Social situations have always been problematic for me (see previous blog post – Social Anxiety & The Networking Event), not least in a business context, so it was with some trepidation that I set out for my marketing referral event on Wednesday the 14th. As things turned out, everything went well on the day and I even learnt something very interesting – that I was by no means the only one in the room who was nervous about these sort of business events.
A fellow attendee said that it was a massive effort for her to come to them too, even though the particular event is fortnightly and she’s been to loads of them. She went on to say that it’s even harder to find the motivation to attend for someone who’s a reluctant networker AND self-employed as there isn’t a Manager or boss to compel you to go! I was surprised to hear this coming from someone who outwardly seemed very confident in that environment, but also heartened by the fact that I was by no means alone in my unease about having to actually talk to people.
Aspergers & social anxiety
As an Aspergers (Aspie) male, I often find social situations very difficult. I’m not alone in this. Fellow Aspie and Staffordshire resident Paddy Considine used to stay in bed rather than face the day, and hide under the table when there was a knock on the door. Speaking to people was all too much.
There are many unwritten social rules that people without an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) seem to learn and put into practice instinctively. As these rules are unwritten, people with an ASD often have to work hard at learning them, and they can be confusing. Add in an Aspie’s fear of being anything less than perfect, worries about being judged negatively by others, and the feeling of dread about having to step outside our comfort zone into the mix too, all making the perceived lack of social skills and the inability to “fit in” and “mingle” a cause of much anxiety. Sometimes it’s an achievement to even get out of the door! Even if an Aspie appears to be doing well in a social situation, it could be that it’s taking so much effort on their part that they are eventually and inevitably going to crash. Hopefully this will be behind closed doors once they’re home and are able to “decompress”, but sometimes spectacular ‘meltdowns’ happen in public.
Networking for people who hate networking – business situations & social anxiety
Meltdowns are bad for all concerned at the best of times, but especially so when it happens in front of your work colleagues or potential clients.
I’ve shown my face at work functions only to flit ghost-like around the room, not say a word to anybody or be noticed by anyone, make for the door and then beat a hasty retreat to the sanctuary of my hotel room. The fact that I wasn’t missed as all of the extrovert Neurologically Typical (NTs) “had fun” spoke volumes.
I mentioned ‘Networking for People Who Hate Networking’ by Devora Zack (Berrett-Koehler, 2010) in my previous blog post, Social Anxiety & The Networking Event, and that book could just as well have been called ‘Networking for Aspies’. In fact, there are many other books on Aspies and business, as a quick Google search on the topic shows. We’re a niche and captive market. Such business luminaries as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg are (suspected to be) Aspie too.
Why is it that Aspies fear social situations yet often excel at social media? Being social at a distance
All this leads me to ponder the key question at the heart of this blog post – why is it that Aspies fear and loathe social situations so much yet often excel at and revel in social media? In other words, being social at a distance.
Sherri Schultz, AKA Pensive Aspie, says in her blog post on Aspies and Social Media:
Online communities allow Aspies to make friends – real friends – for maybe the first time in their lives without the stress of being socially correct. Being online removes the stress of eye contact, correct posture, correct tone and appearance. You can sit in your favourite ratty pyjamas and make a friend without ever having to brush your hair or put on shoes… No painful conversations trying to find some mutual connection. No internal dialogue about remembering eye contact or not standing with your arms [folded]. There is safety behind the screen.
This also applies to the business sphere. In other words, you can just be you without having to concentrate on being you (or the more business-y version of you), whilst working from home wearing an old, comfy sweatshirt and joggers or remain safely ensconced in your bullpen cubicle in the far back corner of your open plan office floor.
In real life social situations, the back and forth of conversation doesn’t give you much time to process what someone has said to you and formulate an answer. If I pause during conversation to think about what I’m going to say next someone else often jumps in and fills the gap. It’s not an awkward silence, and I’m not lost for words, I’m thinking what I’m going to say next! I find it really irritating when I’m not allowed to finish what I’m trying to say, and I often come away from those sort of one-sided conversations feeling angry and frustrated.
You don’t have to react and reply instantaneously with social media. You have time to read someone’s Tweet or Facebook post, absorb and process it, then come up with a well-honed reply. We’re usually good with the written word you see, and we can delete and re-write our Tweets or posts before we hit the Enter button. You can’t rewind and re-phrase an actual verbal conversation.
Is social media killing the art of conversation?
However, some people think that Social Media is actually killing the art of conversation.
If you use Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, everybody already knows everything there is to know about you. That sailing trip you took? Liked. Breaking up with your girlfriend? Replied to on Twitter. All these over-sharing, always-on social networks create situations where there’s nothing left to talk about! [Shoebox Blog via Neatorama]
So, what’s the answer? Perhaps there’s a third way. If you know it, feel free to Tweet it to me; or, alternatively, arrange a 1-2-1 and we’ll have an actual real life, face-to-face chat. If I can make it out of the front door, that is.