David Altshuler, M.S.
(305) 978-8917 | [email protected]

Would You Like to Dance?

For some time now Pooh had been saying “Yes” and “No” in turn, with his eyes shut, to all that Owl was saying, and having said, “Yes, Yes,” last time, he said “No, not at all,” now, without really knowing what Owl was talking about.

Imagine going through life that way in the social domain, nodding and acquiescing when the real party is going on in another room down the hall. Pooh doesn’t get it cognitively, but he knows that he doesn’t understand Owl’s pontificating. But everybody is supposed to understand social cues. Social cues are so simple, so obvious, that there isn’t even a curriculum. Everybody gets social cues, right?

Maybe not.

Here’s the most difficult question I’ve ever heard: “May I call you right back?”

A 16 year-old has finally summoned the courage to call a classmate. Lee intends to ask Robin out on a date. When Robin answers the phone, Lee says, “Hi, Robin. It’s me, Lee. From English class” Before Lee can say, “Would you like to go to dinner and a movie on Saturday,” Robin says, “May I call you right back?”

“May I call you right back?” What is the world does that mean? Does “I’ll call you right back?” mean “I’ll call you right back”? It might be as simple and straight forward as that. Maybe Robin has someone on the other line. Maybe Robin’s mother just got home and needs help unloading the groceries. Or does “May I call you right back?” mean “Take a long walk off a short pier”? Maybe “May I call you right back?” means “I know you’re calling to ask me out and I wouldn’t go out with you if I were in prison and you had a fistful of pardons.” Maybe “I’ll call you right back” means “I’m unable to say it to your face, but I don’t date people of your gender.”

Six simple, monosyllabic words. Any number of possible meanings.


Pretty much every sentence can be taken in more than one way. Even “Have a nice day” can mean a convivial, “Have a nice day.” But depending on tone, inflection, context, situation, and the length of time between words, “Have a nice day” can also mean “I hope you have a crummy day.” Clearly, if someone is pushing me off a bridge and says, “Have a nice day” as I plummet a hundred feet toward dismemberment, that’s a clue that he actually means “Have a nice day” with a certain sense of irony. Unfortunately, the context clues are seldom that straight forward as attempted murder.

Here’s an example of a young woman who relied on contextual social cues and listened for that which was not said. As a result, she suffered a mild embarrassment:

In a crowded bar in Ann Arbor, Joel asks Jodi, whom he has never met, to dance. She agrees and the co-eds dance. At a pause in the music, Joel says, “Thank you.” Jodi, expecting to hear, “Would you like to take a walk?” or “Would you like to have a drink?” stands on the dance floor looking awkwardly at Joel for several seconds. Finally, she has an epiphany and says, “You just want to dance, don’t you?” To which Joel, puzzled, replies, “Yes. That’s why I asked you to dance.”

To many other college students in another time and place, this conversation would hardly be interpretable. They would need an anthropologist to decipher it. A healthy 20 year-old male just “wants to dance” at a bar in the town where he goes to college? Yes. In this case, that’s just what he wants to do.

Here’s an example of a young man who didn’t pick up on some obvious social cues. (For reasons that will become all too obvious, I’m keeping this story out of the first person.) It is hard to exaggerate how different this young man’s life could have been had the following interaction been observed.

Driving home at nine o’clock on a Saturday night, our hero observes a young woman standing with her thumb out and stops his car. The young woman, wearing shorts so impossibly tight that it is difficult, in retrospect, to imagine how she is able to speak, begins the conversation as follows: “Thanks for stopping. Do you want a date?”

The young man replies, “No. I don’t want a date. Do you want a ride?”

Let me interrupt this narrative long enough at this point to acknowledge that a Martian, observing Earth culture, since arriving on the planet only moments before, would already know what the young woman in our example does for a living. But the young man still hasn’t figured it out. The conversation, therefore, continues at cross purposes for several more sentences before the proverbial “penny drops.” The young man, speechless and perplexed–“She had her thumb out. Why did she have her thumb out if she was a prostitute?”–drives away. Again, the conversation was not observed by law enforcement authorities and the young man–in the fullness of time–grew up to be a successful educational consultant–untainted by a criminal record for consorting with sex workers.


Educators are just now acknowledging the contributions made by students who learn differently. Indeed, in Chapter Four of Winnie the Pooh quoted above, it is Pooh who finds Eeyore’s tail disguised at a bell-rope. Pooh has auditory processing issues, but is a fine visual learner. But for those kids for whom social skills and social cues are an issue, the road is still minded with “May I call you right back?” and “Do you want a date?”



Copyright © David Altshuler 1980 – 2022    |    Miami, FL • Charlotte, NC     |    (305) 978-8917    |    [email protected]