In the previous installment of this series we explored the concept of nonverbal communication, and why reading and using body language is a skill of utmost importance, not to be underestimated.
Now comes the next step: How to learn, and where to start.
Throughout my post-diagnostic journey into the autism world, the questions most commonly asked of me relate back to my study of body language. How did I learn it? How is it that I can use it myself? What’s my secret?
Due to the popularity of questions like these, I can only assume that interpreting the nonverbal cues of others is a holy grail for autistics.
I understand this; I felt it too.
As soon as I understood what I was missing I became filled with a powerful drive to claim this hidden language. Perhaps this was the reason I had such a hard time making social connections! Maybe this lack was the missing link, the key to all my interactive failings—my anxious confusion and fear around others, the big fat target on my back visible only to bullies—and if only I could learn these social signals I’d been missing my entire life, everything would be better. I would finally connect to strangers with ease! I would feel in control in social situations! I would fit in!
Alas, as you can probably guess, it’s not that simple.
While learning to read and use the nonverbal language that comes naturally to neurotypicals is a tremendous advantage for any autistic, it is not a cure-all. Even with my newfound nonverbal expertise, my social anxiety is alive and well. While I know enough to see that oftentimes those I yearn to connect with would welcome my presence, I’m still crippled by the same old fears, and I still hang back. While I no longer appear angry to strangers, I still appear aloof—standing at the edge of the room, never starting conversations but happily engaging anyone who initiates. I’m still sneered at and excluded by insecure toxic adults. I still can’t summon up a confident handshake to save my life. Be warned that body language is not The Missing Piece that will solve all life’s social problems.
And yet, it does make a difference. I’ve found I have a much easier time making friends. My anxiety and uncertainty makes me quiet and shy, unlikely to initiate social contact, but once I’ve been engaged I can easily have a perfectly normal, mutually enjoyable interaction with a fellow human being. I am less offensive; I can spot the signals of boredom that tell me when to change the topic, I can better read my audience and gauge what kinds of jokes might go over fine and which would crash and burn.
That’s not to say that I’m always a Smooth Sally—I recently told a grisly story involving a dead baby over brunch, and despite the widening eyes and slack cheeks of the members of my audience I found I couldn’t stop myself until I’d finished.
But I no longer ramble for hours about a special interest to some poor trapped guest desperately waiting for a window of escape. And, perhaps more importantly, I no longer fear bringing up my interests on the chance that I will unknowingly trap my victim in a boring conversation and ruin their impression of me. I can’t describe how absolutely wonderful it feels to mention a passion of mine and actually see the interest light up in the face and body of my listener. There are few things more comforting than the sure knowledge that whomever you’re with wants to be talking to you.
I used to assume that if a person sat down next to me and stayed while I spoke, that necessarily implied interest; if that person lost interest, I thought they would get up and leave.
As a child, I had a habit of engaging my peers in endless one-sided monologues, because I didn’t realize that a person might stay and listen against their will out of some sense of etiquette. Over the years, I realized that just because I was talking at someone didn’t mean they wanted to hear what I had to say, and so I grew to fear strangers.
I knew that my friends wanted me around—years of heavy natural selection induced by my monologues meant anyone who had stuck around that long genuinely liked me, weirdness and all—but I had no way of knowing if a new person really wanted me, or merely tolerated me. I still retain much of that social anxiety today, but the simple knowledge of how to recognize boredom has gone a long way in helping me overcome this fear, and the first step in my journey in teaching myself to read body language.
Learning to read disinterest in a listening audience was one of the earliest sets of nonverbal cues I acquired. I say “sets” because messages spoken with body language are rarely (if ever) single signals. Individual nonverbal signals can be mixed and matched to convey a limitless number of complex thoughts and concepts. Learning body language is as much about memorizing the individual signals as it is about knowing how those signals combine to form fluid meanings.
When I was a senior in high school, long before I had heard of Asperger’s or knew much of anything about autism, I somehow found myself dating a neurotypical social butterfly. Quite early in our relationship, he noticed that I had a tendency to ramble on about a topic long beyond the polite threshold of an uninterested audience’s attention span. We devised a simple system: if I needed to change the topic, he gave my elbow a squeeze. Over time, as he explained the various reasons behind his decisions to request topic changes, I began to pick up on these cues myself. It wasn’t until after my diagnosis and long after the ending of our relationship that I began my formal research into body language and solidified my understanding of the signals I had been missing.
Because learning to read boredom was my first nonverbal epiphany, I feel it’s only right to start here.
How to read: Boredom (Disinterest)
This particular flavor of boredom is unique to conversation. A person may unconsciously begin to exhibit any or all of these signals if they feel trapped in a conversation they do not wish to be a part of. It may be time to change the topic if the person you are talking to…
- stops making eye contact, or looks away, when they were once looking at the speaker.
- responds with minimal answers (e.g., “hm,” “huh,” “yeah”) instead of full sentences.
- looks around for other potential engagements, topics, or routes of escape.
- slouches and draws the limbs towards or in front of the body, instead of sitting up straight with open posture.
- fidgets in self-entertaining or self-comforting ways, such as touching the face, cleaning under the fingernails, tapping the foot, etc.
If the problem (i.e., the boring conversation) persists, the signals will grow more pronounced, and may transition from unconscious to conscious and intentional. New, sometimes more obvious signals may appear, such as…
- checking a watch, or clock, for the time.
- yawning, and/or stretching, and other “tired” signals.
- adopting an “ejector seat position” when sitting, with hands on the knees, one or both feet pointed in the direction of a desired exit.
- relaxing the facial muscles and adopting a blank facial expression, or,
- freezing the face into an immobile, affected smile, keeping the muscles around the eyes relaxed.
- overtly engaging in another activity, such as watching TV, checking a cell phone, or reading an internet web page, while “listening.”
If the speaker still has not responded to any of these cues, the listening party will grow frustrated, and the signals often become exaggerated. If other parties are present in the immediate location, the broadcasting range of these signals will widen to encompass not only the guilty (rambling, clueless) party, but also any others, in an attempt to forge camaraderie of circumstance. For example, the bored listener may…
- look towards others in an attempt at nonverbal solidarity (“Man, can you believe this guy?”) or a silent plea for help (“Somebody get me out of here!”).
- turn the body away from the speaker and towards another person in the room.
- roll the eyes upwards and/or to the side while the face is pointed towards another person, and/or,
- widen the eyes while the face is pointed towards another person, and/or,
- press the lips together firmly while the face is pointed towards another person.
My personal rule-of-thumb for measuring the likelihood that I need to change topics is to pay attention to the ratio of words spoken by myself to words spoken by my conversational partner. If you are exchanging phrases of equal length in a conversation, you can pretty much guarantee your partner is interested and engaged. If you are speaking 5 sentences for every 1 of your partner’s, it’s possible that you are dominating the conversation because the other party is less interested. If you are speaking in full paragraphs while your partner has fallen silent, save for one- or two-word answers, it’s probably time to switch things up.
As this series progresses, I will explain several more sets of nonverbal cues, including how to tell when a person is actively flirting (or at least romantically interested) and how to use these cues to make one’s own romantic interest known. I also plan to go over the basic differences between shy and confident body language—knowledge that can be used not only to infer which individuals may respond positively to social engagement, but also to make oneself more or less approachable.
Until then, I want to share a broader view of “how” to learn body language. Body language is so complex that a true, practical understanding cannot be reached through a handful of blog posts on the topic. I can supply a few fish to whet the appetite, but I’d much rather teach you to fish for yourself.
How do I learn?
As I mentioned in my last post, my usual answer to the question of how I learned what I know about body language is that I googled “body language dictionary.”
I can still recall that the first thing I learned from the very first body language dictionary I found nearly five years ago (which, sadly, no longer exists) was the expression I’ve attempted to illustrate at the top of this post, and an expression I had previously never realized was a nonverbal signal!
I learned that a person squinting one eye—like an incomplete wink—while tilting the head towards the party to whom the signal is given, is an expression of (slightly patronizing) dominance, usually exhibited by a superior when giving instruction to a subordinate. I remember that entry clear as day because it was such a shock. I had thought my old boss at my first retail job had a facial tick because he always squinted one eye when talking to me. In reality he had simply been using this signal. What a revelation!
The basic method for learning body language is the same as for any self-taught interest. The first step is in the research. We autistics are humanity’s research champions, at least when it comes to things that interest us.
The following is an annotated list of free online resources that I have found particularly helpful for beginners looking to study body language.
1. The Human Animal: The Language of the Body
This is the first episode of a six-part BBC television series by Desmond Morris. I highly recommend watching the other five episodes as well, but this first episode is the one most relevant to today’s topic. This video is a great example of a resource that helps one begin to learn to fish for oneself, so to speak, because it addresses overarching concepts as well as specific signals. Understanding body language requires a deeper understanding of the reasons and methods behind nonverbal communication, not just the bare-bones formulas of cue combinations, and I feel this video does a good job of introducing these deeper ideas. And because it is a video, not a written guide, it provides a type of research that is essential in the study of human body language: watching real people. Learning the overarching themes present in nonverbal communication is the first step toward inferring meaning from signals without the crutch of memorization. Of course, memorization is necessary to build up a nonverbal vocabulary, making those inferences possible.
2. The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues
A wonderfully detailed online book by David B. Givens, this is another great resource that goes beyond simple direct one-to-one translations of signals to provide conceptual context that can be applied to a variety of situations, and help one infer meaning from unfamiliar signals. This dictionary provides definitions not only of specific signals, but broader categories of signals. For example, the definition of “self-touch” provides a variety of types of self-touch across moods, cultures, and even species (a quote from a 1968 Lawick-Goodall paper describes chimpanzees scratching themselves with an intensity relative to their level of anxiety). This book includes peer-reviewed citations for each example, a very helpful fact for anyone looking to find further resources beyond compilation dictionaries. The sheer amount of context provided by this dictionary is an information-hungry aspie’s dream; any definition of “facial expression” that includes speculation on the evolution of various expressions is a top-notch resource in my book. Again, learning the reasoning behind various types of nonverbal cues is an essential part of learning that “common sense” inference that comes naturally to neurotypicals.
This resource is a straightforward dictionary, written in classic one-to-one style, where each signal is paired with a specific definition. I like this dictionary because it includes such a vast amount of information. Boasting “well over 500 terms,” this might be the most comprehensive of the simple dictionaries I’ve found. But be warned, the simple, straightforward nature of this dictionary means that many of the definitions are more simplistic than realistic. For example, the definition for “Ear grab” (“or ear rub or ear rubbing”), a common self-comforting stim, is as follows: “The ear grab refers to a subconscious desire to “hear no evil” and is done by reaching up and pulling the ear in response to hearing or saying discomforting things.” As someone who does this specific behavior quite often, simply because it feels good, this definition gives me pause. While touching the ear(s) is often a sign of anxiety, especially when lying, or nervous, it’s a bit of a stretch to make such a certain, specific statement about such a general category of self-touch. As with every one-to-one body language dictionary, take these definitions with a grain of salt.
4. How to Read Body Language Signs and Gestures
This hidden gem, found under the unexpected URL “businessballs.com” is an example of the kind of wonderful thing that can result from a little digging on Google. This page includes a one-to-one dictionary, and though this one doesn’t come with pictures, I’m very partial to this list because of its flexibility—for example, the signal “blinking infrequently” is paired with the meaning “various,” and a longer explanation, addressing that this signal “can mean different things and so offers no single clue unless combined with other signals” (the definition goes on to give examples). This dictionary even includes detailed interpretations of leg and foot positions, and varying distances of personal space. Even more important than the dictionary, this page includes a thorough lesson on body language from a conceptual perspective. This website is a true “101”-style resource for those looking to understand body language as well as simply memorize dictionaries.
5. Cheat Sheets for Writing Body Language
This last resource is shorter and less detailed than the others I’ve provided here, but I thought it useful enough to include. This page targets writers looking to add depth to their characters’ emotions, but because of the format it can also be useful for those simply looking to learn basic body language. The unique format of this short and sweet dictionary makes it a special find: instead of translating gestures, this “cheat sheet” starts with an emotion and lists body language cues that portray that particular emotion. It isn’t as detailed as I’d like, but I recommend skimming this page to get a general idea of the kinds of signals that pair with different moods. For example, this author’s description of bored body language is: “yawn, avoid eye contact, tap feet, twirl a pen, doodle, fidget, slouch.” An incomplete, shallow list to be sure, but the take home message carries: a bored person will distance himself from whatever is boring him and seek outside stimulation. While the other links listed could be thought of as deeper, conceptual resources, this page is a compact overview: simple, straightforward, and an easy way to compare and contrast the similarities and differences between various emotional cues.
I’ll conclude this post with a disclaimer: while I can list resources and explain various nonverbal cues, the ability to read and use body language, like any skill, takes time and dedicated effort. While I believe that anyone can learn to understand the fundamentals of nonverbal communication with the right resources and enough study, such things don’t come easy; the “10,000-hour rule” still applies. This may have been comparatively easier for me than for other autistics for a variety of reasons—chiefly the fact that body language became an intense special interest of mine. I learned what I know now because I have dedicated a tremendous amount of time towards my pursuit of these skills. It takes far more than an afternoon to become socially savvy through dedicated study. And yet, only one afternoon is all it takes to break the surface, to understand that there exists a vast and silent language that has always been there, just out of reach. You can’t learn to swim without getting your toes wet, and all it takes is that first foray into the unknown for the incredible world of human social games to provide the motivation to dive in.
Additional resources for understanding social interaction
- People Watching: The Desmond Morris Guide to Body Language, by Desmond Morris (my particular favorite)
- The Games People Play, by Eric Berne
- Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life, by Paul Ekman
- A simple guide to “cold reading,” a technique used by psychics that I’ve found practical for making small talk with strangers, among other things
I can understand the need for a book on dating for autistic women (or women in general) where social norms of right and wrong are broken, some people think gender exists on a spectrum or is not defined by biology and premarital sex is promoted as healthy. Keep up the good work.
I have no immediate reason to doubt the 10,000-hour rule. My biggest concern, as a socially inept Aspie male, is that this is ten thousand hours (okay, maybe 9,500 hours, now) of making people uncomfortable while I try to get it right, risking infringing on someone else’s space the whole time, and dealing with more humiliating rejection, even being told to get lost until I can get it right.
This seems, especially in light of the fact that many people, especially women, regard such ineptitude as anything from creepy to threatening, socially irresponsible. Do you have any thoughts on this?
I definitely understand this feeling. Social rejection, or even the *fear* of social rejection, is one of the hardest parts of this. Even after my “10,000 hours” of study, now that I understand social rules and interactions pretty darn well, my social anxiety hasn’t gone away, and that terrifying fear is still there. It’s hard to force yourself to “practice” socializing when the practice is so scary. I “know,” logically, that nearly everyone I meet isn’t going to reject me for the old reasons I encountered as a child or adolescent, and that most people are nice, open-minded people who will enjoy my positive attitude and happy demeanor. But that “knowing” doesn’t make it any easier to approach strangers.
For one thing, I’d say that the first 50% of the learning process should be theoretical book learning. Read up on the conceptual stuff before diving head-first into actual social situations. Then, even if you don’t have the fine-tuning of real world experience, you won’t feel so ill-prepared that you’re worried about inflicting yourself on others (of course, that *feeling* may still be there, since people like us have hard-wired social anxieties thanks to bad experiences of rejection in our formative years). But creating silent mantras to repeat to yourself about how you “know” that you’re doing OK can help a lot to push on despite these illogical fears.
Then, if possible, I’d say that much of your “field work” practice should be done in small groups, with friends who already know and accept you. Watch their body language, and don’t be afraid to ask questions (after all, they are safe people who already like you, so the fear of rejection is minimal). And if you want to practice observing strangers, go to public places with friends and watch from afar.
Actually approaching strangers for *practice* is something that you shouldn’t just thrust yourself into without preparing. Not only do you risk messing up without learning anything to make up for it (uncomfortable strangers won’t tell you WHY you’ve made them uncomfortable) but you risk creating needless anxiety in others. Especially women, who are raised to see the potentially-boundary crossing advances of men as unsafe (reminds me of the quote, “men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them”; remember that as a man you are inherently a *potential* threat to a woman who doesn’t yet know you, and know if you’re safe). Bring a friend to be a wing(wo)man for your initial real interactions!
Hope that helps a little.
[EDIT: I wanted to add that the fact that you recognize trying to practice social skills on unsuspecting strangers could be potentially violating is a really great thing, and a good sign! Many people don’t even understand that much, so the fact that you’re socially-conscious enough to get that on your own is a big deal. Being mindful of other people’s feelings and reactions is one of the most important skills to develop when practicing social skills, so you’re already ahead of the curve — if the curve consists of those of us who need to intentionally learn this stuff!]
First, I really want to thank you for writing that, Kirsten. I recognise that nobody – especially a stranger woman – owes me their time in trying to help me get a grip on this, so I really appreciate that.
I would like to add some of the things I’ve learned (some of it from bitter experience), hopefully at least for the reference of other readers.
Now, I am most definitely on that curve you mentioned. I have a regrettable (*mostly* pre-diagnosis) history of really fouling up social interaction, and being left confused when told that my errors were “obvious” (not to me) or that I was missing “clear” signals (Chiropteran ultrasound is often less opaque).
Book learning is very useful, but I’ve found it should not be overestimated. The best resource I’ve found (among a pile of mostly useless rubbish aimed at salesmen, pickup artists and other social undesirables), is The Nonverbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs and Body Language Cues by David Givens (2002). This one is at least referenced to published literature, although some of it is overgeneralised. That said, application is not trivial. For instance, if someone is sending anxious signals, this can mean any of several different things, including but not limited to the possibility that you are making your interlocutor nervous. This is a very long list. This – apart from mutually safe environments to apply the learning – is my biggest problem.
The books made me grossly overconfident, leading to the confused (and socially anxious) position I’m now in. Telling yourself (or having others tell you – quinine-flavoured experience) that you are doing okay when you aren’t may make you more likely to miss cues and overstep boundaries. I can’t speak for anyone else, but this led to a lot of real self-hatred, to the point of near suicide.
Pick that second pilot carefully. Of the two people who, post d/x, have offered to help with this, one is a visually impaired female Aspie, which has advantages and disadvantages, and the other is as socially clueless as I am (possibly for different reasons, although this is not clear – I suspect bipolar disorder and some poor coping strategies for social anxiety). In general, having one around is good advice, but there remains a generally poor understanding, not just among men, of the nature and extent of the problem. Extended discussions over coffee on this subject may not go amiss, if they are willing. For me, as I suspect with many autistics, finding such people can be incredibly difficult.
None of this is a panacea: I would not be asking the question if it were. Simply being able to talk to a stranger in a coffee shop without crossing boundaries is simply a first step. Romance, having friendly contacts to help you get jobs and having the social skills to hold them down in a world that values team work and social interaction comes later.
Much human verbal communication can be misleading (possibly deliberately). For instance, “I’m busy” can mean “get lost” or “let’s have coffee next week”. Don’t get me started on what “my boyfriend” can mean. This is certainly related to the social requirement to be polite, but can lead to confusion. I’m told this also confuses neurotypicals, but it’s doing my head in.
I suspect also, for what I hope are fairly obvious reasons, that people may give you more latitude simply because you are female – women are substantially less likely to rape and murder than men are. The fact that I, as a “cognitively disabled” aspie am afraid of neurotypical physical violence (and can back that fear up with reference to published figured on violence perpetrated against the disabled in general) is neither here nor there.
Then something has to be done about the cyanobacterial surface biofilm on a fetid eutrophic puddle that is those men who pretend cluelessness as a cover for social abuse. I regard them as a common enemy.
I want to say that this is a really great comment, and you’re a fantastic writer. And you seem really wonderfully self-aware, which is probably 80% of the hard part when it comes to overcoming autistic social disabilities.
I definitely have my fair share of cringe-worthy social failures from my pre-diagnostic days (and post-diagnostic, sadly enough). I think the self-awareness that comes with a diagnosis itself does a lot in-and-of itself. But that doesn’t save me from physically feeling sick at the memories of some of the awful blunders I’ve made…
And yes, I agree that the major downside of book learning is both the overconfidence it can bring, and the overgeneralized lessons. I still have a hard time with things like this. I can now more easily recognize anger, or anxiety, but I can’t always tell from where it’s originating. I recently made a new friend who I assumed didn’t like me as much as I liked them, so I always hung back and waited for “permission” to socialize, as I was worried my advances weren’t welcome. This was because he was projecting an undercurrent of anxious discomfort. It took a long time (and the second-opinion advice of my therapist!) for me to realize that it wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy my company, it was that he himself suffered from social anxiety. He wasn’t uncomfortable because he didn’t like me; he was uncomfortable because he worried I didn’t like him! I also have some pretty unfortunate, less happy stories that revolve around assuming a person liked me when they really in fact disliked me, and it wasn’t until I was (in no uncertain terms) told to leave that I realized the truth. Sigh.
You’re right; I think one of the hardest parts for many autistics is the fact that we tend to draw in neurologically diverse friends. So our wing(wo)men aren’t always the most socially savvy people. The lucky ones – and I am definitely included in that category – have a socially savvy extroverted friend or two who can act as “mother hen friends” and take us under their wing. But many autistics, especially men, do not have this advantage.
Because it’s something that I *can* address, I’ll say that “I’m busy” almost ALWAYS means “I’m not interested” unless the person includes a suggested date. “I’m absolutely swamped with work right now. But I should be finished with this project some time next month. Give me a call in a couple weeks and we can plan something!” vs. “I’m really busy right now, sorry.” And “my boyfriend” always means “I don’t feel comfortable saying ‘NO’ outright, so I’m going to pull up a [real or fictitious] obligation to another person to demonstrate that I don’t feel comfortable being more than friends with you.” Unless of course it’s something like “My boyfriend and I have an open relationship, so don’t worry!” But that’s a little more clear, haha.
And you’re definitely correct here: socially awkward females have a distinct advantage over socially awkward males. While socially awkward females are often seen as sad and pitiable, socially awkward males can be seen as anything from pitiable to potentially dangerous, and are thus given much less wiggle room. What’s more, you’re quite right about the very real danger of violence by NTs towards disabled people.
Ugh, and then there’s those people who ignore clear signals while feigning ignorance who ruin things for all of us. There are NTs who see aspie cluelessness as *intentional* and *fake* because of people like that. So awful.
Thank you again for this really insightful comment chain! I wish you luck!
As a 40-something Aspie who hasn’t been able to make any friends, this article was a revelation. As you mention, I was aware that body language exists but not aware of just how significant it is. I completely do the “blank slate” thing – if I don’t need a part of my body to be performing some physical task, I relax it. I had no idea that a simple practical notion like that apparently makes me seem hostile. Your advice and resources are great, but the notion of having to actively choose to convey an emotion, look up in a mental dictionary which memorized body motion corresponds to that, and then deliberately perform the action seems exhausting and overwhelming. Particularly without many opportunities to do the practice, I wonder how much hope I have of doing this. But I will try.