Any communication can be misinterpreted. Even the simplest of greetings can be processed in multiple ways. “Good morning” can be non-committal, inviting, or threatening. “Good morning” can be heard as an invitation to conversation or as a dismissive end to one. For an example of the contemptuous salutation look no further than an 18th century interaction between strangers of disparate social classes. “Good morning” can unmistakably mean “this conversation is over.”
“Hey, Stupid” can be loving or threatening depending on your previous experience-or lack thereof-with the speaker, beloved high school buddy versus imposing stranger at a crowded intersection.
And what about the phrase that should be the most simple and straight forward? Could “I love you” be misinterpreted? Indeed it can. “I love you” can wander all over the place. “I love you” can mean, depending on the context, “Let’s spend our lives together,” or “Goodbye.” “I love you” can even be a bludgeon. “I love you,” with the implied, “So why won’t you clean the house?” can harm rather than help a couple.
Surely there is a range of ability in understanding what these phrases-“Good morning,” “Hey, Stupid,” and “I love you”–actually mean. Some folks are better than others at picking up on meaning. Some people are terrible at it. Just like some of my gentle readers are unable to multiply three-digit numbers in their head, some of us have a tough time determining whether “I’ll call you right back” actually means “I’ll call you right back” or “I don’t want to speak to you. Ever.”
To make matters worse, add a smidgeon of oppositionality to an adolescent who has had a tough time picking up social skills his whole life. Just like some of you would have a harsher time than others multiplying 123 x 456 without pencil and paper, imagine our 18 year-old slumped on a couch, not making eye contact with a speaker. “I enjoyed my lunch today,” she says. And then turns away with a grimace, puts a finger in her mouth, and mimics gagging. If our adolescent doesn’t see her pretending to throw up, he isn’t going to pick up on her sarcasm. It’s a problem.
A problem which can be multiplied ten-fold when our young man with imperfect social skills wants-desperately-to start dating. “Don’t go too fast” he is told by thoughtful adults. “Don’t wear your heart on your sleeve.” Doubtless, these bromides are good advice for normally achieving 18 year-olds with unimpaired ability to read interpersonal cues.
But what do these phrases actually mean for our young man who doesn’t perceive social language the same way you do?
“Everything was going great with that girl” our impaired adolescent opines. “We went to dinner and a movie. I walked her home.”
Then he pauses the way you might, gentle reader, if I were waiting for you to tell me what 123 times 456 is. “Now she doesn’t want anything to do with me, won’t return my texts, and has threatened to contact campus security again if I try to get in touch with her.”
“What do you think happened?”
“I haven’t any idea, no clue whatsoever. I mean, I love this girl so I told her I love her.”
“On your first date?”
“Yes. Of course. I love her so I told her so. When I got home from our date, I called her but she said she was busy and that I should call her later. So I called her ten minutes later, but she still didn’t pick up so I kept calling her every ten minutes and sent her texts and emails then, all of a sudden these two guys from campus security were banging on my door saying some bull about stalking. I mean, what is that about? I just don’t get it.”
The above scenario might be comical if it weren’t so sad. And it’s easy to throw a stone at this young man-how could anyone be so oblivious?-until you reflect on how much trouble you’re having doing that multiplication problem in your head.
I can teach you how to multiply three-digit numbers without pencil and paper. I know an algorithm. It’ll take us some time, but I’m willing if you are. Good math teachers are persistent and tolerant. We have to be. Similarly, parents of kids with poorly developed social skills have to be patient. Parents have to model perspective taking, process out loud what the other person might be thinking, emphasize empathy. Yelling, “Stop slouching on the couch and make eye contact otherwise you won’t know whether or not that woman actually enjoyed her lunch!” is less likely to be effective than gently explaining that a young woman can be put off by hearing “I love you” on the first date.