When to conform and when to be yourself

Last night, I was at the monthly support group meeting for people with Asperger’s that I attend, both as a fellow Aspie who needs support and as the adult group’s leader. It was the most emotionally tiring meeting I’ve attended in a while. Without going too much into specifics, the topic of conformity came up. It would make a great topic for a meeting, but we were just catching up at that particular one. Maybe next month.

At the meetings, we go around to each person and have them weigh in on whatever the topic is. At this past meeting, I hadn’t really prepared anything, so we talked about whatever was new in our lives since the previous month. I find it’s a good go-to topic, and it allows people to brag about anything cool that they’re doing. (I often have something, not to brag or anything.) This format allows everyone who has something to contribute to have their time to be listened to as long as they’re not interrupted. And that’s where we often run into problems.

As aspies, we often find ourselves bursting to say whatever pops into our heads. This can be a problem in social situations, because often what pops into our heads is only loosely related to the topic at hand. Sometimes it’s even wildly inappropriate and/or rude. I struggled with this for a long time until I developed a mental filter that lets only “approved” messages through to the speech part of my brain, but some people think it shouldn’t be necessary to conform in this way. They just want to be who they are and do what they want.

Of course you should be who you are, but that doesn’t mean that you should be able to disregard the rights and feelings of others. What if they wanted to do the same thing to you? If a group of people is talking about something, comments should pertain to the topic. If you don’t find the topic interesting, that doesn’t mean you can interrupt with irrelevant comments in order to steer the conversation toward your areas of interest. Conversation topics have a natural lifespan, and if you wait it out, new topics will come about in time. If you can’t wait, then go find other people to talk to.

There is a time and a place to joke around and be hilarious. When someone is telling the group about a recent traumatic experience, it is both inappropriate and rude to make light of it by telling a joke.

There is a difference between interrupting and active listening. You can show someone that you are listening to them and you understand what they’re saying by cutting in with things like “that must have been difficult” or “you’re handling it very well” or a simple “yeah.” Active listening generally doesn’t disrupt the flow of the speaker’s story, and it shows that you care about what he or she has to say. Interrupting says that you care more about what you have to say than what the other person does. If you don’t understand what’s being said, ask for clarification. Don’t ask where he got his shirt or why she has three arms.

The time to conform is when you are in the company of other people. The degree of conformity depends on the size of the group, how well you know them, how well they know you, and the occasion. Support group meetings are for showing and receiving support, so unfortunately, the degree to which you should conform to standards of etiquette is pretty high, but it’s a very valuable skill. You will get a chance to share your thoughts, but give that same courtesy to everyone else as well, and you’ll find it easy to get along with other people before too long.