Friday, March 13, 2009

Social Anxiety Every Day

Good Morning
For me, mornings at work are the worst. It seems like everyone wants to indulge in some meaningless, idle chatter.

Everyone I walk past says "good morning" in some falsetto cheerful voice when, to be quite honest, it's too early to tell exactly how the morning will turn out. Perhaps the server will crash and I'll have to spend the entire day fixing it. There have been days like that.

Perhaps the "good morning" is an echo of hope? Maybe people think that by saying the phrase, they'll stave off some unwelcoming morning news. Regardless of the reason, I've quickly learned that to say nothing in reply is considered the height of rudeness.

My hearing problem doesn't help either. Sometimes I'm not sure if someone has spoken or not, or even if they were talking to me. I'm not certain how often I miss their greeting entirely but I'm sure that it happens quite frequently.

So I mentally fumble out my pseudo-happy mimicry of "good morning" but the most I manage is a quietly mumbled "...morning..." or perhaps, "hi".

Then there's the CEO's morning greeting. If there's one person in the whole of my workplace that I should be trying to impress with a morning greeting, it's him. He strides by, oozing power and confidently states his greeting of "good morning, Gavin". An extra-powerful greeting because it includes a name. My own inaudibly squeaked reply of "...hi..." Just doesn't cut the grade.

Sometimes I try to be quick off the mark and reply "Good Morning + name" but invariably, my nervousness makes it come out all rushed and it doesn't do me any favours.

Social Issues, Not Shyness
You'd think that with this particular social difficulty of mine, that I'd be awful at public speaking. Instead, it's quite the opposite.

I've been a computer teacher at an adult education college. I'm frequently a trainer at work, in one to one situations and in classrooms. I've also been called upon to be a presenter many times on all manner of topics from computer security, to workplace policies and the introduction of new systems.

I've always been told that I've excelled in these roles.

I think that so long as the lines of conversation stay rigidly on-topic, I'm ok. It's the small-talk that causes me issues.

Skin Thickness and Survival
Compared to many aspies, I've got rather "thick skin". I can ignore most comments, corrections, "sour" glances and criticism. My general take on this is that I'm the expert on myself. Everyone can hold opinions on whatever they like but nobody else will have a more correct opinion of me than I do myself.

Sure, this probably makes me rather pompous but it also provides excellent protection. I have a friend who is quite sensitive about these sorts of things. He's generally afraid to approach people altogether now and he feels that everyone is attempting to attack him.

Avoiding Social Paranoia
It's a short road from social anxiety to social paranoia and the worst way to push an aspie along it is to be critical of their attempts to socialize. This is one of the main reasons why parents need to be "on top of things", such as bullying, teasing and exclusion when their child is at school. The school years are critical formative years.

In the case of my friend, I've found that you can't protect your child by shielding them from the issues but instead must lead them to confront them and return with their self-worth intact (or preferably strengthened).

My anxious friend was over-mothered during those years. If there was as problem he'd rather not face, his mother simply kept him home for the day. He didn't have to worry about being teased after school either - his mother would drive him to and from school every day. The problem was that as a result, he never learned to defend himself - and not just physically, but mentally as well.

If your mental defenses aren't strong, then you quickly find yourself believing all the negative things that others are saying about you. This leads to depression and also makes you less likely to want to socialize in future - in case more bad things are said about you.

It's a vicious circle.


Beastinblack said...

someone asks: Hi how are you?

you reply: very well thanks

In reality you may feel rotten, but still obliged to say you are great. In other words you have to lie.

Bloody annoying. If you did end up being honest saying 'not very good today thanks' then the problem is you would be obliged to tell the NT what the problem is when they may say'awww whats wrong?'. Damned if you do damned if you dont. Personally id rather just not say anything! I wrote a couple of blogs about my take on social anxiety, see if you agree!

LizzieK8 said...

As a mother, I'm pretty much against the "sink or swim" method of teaching a child how to deal with bullies and such. Kids, and adults, for that matter, die as a result of bullying and hate today.

Of course, we'll never know for sure, but chances are your friend would have been nervous about socializing regardless of his mother's actions. No two individuals is going to respond to "smothering" or being "thrown in the deep end" the same.

Raising Aspie kids has no set formula any more than raising NT kids. And if you're an Aspie raising Aspie kids, well, that's a circus in and of itself.

ASpieboy said...

HOW ARE YOU!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

uh... fine?

The Rambling Taoist said...

My problem with the question, "How are you?" is that I answer it honestly. If I'm doing well, I say so and why. If I'm not doing well, I say so and why.

People constantly tell me I share too much info about myself. My response is that if a person doesn't want to know, don't ask me these types of questions!

James@Everything said...

Long before I discovered I had Asperger's, I learnt that the easiest way to answer "How are you?" was just to say "Oh, not so bad", or to use similar words.

This has been part of my coping mechanism for many years. As you rightly say Gavin, saying nothing comes across as rude to people, and as other commenters have said here, saying how you really feel just leads to other questions.

"Not so bad" works so well for me because it satisfies the need of others for me to provide them with an answer, yet it is ambiguous enough not to be lieing, and it doesn't require the other person to follow up with another question.

I think that growing up without being aware of my Asperger's has perhaps given me a set of coping skills that I might not have otherwise learnt, usually through having to deal with uncomfortable experiences.

Gavin, I find your comments about having trouble with small talk to the point of saying hello, whilst being able to conduct teaching people without a problem fascinating, and it's rung a few bells for me.

Whilst I don't have exactly the same situations, something is now knawing in the back of my mind which says that this pattern fits me too. I'll be giving this some thought, and maybe something will pop out on my blog over the coming days or weeks.

You can find my own thoughts on small talk at

I find your blog really insightful, Gavin - keep up the good work!

Rachel said...

After many years of insisting on answering the "How are you?" question at face value, I've learned to say something non-commital, like "I'm doing okay," which could mean either that I'm doing quite well or that I'm okay considering that I was up half the night because of a barking dog. In other words, it's not lying. It's more like poetry, which can be interpreted in different ways. ;-)

I also say, "I'm fine," because it's always true. I'm not lying. I *am* fine just as I am!

I'm also becoming more comfortable with the NT code regarding these kinds of questions. When someone says, "How are you?" they are basically saying "I acknowledge your presence." I've got so much to deal with just being able to keep up with a conversation, knowing I'm blind to all the nonverbals, that I don't worry too much about greetings at this point.

Zhekai said...

"My general take on this is that I'm the expert on myself. Everyone can hold opinions on whatever they like but nobody else will have a more correct opinion of me than I do myself."

That's an excellent idea. Thanks for sharing it.

Arturo Serrano said...

Rule of thumb: when people say "Good morning," "Good evening," etc., they're not declaring it actually is a good morning; they're wishing you one. It's the same mechanism behind "Happy Birthday" and "Merry Christmas."

The Quiet One said...

I tend to find those kind of situations humerous, but after a while the whole "how are you?" "I'm fine" dance gets really old. It does however make me laugh whenever someone goes on about how stuck to their routines people on the spectrum are. And that conversation about the weather, yes its sunny, I can see its sunny, you can see its sunny, do we have to mention it everytime?!

Gilbert Wesley Purdy said...

I've just come to see it as "a little concession" to say a cheery "Good morning!" and feel that it has given me room to maneuver regarding my other "issues". Still, I fall back from time to time and actually answer the question "How are you, today?"

It took years to give in and practice that "Good morning," it's true, and, in the end, all of the other myriad tiny demands of NTs greatly limited the effectiveness of my concession. How in the world do they find the time to get anything done?

Anonymous said...

You struck gold, here. And my way to deal with it is to use something my dad taught me many years ago. He actually knew a guy who woke up one morning and was unable to breathe. Luckily, the man's wife was there, and she called 911, and the man lived. Now this man passed on this gem to my dad, I pass it on to you. "Every day I wake up breathing is a good one." So when someone asks how I'm doing, I reply "I woke up breathing." And they finish the conversation for me. (Usually, they laugh it off and say "Then it ought to be a good day!")

I don't know why it works. I do know that when my anxiety gets the best of me (currently untreated, so it happens a few times a day some days) I repeat that to myself. I remember that my day started has well as could be expected, and it's up to me from there out to keep it going well.

Anonymous said...

i'm curious in the difference between social phobia (diagnostic) and autism. does some diagnostics for social phobia may be in fact autism???

Liberia Adoption said...

I'm so grateful to have found your blog. Our nine year old son has Aspergers. He has a very difficult time going to church (he gets so nervous his stomach hurts). This wouldn't be such a big problem except for my husband is a minister and will soon be head pastor of a church. Right now we make him go one hour a week. But I always feel torn. Any advice on how we should handle this, or help him?

Gavin Bollard said...

You probably need to have a good talk to your son about what parts of church he likes and dislikes.

If there's a social issue, you'll see clues there. If your church as wings, chapels etc, or areas where the numbers of people are smaller, then perhaps your son could sit there?

Liberia Adoption said...

It's definately the people or social aspect. We can go to Walmart and he is fine b/c people aren't trying to talk to him or get in his space. He can't sit through things without getting a nervous stomach. Examples would be preaching, music recitals, lectures of any kind. However he enjoys sitting through things that offer visual stimulation like movies or plays. Thanks for your input it is SO appreciated. We will try moving him to the back of the church and creating a space for him.

Khadija said...

I totaly get the public speaking thing, I can not talk to people one on one at all but I LOVE public speaking.

I have talked at Uni, done public speaches, T.V. interviews and always got compliments from people. Not a single one even know's I'm Aspie LOL! but I hate talking to people so then when they come up to me and I can't talk they think I'm a snob or something.

In response to the comment about Social Phobia and Autism, that is exactly what happened to me. I was originaly diagnosed with Social Phobia ( and a heap of other things) none of the drugs/treatments ever helped, turns out it was Aspergers all the time. I was formally diagnosed Aspie last year.

Great blog Gavin !

Ryan S said...

From what I've figured out, when people say "Good morning" or "How are you today", it's more of a social pleasantry and greeting than it is anything else.

It's people's way of giving you a greeting and also letting you know that they are open to you approaching them/talking to them.

It's a more social way of saying "Hi" or "It's good to see you" or "I am open to talking with you".

the beta female said...

I've been reading blogs about Asperger's for about a week now, and I find it pretty interesting that people say they have to "pretend to be normal." Those with the syndrome tend to feel confused by society's most typical behavior patterns and ways of communicating. However, I have a hard time knowing which of the folks posting actually have a true condition and which are just socially awkward.

The "How are you" and "good morning" phrases are weird, for sure. Most people think they are, even the "neurotypical." I know at some point in my life I've had a conversation about how odd it is that people politely ask one another rhetorical questions that aren't mean to receive honest, literal responses. But, it's just something we do. More or less, we are ALL faking it. Everybody pretends to be normal. So often, in fact, that the concept of "normal" is nill.

I have to wonder if some people who think they have Asperger's really just have not perfected the acting that is needed to function in society. Learning things as an adult is difficult, which is why it might seem like you have a disorder. But, maybe you don't. Maybe it just takes some more patience to pick up on things that you didn't learn as a child.

The description of Asperger's in the DSM seems to go far beyond social awkwardness. It seems like it would be relatively easy to distinguish between someone who has a distinct disorder and someone who is just socially awkward.

Anonymous said...

Them: "How are you?"
Me: "I don't know yet."
Me: "I'm fine but I just got here. Things could change."
Me: "Ugh. Don't ask."

Anonymous said...

When someone asks me I use the same phrase over and over.I reply "I'm good. How are you?" I seem shy, but but my problem is I have no idea what to say in social situations. I'm not diagnosed with aspergers, but I think I have it.

Anonymous said...

I just say good thanks, how are you? Or sometimes in the morning I say I'm feeling a bit tired today, and then ppl tend to give you some time to settle. Afterall, a lot of ppl without aspergers feel like crap in the morning. It's quite common.

Anonymous said...

Great post Like your friend I couldn't take the bus after I was bullied even when I was told they were being dealt with. It with only the morning trip and then eventually stopped all together. I think this is why I end up getting SA a year later.
Teachers and doctors have told me the cause of my SA was because I have mild Aspie. I was never that great in social situations/small talk but I strongly think bulling enough was the main cause.

Anonymous said...

Hmm I've recently been wondering if I have asperger's...I was wondering of you could help? Here's a few strange things about me, might me symptoms, might not:
I am very clumsy, fall over often
I struggle with social chitchat, not interested in gossip
I often fail to understand jokes/ sarcasm
I often feel confused,
I am untidy and, for a reasonably intelligent person, have terrible handwriting
I sometimes act In an obsessive manner
I have 'selective hearing' - I hear small noises, background noises but not what people are saying to me,
I am occasionally accused of being rude or offensive, particularly when trying to copy the chitchat of others
Although I am part of a large friendship group, I am not close with anyone
I cannot easily retain
information but can very easily remember what I read

I came across this because my parents have shown concern at my relationships of others, and accuse me of being self absorbed. Although I do not share many interests with my peers, I wondered if there was something 'wrong' with me due to the fact that I appear to be considered an undesirable person to sit next to or work with, despite being intelligent. In addition, I have on a few occasions been referee to as being disabled - once as a joke, once by a friend's rude ex, and once in the context of a conversation about whether we would have spoke out aginst the Nazis had we lived in Nazi Germany. I pointed out that as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed white girl, I was likely to be far removed from peresecution so unlikely to act - to which someone responded that actually I'd 'probably be in a concentation camp because... well..' perhaps these things www meant as a joke, but I'm not sure. Additionally, even my teachers seem to think I am strange and vunerable. Yesterday, my Geography teacher apparently told the class to be quiet, after which I carried on talking and said "You're either very rude ore very..." And trailed off. Later, when I was visibly upset (about something else) a friend told I'd just had a bad day, too which the aforementioned teacher responds "Ah well a bad day in your head is probably better than a good day in other people's". What does that mean? Interestingly, several people have mentioned to me that they would like to see what is going on in my brain - again, a strange statement of ambigous meaning. Oh, I forgot to add that I get on bizzarely well with young kids for some reason. They just make more sense than teenagers. Lastly, the reason I am actuallu making this post is because I have completed a number of online tests, all of which indicate that I, in all likelyhood, have aspergers. However, I have a reluctance to involve my parents so, considering most of you probably have aspergers or know people who do, do you think I have it or not?