It is not at all unusual for neurodivergent (ND) adults to experience challenges when it comes to social conversations. It can be frustrating when neurotypical (NT) people misunderstand your intentions and accuse you of being rude, when in fact rudeness was the furthest thing from your mind. Figuring out how to avoid these misunderstandings can sometimes be simple, once someone points out how the ND mind works, and what their expectations are for “typical” conversations.
I’m writing a series of posts about the four FACE strategies that may smooth the way for social conversations with neurotypical people, or NTs. FACE stands for Follow back, Ask back, Comment, and End well. Previously I wrote about the Follow Back strategy, for when a conversation moves on too quickly and you still want to get your point in after the topic has shifted. In this post I’ll write about the Ask Back strategy.
For this strategy, it helps to try to get inside the NT’s head to see where they’re coming from. I know, you have probably spent your lifetime trying to figure out the illogical puzzle that is NT. It would be great if they spent as much time trying to look at the world through the ND’s eyes, and that is a good world goal to aim for. In the meantime, here is a hint about how many typical minds work which may be helpful.
Sometimes an NT will have some exciting news they want to share at work. Maybe they just booked a vacation cruise they’ve been saving for. Maybe they scored concert tickets for their favorite band this weekend. Whatever it is, they are dying to tell everyone in the office all about it.
No matter how anxious they are to start spreading the news, many NTs feel that it would be rude of them to just jump right in and start talking about themselves and their plans. They believe it is more polite to first ask someone else about their vacation or weekend plans, to let the other person talk first. Their expectation is that after talking about their plans, the other person would immediately return the question and ask them about their vacation or weekend plans, giving them the opportunity to share their exciting news.
Many ND folk come to work for the express purpose of working, not socializing. They have learned, though, that if someone asks them a question, the polite thing to do is to answer the question. Consider this scenario.
NT comes in to work excitedly one morning and asks, “So, do you have any vacation plans lined up?” ND pauses their work to reply, “No, I prefer a quiet ‘stay-cation’ at home.” Question asked, question answered. Now that ND has fulfilled the obligation to politely answer a questions, they return to their work.
Unfortunately, NT was all set to answer the same question themselves with their exciting vacation plans, and now they feel left hanging. They expected to get the same question batted back to them, and when it didn’t come, they had some feelings. They might think ND is rude, or self-centered, or uncaring. They may even grumble and talk about ND behind their back, causing workplace drama, the very last thing ND wants.
Now, this may seem manipulative and self-centered of the NT, as if they are trying to set you up to give them center stage, but usually this is not their intention. It doesn’t make sense in any logical way, but many NTs have been programmed since early childhood to believe this is the polite way to share their news. They do it naturally without even thinking about why they start with a question. But when they don’t get the opportunity to answer the same question themselves, they may feel wronged or slighted.
Obviously, the solution is simple. When someone asks you a question, after your own answer, as brief as you want to make it, just return the question back to them. Ask it back, and they will have the pleasure of sharing their own news, which is why they started this whole thing in the first place. If you Ask Back the original question, even though it takes a bit more time out of your work day, your NT colleague will feel better.
Let’s be clear, though. It is not your job to try to make everyone else “feel better.” NT’s feelings are not your responsibility. There’s no written rule against continuing with your work rather than engaging in the Ask Back routine. It’s your choice, but at least knowing where they’re coming from makes it an informed choice.
If someone asks you how you are, after you answer, ask them how they are. If they ask about your weekend, follow up your response with asking them about their weekend. Many neuro-typical people ask questions, such as if you have any vacation plans, because they, themselves, have vacation plans that they want to talk about. The expectation is that after you answer their question, you will ask them the same one, giving them the opportunity to talk about what they wanted to talk about.
I should note that not all NTs are the same, any more than all NDs. They are a divergent lot in spite of their typical-ness, and not all of them expect this “Ask Back” conversation routine. But for those who do, it’s good to be aware of what their expectations might be when they ask a social question.