)

In related happy news, my subscription to (quintessentially middlebrow) Newsweek is about to run out. They’re already starting to send me their patented series of sad-sack renewal letters and postcards. That trick even used to work on me, occasionally. But after being subjected to the most insulting op-ed ever written last year, I think I’m pretty much done with Newsweek forever. Even free from NPR, it’s not worth the money.

Defensive Screens at Maximum Strength, Captain

When I first moved into my condo, one of the many minor little issues was that several of the window screens had holes and tears, particularly the big screen door to the balcony. The seller’s agent explained that at some point, the association had had the windows power washed, and the tenants hadn’t bothered to take down the screens. Oh well. “One of those things I’ll get to someday,” I said to myself.

Fast forward about four years later, and I finally took a Sunday out to replace the screens and splines. I can see why one would want to put the job off — in theory it’s fairly simple, but in practice it’s bitchy hard work to get the tension of the screens right. This is just one of those many home repair jobs that would be a lot easier with a third or fourth arm. Boy oh boy I just can’t wait for the nanobot revolution or whatever to show up so we can all get extra limbs and super-brains and stuff.

Anyway, now that the job is done, my home is totally impervious to flying insects! Hahaha at you flying insects! I am mocking you right this minute.

F*ck That Noise

This afternoon the movers decided to tear down a bunch of cubes in the row next to mine. I think they were throwing things on the ground specifically to make it impossible to do any sort of work within a 100 meter radius.

Fed up, I headed down to The Faultline. At the Faultline, I can work in relative peace and quiet, with unlimited frosty IPAs within arm’s reach. Until my battery runs out — then I guess I get to go home.

Damn, it’s good to be a Princeling of the Silicon Valley.