Communication and Emotional Expression (Part 1): The Female Factor

Communication and Emotional Expression (Part 1): The Female Factor

Psychology March 19, 2012 / By Lynne Soraya
Communication and Emotional Expression (Part 1): The Female Factor

Social interactions can be complex. For those on the autism spectrum, they can be especially so. When it comes to communicating emotion, there are a host of nuances that can cause difficulties, including the dynamics brought about by gender differences.

Expressing emotion — it's an often-cited challenge for those of us on the autism spectrum. Sometimes, it can be hard for others to understand what we're feeling, which may lead to assumptions that we're emotionless...but my experience has been that this is certainly not the case. As an advocate, I've frequently written of the differences in the way that I process emotions. Responses to my work seem to indicate that I am not the only person on the autism spectrum who has emotion but struggles to show it in a "common language" with others.

When I look at the members of my family, most of which show at least some Asperger-like traits, I see the same trend. They may not have necessarily expressed emotion in "typical" ways, but they certainly had them. My mother, the most social of the bunch, had a very distinctive way of talking about emotion — one which sometimes took people aback.

I don't know whether to attribute it to living with a largely neuro-atypical band of people, or to a touch of Asperger's in herself — but I remember remarking on it as early as my teens. Up until then, and for some time after, I had had an uneasy relationship with members of my own sex. At times I was even afraid of them. Why?

Talking to girls was confusing. Boys would come out, and say what they meant. They'd say, "Let's go build a fort!" We'd build the fort. Then if they didn't like it, they'd say, "This fort sucks, let's build another."

Girls were different...they'd hint, and suggest in a way that totally confounded me. They'd never come out and say what they actually meant. The fact that I did usually got me into a bit of trouble. It was confusing, and frustrating — how could I get in trouble for telling the truth?

A conversation with a female friend would start with an innocent question and answer:

Me: "How was your party?"
Friend: "Oh, you'll never guess! Jane RSVP'd for my party, then she didn't show! Without even calling. This is the FIFTH TIME! Can you believe it?!"

This was where the trouble began...because this question made little sense to me. I didn't find it at all difficult to believe that a person who'd stood you up five times before should do so fact, the opposite would be surprising. My answer to this, by default, would be, "Yes."

But this was, by far, the wrong answer — and would be met with mortal insult. "What do you mean, YES!? What are you saying, that my parties suck?! Some friend you are!!" I'd find myself reeling. What just happened?

Over the years, I came to realize that women rarely said all of what they were thinking...there was always some hidden message, and I always needed to be vigilant for it. I imagined that there was a part of every sentence that was sent silently — and that was what I had to figure out.

Through my own observations, and reading books on communication, such as Deborah Tannen's books "You Just Don't Understand!" " and "Talking from 9 to 5," Figuring out what those emotions were was crucial to understanding the entire message.

To do this, I would visualize every interaction as if it were a SAT-Style fill-in-the blanks context question:
"Oh, you'll never guess! Jane RSVP'd for my party, then she didn't show! _______________________ Without even calling. ___________________ This is the FIFTH TIME! Can you believe it _____________?!"

Fill in the blanks, you'd have something like this:
"Oh, you'll never guess! Jane RSVP'd for my party, then she didn't show! [I'm so annoyed!] Without even calling. [How inconsiderate!] This is the FIFTH TIME! Can you believe it [that she would treat me so badly? I'm so hurt!]?!"

Imagining it this way completely changed the focus...allowing me to see that the question wasn't literally about whether Jane's actions were believable, but about how my friend felt about it. She was asking for support, and compassion. This understanding equipped me to respond more appropriately. However, as you might imagine, going through these gyrations while trying to continue carrying on the conversation was incredibly draining and overwhelming.

My mother was the one woman I knew whom I could talk to directly, without worrying about this dynamic. An interaction with my mother was uncommonly direct and concise: "I'm so annoyed! Jane RSVP'd for my party, then didn't show, without calling! How rude!" No need for emotional Cliff's Notes there... but unfortunately, such blunt statements would often not be received well.

In the world of women — such directness was reserved only for circumstances in which the other party had committed a grave offense (or had proved themselves exasperatingly dense to repeated hints). So my mother's intent was often misread...and she was often judged to be more upset than she truly was, sometimes inappropriately so. When that happens, you can get easily be labeled as having an "anger problem."

But throughout our relationship, it is this very style of communication that often allowed my mother and I to get along. Her directness allowed her to teach me things that those with a more traditionally female style of communication might not have. For a person who struggles with subtlety, it was often essential.

For example, when I would get onto a topic, I would often become fixated upon it. I could talk about it for hours and hours. Other females would try to deal with this indirectly...change the subject, try to give me subtle signals that they were losing interest. I'd be oblivious.

When I didn't get it, they would leave...and I'd be left alone, wondering what I had done wrong. Not my mother...if I got too fixated on a subject, she'd simply look at me and calmly say something like, "Lynne. I don't like that show, and I don't want to talk about it anymore. Why don't you talk about something different. How about _____________."

In a way, my mother's bluntness compensated for my inability to "read between the lines" and helped me to learn what others were thinking. Although it took me a long time, I learned that what my mother was verbalizing, was what others were often thinking, but too "polite" to say. Armed with that knowledge, I could then at least attempt to rein in this problem behavior — although sometimes it was difficult.

People accept the "unwritten rules" so easily, and judge those who don't fit neatly into those constraints — but I have found that different styles of communication are not necessarily a bad thing. And if you stay open to it, those differences may teach you something, in a way you don't expect.

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