The difference between shyness and misunderstandings

I’m shy, but I also struggle with the disconnection between my autistic communication style and that of allistic people. I see these as separate issues, but people seem to confuse them. So I thought I’d try to explain how I see things.

Shyness is a personality trait that means I get nervous and uncomfortable when I’m around people I don’t know well and when I’m the centre of attention. Shyness causes me to not always say what I’d like to express.

And I’m Autistic and I often don’t know what to say in some types of social situation. Autistic people tend to say what we mean and we tend to assume that everyone else does too. But in A Field Guide to Earthlings, a book about allistic (nonautistic) behaviour, Ian Ford wrote about the many ways that allistic people don’t say what they mean. He argued that in some situations, such as small talk, the things allistic people say are not even the purpose of the interaction. Instead, while they say things that sound like they mean something, allistic people can have a silent exchange that an Autistic person can completely fail to understand or even notice. This idea seems bizarre to me, but it does explain a lot.

Sometimes allistic people’s interactions are about the things they say. I think this happens at university when I discuss zoology with the lecturers or the other students. The purpose of this type of interaction is to exchange knowledge and opinions on zoology; I understand this. I know how to discuss zoology. I have knowledge and opinions about it that I like to share and I generally understand what other people say about it. But in large groups and when I’m around people I don’t know, sometimes I stay silent when I think of something I could say, or I get nervous and say something wrong, because I’m shy.

But when people make small talk or try to have a friendly chat with me I don’t understand the purpose of the interaction. In the past I thought they were interested in what they were actually talking about, like the weather or what people did at the weekend, and I tried to say interesting things about the topic of the conversation. But we’d usually end up with an awkward silence and I never understood what I’d said wrong. Sometimes I couldn’t think of anything at all to say, so I didn’t say anything.

I’ve had lots of people tell me I need to relax around people and come out of my shell, or like myself more or be myself more, and the implication seems to be that when I do these things I’ll just know what to say. But this hardly ever helps. When I try to get over my shyness I end up with the same result.

When I tried to follow advice for dealing with shyness it really upset me when I seemed to fail again and again, and in the end I stopped trying.

I think this is because the problem is not shyness but that there is some fundamental difference in the way me and other people perceive our interactions. I focus on words and fail to notice or reciprocate what the allistic person is really trying to do.

More recently I’ve come to understand that words are often not their intended focus. And I think I’ve learned to imitate some of what allistic people do when they chat. Now when someone says, ‘How are you?’ I don’t try to answer the question but say, ‘Fine thanks, how are you?’ This seems effective when starting a conversation. And when someone asks me another question I answer it then ask them the same question back. I didn’t do this much before because I usually wasn’t interested in the answer. I this is a good method for asking appropriate questions, which is something I’ve been told I should do, but I’ve had a lot of trouble thinking of them.

This imitation of allistic communication seems to work for short conversations, but I worry that people would see through it if I kept it up for too long. I still only barely understand some aspects of allistic behaviour.


Edit: I should have probably made clear that not every Autistic person communicates like I do.

5 thoughts on “The difference between shyness and misunderstandings

  1. I have pondered the difference between shyness and misunderstandings as well. I used to think I was shy until I understood autism more and realized that for me it wasn’t shyness at all but rather that I didn’t know how to communicate in the way I wanted to.
    When it’s shyness I think relaxing probably does help, but with autism relaxing doesn’t really change much because there’s still that barrier of trying to understand communication.
    I think that for allistic people what is said in conversations isn’t as important as just having the conversation. For example, if you didn’t have a conversation with a friend, they might think that you didn’t like them or were upset with them. However, if you have a meaningless conversation, they know that you are on good terms with them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      I can see why people confuse autistic communication difficulties with shyness, because they can both cause people to say very little. I think it comes from just considering behaviour and not its cause.

      For me what helps with shyness is trying to ignore the nervousness, and speaking despite it – obviously this only helps when I know what I want to say.


      • Yeah, for me the biggest problem is figuring out how to start the conversation. If I see an opening, I go for it and I’m usually the most talkative person in the room. But if I don’t see an opening then by the time I figure out how to start the conversation, the opportunity has usually passed.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting approach. Didn’t think about so far but for people Klinefelter’s syndrome, a genetic chromosome variation leading to autistic-like traits, many lads are described as rather shy and passive. I don’t know if for all of them the lack of testosterone is the reason but for some of us (and many lads have ASD diagnose as well), including me, I recognize exact the same difficulty with smalltalk. Originally, I also tend to take small talk openers literally. “How are you?” – and I’m inclined to tell the whole story. I have to remind me not to answer honestly but with “fine thanks, and you?” which sounds odd in my mind because it’s not the right answer but obviously people like to hear that. Same thing with special interests. For a long time, I could monologize about the weather (my main interest) and did not notice when the other one was not listen anymore. That’s especially difficult because most people use weather as a typical smalltalk opener, and I tended to talk too serious about. For the same reasons like you – I consider conversation as an opportunity to share interests and exchange knowledge. It’s hard for me just blathering about something. So in the end, shyness might be present when I’m passive, e.g., speaking in a mass of people, but it is also more than just lack of courage, it’s the difficulty to start and maintain conversations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting!

      Saying ‘Fine thanks, and you?’ feels dishonest to me too, and I don’t like saying it, but it does seem to be what people expect and like to hear.

      It must be frustrating having people mention your special interest all the time and than not want to listen to what you have to say about it. In my case I tend to say too little rather than too much with most people, and I only do monologues with people I know well.

      Liked by 1 person

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