Her lips said "No," but her eyes said "Read my lips."
— Niles Crane, Frasier, 1997
Pragmatics are things you say and do that change the meaning of what you're saying. They're a major component of how allistic people communicate with each other:
- Semantics (what you're saying)
- Syntax (how you're saying it)
- Pragmatics (modifications that alter the meaning)
- Implicature (hints and indirect speech — people will think you're implying things you're not, and expect you to work out what they're implying)
- Nonverbal communication
- Intonation (tone of voice)
- Body language
- Eye contact
- Facial expressions
A common autistic trait is to not unconsciously encode and decode pragmatics. While others pick up these (often culturally specific) unwritten rules via osmosis, the rest of us have to work them out manually and perform them consciously, if we manage to infer them at all.
As you might expect, many of us naturally communicate using direct speech with little to no intonation, facial expressions, or eye contact. This purely semantic communication is just as valid as communication modified with pragmatics. Autistic people who don't encode or decode pragmatics can talk to each other just as easily as others can — perhaps even moreso, as we strive to remove ambiguity.
The issue is with inter-neurotype communication. A semantic talker like myself trying to talk to someone who's using pragmatics will lead to a lot of miscommunication, through no-one's fault:
- If we can't decode pragmatics, we're often oblivious to their implied actual message
- If we can't encode pragmatics, we're often oblivious to our implied message we're inadvertently sending
As a result, many of us are missing a lot of what allistic people are trying to communicate to us, and we're accidentally communicating near-random things we don't mean or want to convey.
If people call you emotionally cold, or you wish they would just say what they mean, the chances are you're not unconsciously encoding and decoding pragmatics like allistic people are.
If there have been times when you remember saying something, and every allistic person in the room remembers you saying something else (the same something else, they all agree), then they're very likely remembering what you inadvertently implied, not what you actually said.
For example, I tend to enthuse about things, but often forget to smile or intonate my voice, so people often think I'm complaining. It's pretty jarring for me to express my excitement about something, and then for the other person to reassure me that it's OK and nothing to be upset about.
It's frustrating to be frequently misinterpreted as overly negative, even by those I love. I can only imagine the effect it's had on people I'm less familiar with, such as those who decide whether to hire or promote me.
Sometimes I play it safe by repeating a known exact phrase with accompanying intonation and mannerisms I observed earlier, spoken by a favourite character in a film or on a TV show. This is known as [delayed echolalia](Echolalia.html#Delayed-echolalia). But as it's context-dependent, even that can backfire.
In order to appease allistic people, we often have to force ourselves to consciously emulate them. This exhausting task is known as masking. It's asking a lot of someone to insist they emulate things like intonation, facial expressions, and eye contact all at once, and often the ability to keep track of the conversation itself has to be sacrificed as a result, defying the whole point.
I'd therefore recommend that allistic people try to acclimatise themselves to communicating with unmasked autistic people. It would be nice (and far less exhausting) if you met us at least half-way on this one.