Social Skills Classes and the Holy Grail

“I want to figure out an algorithm on how to interact with people appropriately based on who they are and the situation. How they react.” I was speaking to a professor in the Communication dept. about what I wanted to do. I wanted to create an algorithm for autistic people to know how to react.

I have spent years attending social skills classes. They aren’t very helpful. They shared the same major information:

Step 1: Look people in the eye. This is always the first rule.

Only say nice things. (Learned: No observations. People don’t always like those.) When someone compliments you, give them a compliment back. Something about their clothes, usually. Not about their body, about the choice of garment. Don’t mention that their mascara is clumped together or that the foundation is the wrong color for their skin. You may be trying to be nice–they won’t perceive it that way. In a conversation, always end in a question. A statement closes off the conversation and they won’t continue. A question will cause them to continue. (Implied: If they walk away, they don’t like you. You have failed.) Ask them about themselves, their interests. People like talking about themselves. (Implied: People don’t want to hear about you.)

Become a mirror. Reflect the world around you. Erase yourself to eliminate others’ discomfort.

(I know harm that is not the goal of these classes. The goal is to teach us how to maneuver in spaces that are not designed for us. I am writing about the impact it has had on me. If you are having a strong reaction to this, I invite you to consider that making marginalized people to change is not the great help as intended.)

“I want to figure out how to interact with people appropriately based on who they are and the situation. How they react.” I was speaking to a professor in the Communication dept. about what I wanted to do. I wanted to create an algorithm for autistic people to know how to react.

“That’s the Holy Grail, isn’t it?” He said.

An illustration of two blue dudes chilling out in a giant gold goblet hot-tub style.
An illustration by the author of two blue people chilling out in a hot tub. The hot tub is a giant golden goblet.

“Huh?” I asked.

“Communication competence. It’s the holy grail of interpersonal communication.” He has a doctorate in communication and specializes in interpersonal communication.

And then he told me that communication competence is that impossible, unattainable ideal, in which we are able to communicate perfectly in every situation.

Because I was identified as wrong, my wrongness was amplified with the goal of fixing me, and then punished me for my imperfections.

Many have applied the Einstein quote

I will never be perfect. Perfection is unattainable. I am teaching myself that every day. I am a human and I will make mistakes. The choice is how I grow from them. And sometimes, I do not have the space or energy to grow–I need to rest. And that is okay.

There is never an algorithm that will consistently leave me with a correct response. Life isn’t math. (Well, it kinda is, but my point here is that I will never know all the variables.) In this case, the answer is learning how to be okay with myself and the mistakes that I make.

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