Being Misunderstood, Part 4: We Can Communicate Better With Neurodivergent People By Imagining We’re Talking to Someone from Another Culture
Being Misunderstood, Part 4:
We Can Communicate Better With Neurodivergent People By Imagining We’re Talking to Someone from Another Culture
An effective way to create mutual understanding with neurodivergent people is to act as if we’re interacting with someone from a different culture.
In the previous 3 posts, we saw that throughout life, neurodivergent people are often misunderstood. We may be aware of a misunderstanding as it happens, later, or not at all. We come to expect miscommunication and often pre-emptively try to prevent it. That backfires because most people don’t (have to) make this sort of effort. It doesn’t help that the facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice signals we give aren’t always the ones typically associated with our emotions. That leaves others misjudging us or even disbelieving our stated feelings and motivations. To us, others seem like they are being mean to us for no reason.
Part of the problem is that no one expects us to experience life and communicate differently than neurotypical people.
However, when we spend time in other countries, we are at no more of a disadvantage than anyone else. In fact, when Alyssa Hillary studied abroad in China as a college student, she found people gave her a “pass” because she was a foreigner. They expected her to behave differently, be awkward, and even violate social norms sometimes.
We can, and should, extend the same grace to neurodiverse people in our own culture.
People who are good at cross-cultural communication do certain specific things. If we emulate them, it would help us communicate better with neurodivergent people – and everyone else.
Specifically, good cross-cultural communicators:
- keep an open mind.
- accept multiple perspectives and communication styles.
- Are safe.
- Most of all, they give the benefit of the doubt.
Let’s break down what that means.
Most humans are wired to know what emotion a person feels from their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice. It feels like we “look” at someone and just “know” what they’re feeling, without knowing how we know. That automaticity can feel like reading minds.
Neurotypical psychology researchers aren’t immune to this illusion. Some of them call the human ability to understand other people’s feelings and motivations “mind reading.”
In fact, knowing what someone feels isn’t the same thing as reading their mind. You also need to know why they feel that way. Then you need to know what to say or do to get the reaction you want from them (which usually means not upsetting them). There are many ways all that can go wrong. I’ve experienced many of them firsthand.
I’m good at recognizing other people’s emotions from their facial expressions, body language, and especially tone of voice. However, I don’t necessarily know why they feel that way or what would be the most appropriate response. Unfortunately, I became aware of my social awkwardness in the 2000s, when neurodivergent young people were bombarded with the message that we have social difficulties because we can’t look at people and tell what they’re feeling. That didn’t seem true of me, but the outside world had no better explanations to offer until recently. It took years to stop second-guessing myself and understand what was actually going wrong.
Understanding other people is complex because social norms affect who is allowed to express what emotions, how intensely, in what situations, and in front of what people. For example, some societies allow anger to be expressed more directly than others. Children are usually allowed fewer expressions of anger than adults. In some cultures, you’re expected to hide or dampen your emotions in front of those higher in the social hierarchy but can show them more openly in front of those below you. In a culture of indirect expression, people often feel angrier than they appear, so observers automatically adjust their estimate of how angry others are upward.
Good cross-cultural communicators learn these sorts of differences and take them into account. They also expect to have to learn and make adjustments.
People with different neurotypes can learn similar things about each other.
Good Cross-Cultural Communicators Accept that Neurodivergent People are the Experts on Our Own Minds
Because mind reading is impossible, we can’t know what another person thinks or feels for certain until they tell us.
When they do, we have a choice: do we believe them, or cling to what we thought we saw and heard?
Relationships fail when people choose to believe what they saw or heard over the other person’s stated thoughts and feelings.
Julie Harris says:
The best accommodation you can give a disabled and/or neurodivergent person is to believe them.
Believe them when they tell you their needs.
Believe them when they tell you their diagnosis.
Believe them when they tell you their capabilities.
Believe them when they tell you their experiences.
Believe them when they tell you what they need from you.
Have you ever talked to someone who was convinced they knew your mind better than you knew yourself? It’s hurtful, condescending, and infuriating. Be better than that person.
Good Cross-Cultural Communicators Ask Us Questions
One simple thing would make the world seem clearer and safer to neurodivergent people: ask us questions.
You might worry that asking about our motivations will seem rude or invasive. In fact, it’s a gesture of respect we rarely get from others, including “experts”. It shows you trust that we have the self-awareness to understand ourselves and the verbal ability to explain ourselves.
In other words, you see us as competent, mature people. That means the world to us.
Don’t understand something we said? Tell us right away and ask us to explain, or to say it differently. I do that when my neurodivergent friends talk faster than I can process, and they do the same with me. This helps us get past the breakdown and back to sharing ideas.
Good Cross-Cultural Communicators Question Their Own Assumptions
The most confusing, frustrating misunderstandings happen when neither party knows that one has occurred. They only find out later when their expectations do not come true.
Charlene Solomon gives the example of a British boss with an Indirect communication style giving a performance review to an American employee who uses a Direct communication style. The boss gave negative feedback using nuanced language that was intended to be tactful. The employee thought the review “wasn’t too bad.” He was surprised later when he didn’t get a raise.
To prevent misunderstandings like these, check your assumptions often. Ask questions — even if you think you know what the other person means.
Suppose a friend forgets something you think should be easy to remember. Consider asking how hard it actually was to remember. The answer might surprise you.
Paraphrase what you think they communicated and let them confirm your understanding, or correct it. You can also ask us to do the same.
For example, my mom and I both focus better on listening when our eyes and hands are occupied. I tend to doodle; she looks at her phone. Sometimes when we’re talking, I’ll see her staring at her phone and not saying anything, think she isn’t paying attention, and feel hurt and frustrated. I remind myself that she’s trying to hear me better and avoid interrupting. If I’m really worried she didn’t understand, I can ask her what I just said. Sometimes I’ll ask what she’s doing or playing (it’s almost always something mindless). Automatic assumptions still pop up, but when I question and check them, it’s easier to let them go.
Good Cross-Cultural Communicators Ask Questions Before They React
“Body language is NOT universal — and assuming so is dangerous. It can be easy to react badly to another who’s “being rude” to you but, especially when dealing with someone who is different than you, it’s important to question our own assumptions. What we take for granted in communication is not always as it seems.” — Adventures in Cross-Cultural Communication by Lynne Soraya
Did we say or do something that seems weird, rude or hurtful? There’s usually a misunderstanding at play. Please ask what we’re thinking or feeling, or why we did what upset you.
Are you wondering, “why would anyone say/do that?!” Ask – sincerely, not sarcastically, please. I grew up with certain loved ones looking at me—or taking a tone of voice– like I was crazy, and I can assure you that it hurts. A lot.
Dave Caudel, autistic director of the Frist Center for Autism and Innovation at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, suggests, “Instead of reacting angrily or defensively, respond with patience and curiosity.”
For example, suppose someone snaps at you with what sounds like an angry tone of voice. In fact, they’re not angry with you at all. They’re just having a bad day and it’s affecting their tone. If you snap back, it will often escalate into a fight — about who raised their voice at whom first. (My mother and I had this fight repeatedly when I was young, and it never ended well).
So, before you react, mention what you observed and ask, “are you angry at me?” Give them a chance to say how they’re really feeling.
Now, both people understand each other. The person who sounds angry realizes their stress is bleeding into their tone of voice and tries to regulate it. Meanwhile, the person who felt attacked realizes that anything they still hear is not directed at them. They ignore it and move on calmly. Neither person thinks worse of the other, and the relationship continues, strong as ever.
Good Cross-Cultural Communicators Accept Multiple Perspectives and Communication Styles
Good Cross-Cultural Communicators Know There’s More than One “Right Way”
Part of giving people the benefit of the doubt is considering that they might be doing things for different reasons than you assume. For example, if someone seems inattentive, they may not be deliberately ignoring instructions. If they behave in a way that irritates you, don’t assume they are purposely being difficult.
Dave Caudel recommends:
“If you see somebody doing something you think they obviously shouldn’t do, don’t be so quick to think they’re a bad person. They may be neurodivergent.”
By the way, good cross-cultural communicators know that there are more options than just 1) being a bad person or 2) being neurodivergent!
Caudel also suggests doing something that could come across as condescending, so be careful:
You can calmly state what you observed, such as “I noticed you were doing X.” Then ask if they need assistance or more information.
Try not to replace anger with condescension. It comes across as condescending if we assume neurodivergent people “just don’t understand” and must need either assistance or information. If we ask questions aimed at finding out what neurodivergent people don’t know, we are implying their perspective is invalid before they have a chance to explain. That isn’t safe, either. If anyone’s ever asked you “Can I help you?” when they really want to throttle you, you know it doesn’t feel helpful at all.
Instead, ask more open-ended, emotionally-neutral questions. Give us a chance to explain our point of view.
Think about it this way. Some people view American tourists as loud and direct to the point of rudeness. In America, their behavior is acceptable. In certain other countries, their behavior is rude. Have you ever visited another country and had local people project the attitude that you “just don’t know any better?” If so, you know it’s not fun being on the receiving end.
When neurodivergent people do socially-awkward things, we probably look like American tourists. In fact, what we say and do often makes perfect sense …in the context of other neurodivergent people who have minds like ours. It’s just that these situations pretty much only happen in groups specifically for neurodivergent people, because neurotypical people are vastly in the majority.
So, if you find yourself having a strong emotional reaction to something we say and do, imagine yourself as a tourist in an unfamiliar country. How would you want to be treated?
Remember you’re dealing with another human being with a valid perspective.
Then, ask questions.
Good Cross-Cultural Communicators Know That “Easy” and “Obvious” Are In the Eyes of the Beholder
You’ve probably heard the saying “common sense is not so common.” Even neurotypical people are unlikely to know things other neurotypicals think is “common sense.”
When we become experts in something, such as our profession, we forget what it was like not to know. Doctors who use a lot of jargon don’t realize it’s jargon. Because they’re surrounded constantly by other doctors who use these words, they think those are just the words “everyone” uses. They don’t remember what they knew before they became doctors. Their knowledge has become automatic, which is good when they need to act quickly, but unhelpful when they need to tell patients what to do.
Communication across different neurotypes increases the gulf between what each party assumes “everyone knows.” Remember, a disability is defined as difficulty doing something or inability to do it, at least in the usual way. So, by definition, what is easy or obvious for a neurotypical person may not be for a person with a disability in that area.
As discussed earlier in this series, neurodivergent people have uneven skills. Moreover, what is complex to other people is often simple to us, and vice versa. Neurodivergent people are much more likely than neurotypicals to be “absentminded professors” (academically brilliant with poor self-care skills). So, we are constantly being told we lack “common sense.”
When I was a child, I felt hurt when my mother said, “everyone would say/do X,” where X was something that I wouldn’t do or even disagreed with. It followed that I must be wrong – glaringly, abnormally so. When she invoked the authority of these imagined others, it felt like she was ganging up with all of society against me. To be fair, she was probably trying to teach social norms, but there are better ways to do that.
(Parents and teachers: please don’t teach social norms in the context of an argument. That’s especially important if you are trying to tell someone how most people would see or think about a social situation. Doing so only creates a power struggle in which accepting the social norm means announcing that we are wrong and turning against our own perspectives and even our sense of self. We’re more likely to hear you if you explain when everyone is calm).
However strongly we may believe everyone would think and act the way we do, it’s rarely true. We decide what’s “normal” based on our childhood families and the people who surround us through life–neighbors, classmates, coworkers. If you grew up with few to no siblings or extended family in a quiet suburban neighborhood, spending most of your time reading, playing video games, or doing structured activities, you will expect people to use quiet “inside” voices and rarely interrupt each other. If you grew up in a crowded house running around with large groups of friends and neighbors, raised voices and interruptions are normal.
So, if you ever catch yourself saying, “Everyone knows that,” stop. Don’t say it. Most likely, everyone doesn’t know that.
Good cross-cultural communicators are aware of their own assumptions. They understand, as Jennifer Fink puts it, “what seems obvious to you may not be obvious to someone else.” So, they don’t get frustrated or irritated when other people disagree on what’s “easy” or “obvious.”
We need to use the same patience with the neurodivergent people in our lives.
Good Cross-Cultural Communicators Are Safe
Good Cross-Cultural Communicators Show Us They’re Safe
Good cross-cultural communicators show through their words, tone, and body language, that it’s safe to interact with them.
Putting people at ease helps anyone, but it’s especially important with neurodivergent people. After a lifetime of unpleasant interactions and misunderstandings, we default to feeling unsafe with other people.
Dave Caudel explains,
“Your tone of voice, words and emotional presentation matter. Calm and curious creates openings for connection; anger and harsh words convey hostility and decrease the probability that neurodiverse individuals … will feel comfortable asking for accommodations or disclosing their neurodiversity.”
You can’t be too obvious abut this. Neurodivergent people don’t always pick up on subtle cues. Really show that it’s safe to interact with you.
Good Cross-Cultural Communicators Give the Benefit of the Doubt
Good Cross-Cultural Communicators Accept That Misunderstandings Happen and Move On
Communication usually fails except by accident. – Osmo Wiio
When people from different cultures interact, they know misunderstandings are inevitable. They are a normal part of communication, especially across cultures. happen to people with social graces and the best intentions. To good cross-cultural communicators, there’s nothing to get upset about. They don’t judge the person’s competence, intelligence, likability, or social skills.
Instead, good cross-cultural communicators restore mutual understanding, then continue the conversation. This process is called “conversational repair.” Neurotypicals do it all the time.
Both speakers and listeners can do conversational repair in various ways.
Listeners can ask for clarification (“I’m not sure I understand, can you run that by me again?”). They can ask for an example. A speaker can rephrase their message or speak more slowly and clearly.
Conversational repair happens so often we don’t even notice it. A study of conversations in 12 languages found that repairs where the listener signals confusion to the speaker happen as often as 1.4 times per minute! Because repairs can also be initiated by the speaker, they’re really even more frequent.
When an autistic and a neurotypical person from the same culture interact, their interaction goes differently. The neurotypical person, at least, does not expect miscommunications, assuming both people follow the same norms. If an autistic person breaks one of these rules, it is not expected or considered normal, so it becomes a big deal. The neurotypical person concludes that the autistic person either doesn’t know the rules or is deliberately choosing not to follow them. So, they will judge the autistic person as socially inept or rude. As the conversation continues, both people may get upset and they will probably fail to repair the miscommunication.
Approaching others with the benefit of the doubt makes conversational repair possible. Then, misunderstandings can be resolved without damaging a relationship. Cross-cultural communicators may be the masters of this accepting attitude, but it can help anyone.
Put On Your World Traveler Glasses
When a neurodivergent and a neurotypical person interact, it can feel like speaking to someone from a different planet. That happens even to people within the same family. If you’re neurotypical, lean into that feeling and remember you really are talking to someone who sees the world and expresses themselves differently. Listen, ask questions, believe what we say about ourselves, and above all, give us the benefit of the doubt.
If you’re neurodivergent, the metaphor also helps. We need to remember that there is a real, large difference between our own and many other peoples’ minds– yet it’s possible to bridge. We can also let go of shame, because misunderstandings are inevitable. Our faux pas don’t define us. We don’t have to speak perfectly and read others’ minds, even if it feels like people expect that from us.
You can’t prevent all misunderstandings – no one can. But you can learn how to do conversational repair and check in.
I hope this series of posts shed light on your own interactions. Past misunderstandings and conflict might make more sense now. If you’re neurodivergent, you might notice how you react when you are, or expect to be, misunderstood.
I invite you all to try putting on your world traveler glasses when you talk to neurodivergent people – or anyone.
About the Author
Emily M. is a writer fascinated by the infinite variety of human minds. She grew up inexplicably different and was diagnosed as an adult with several forms of neurodivergence, including ADHD and an auditory discrimination disability. Feeling as if she were living life without a user's manual, she set out to create her own. In the process, she met other neurodivergent people on similar quests. She began working with them, advocating for inclusion, accessibility, and autism acceptance. Seeking to understand how neurodiverse minds work, she became a cognitive neuroscience researcher.
Her favorite research topic: what do children learn from their intense, passionate interests? Wanting to help neurodivergent people more directly, she trained as a speech/language therapist. Ultimately, she turned to writing, combining research with personal experience to explain autism and ADHD and champion acceptance – because everyone is happier when they are seen and accepted for who they are. She envisions a world where neurodiverse people have equal opportunities for education, loving relationships, and meaningful work.
She also blogs about autism and ADHD research at Mosaic of Minds. You can chat with her on Twitter: @mosaicofminds