What is it like for you to have trouble with body language? Is it really that important to read and speak body language? Why can’t you just take a class?
Sometimes it’s difficult for someone not on the Autism spectrum to know what it’s like to not know how to read body language. When I get questions like this, this is how I explain what it’s like.
Imagine, at the age of 15, that you move to a country in which there are no physical differences between you and the locals. They look and dress in a similar manner to the people in your home country. They speak your native tongue, but only use that language to communicate 40% of what they are saying. For the other 60%, they use a type of sign language.
In your new country, the sign language is pretty subtle. No one tells you about it. It’s not taught in schools or talked about on TV since natives learn it naturally. It might be years before you even realize it exists and how important it is for these people to communicate with it.
Before you are aware of the sign language, you rely on the spoken word of someone. But since that is only 40% of what they are saying, you miss 60% of what they are trying to communicate. You believe everything they say verbally. When you find out they meant something else, you wonder why. After realizing many of the natives don’t communicate their true intentions with their words, it’s easy for you start distrusting people.
When you do start to pay attention, you realize everyone uses sign language. While living among them through the years, you pick up basic sign language words, like “please”, “thank you”, “sorry”, “hello”, and “goodbye”. You probably pick up the curse words as well. You continue watching people speak with sign language but their hand movements are so fast that you can’t make anything out of it. No matter how long you watch, most of it doesn’t makes sense.
As you become an young adult, people expect you to make friends with your classmates and coworkers. After a while, you start to mimick the sign language based on what you’ve learned through observing people in person and on TV. In simple situations, you start to blend in. You still miss a lot, but you deal with it. However, when your friends start to know you better, your sign language may seem strange; even manufactured. Sometimes your sign sends mixed signals to people. You’re known as a nice person, but sometimes you are rude, even arrogant. You may laugh at the wrong time or not seem sad at the right time. The inconguences makes you odd, but they overlook them since you have qualities your friends enjoy and respect.
When meeting members of the opposite sex, the incongruances of your sign language become more apparent. Misunderstandings start happening. You mean one thing with your spoken words, but tell them something else with your sign. They say one thing, while their sign says something else. You miss their signs when they like you, or you miss their signs when they don’t like you. You unintentionally offend potential dates. You even scare people away because of your unpredictable language. Many do not say that you have offended them. They simply avoid you. You do not know what you have done, so you do nothing to correct your language for next time. You are misunderstood. Lack of dating experience leads to low self esteem, which leads to depression.
After a few years, you see more patterns emerge. As a young person, the inconsistancies of your language has it’s charm, but an an older person, it’s seen as annoying or rude. You realize mistakes more often and apologize for them, but don’t have all the tools to correct them.
In your 20s or 30s you look for sign language classes to take, but there are very few classes available. The few classes that are out there are only available to children. You find books and videos on the market which cater to the dating market. These help a little, but lack the basics. You realize the value of the language and take further steps to learn as much as you can. The only options left are to use the media. DVDs, movies, news, talk shows, from this country can be studied. Pausing the DVD and putting it on slow motion can help, but only to a certain point. Friends from this country (if you have any) can help, but only to a certain point as well. Specialists who teach sign language to foriegners are a great help as well. They are expensive, but worth it.
It’s a difficult process, filled with coworkers who think you are arrogant and dates who think you are a creep. With hard work, you start to learn the primary native language. You still miss things from time to time, but slowly, you find good friends who don’t mind your accent, and a partner who looks past everything else and accepts you for all that you are.