Literally Wired

When I first suspected I was on the autism spectrum, I began my journey by doing research followed by online testing, consulting with special education teachers, and telling my doctor my suspicion. Among the various autism symptoms is having the knack for taking what people say literally. I had to give that symptom some thought as to whether I was guilty or not of doing such.

Don’t people mean what they say and say what they mean?

I reckon not. My mind returns to a moment 25 years ago when someone tried to tell me that people don’t always say what they literally mean.

It was a conversation I had with my boss at the time. During my annual evaluation, John brought up something rather strange. He said that most folks from the “north” tend NOT to take what people say literally. Whereas, most folks from the “south” (he knew I was from Texas) tend to take what people say literally. He didn’t elaborate on just where exactly the dividing line was separating the north and south.

An example he cited was if it was announced that inflation was not going up, most of the south would think it is NOT going up. But most of the north would think it is going up a little bit.

An example closer to home, which looking back I think was the whole bloody point of the conversation, was if I asked him to help me with something. If he responded with, “I will help you but later”, I would probably take it to mean he will help me later. He told me that someone from the “north” would interpret it as “I don’t want to help you at all.” John was from New York State, by the way.

I was totally puzzled but too naive to take it as a criticism or insult. I was taking him literally at his word that my southern roots was what caused me to take John literally. Looking back, I guess this whole production was John’s way of telling me “later” meant “no”.

With 25 more years of life experience since that candid conversation, I am not sold on John’s “north vs. south” theory on literal communication. I suspect there are folks from John’s home state of New York, and other northern states, who take what people say literally and those in the south who don’t always take what folks say literally. I don’t think region of the country, or whart part of our planet one comes from, has anything to do with whether one takes people literally or figurative speaking.

Weeks after my diagnosis, an acquaintance I’ve known for a few decades was telling me she had been wanting to take on a home improvement project. It had not been done in years. I offered to do it for her. She said, “Oh, no, I don’t need any help. I’ll get around to it sometime.” Hm? Did she really NOT want me to do it? Was this her way of asking me to do it without coming out and saying it LITERALLY?

A few days later, I went over and commenced to starting the project. She didn’t offer any objection whatsoever! I’ve finally figured out (now mind ya it took me decades) that when this person says she doesn’t need my help, she instead means, “I’d be mighty pleased if you did.”

This reminds me of someone sitting at a diner counter where the waitress comes up and asks how he or she takes their coffee. Well, I prefer to take my cup of conversation “literally”. But since conversation isn’t a solo thing, I am bound to misinterpret ever now and then someone who doesn’t say what they literally mean. I assume I say what I mean but I’m not 100% sure of that. I may take in words literally but dish them out figuratively.

If I could see John in person, I’d tell him, “John, I liked having you for a boss”. Being that John was from the north, I reckon he wouldn’t take that literally.


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