Why Your Friendly Teasing Isn’t Friendly

Someone says something that would be mean if it wasn’t for their tone of voice. You know they’re kidding, and laugh along, despite being the target of the joke.

I don’t.

I have a range of Autistic traits that make communication hard. So I’m going to talk you through one of these playful teasing type interactions from my point of view.

You say something. Because you’re teasing, it’s probably out of context. First, I hear you making speech noises. I’ve probably got to consciously try to filter out background noise like traffic, other people talking, or machine noises.

Then I have to consciously figure out what those noises mean. I have to translate them from just noises into words. This is hard, honestly, it’s not even like someone speaking a different language, it’s more like we would characterise animal noises. The moment you say something, unless I have some kind of contextual aid like knowing what you’re talking about, or being able to lipread a little, you may as well have just barked or mooed or meowed at me.

Quite often, I’ll still be stuck at this point, trying to puzzle out exactly what words you said, when you give me the playful nudge in the arm that tells me whatever it was was some kind of joke at my expense.

If I get further than that, if I actually manage to decipher your noises and turn them into a set of words. I have to decide what you meant by them. I have to pull up not only my automatic definitions of words, but what they generally mean when other people say them. I’ve got to assemble the words, given a bit of social context, into a meaning.

Then, if I’ve got as far as figuring out what the words mean something, I have to decide whether you were being sarcastic or not. Rewind in my head, or read from your current body language. This is also hard. I don’t speak the same body language that you do. Is that sarcasm or aggression? Hard to tell. By now, if I’ve managed to process this far, I’m tired. I can’t manage more than an uncertain, uncomfortable smile and the hope that you stop communicating at me so I can have a break from trying to process so many things.

By now, the interaction has probably passed, you’ve concluded that I’m strange, or impolite, or oversensitive, or whatever assumptions people make while I’m still processing their attempt at interacting with me.

Whether you meant any harm or not, you’ve just stolen some of my precious energy for the day by communicating with me in a way that’s not only useless, but deliberately misleading. I’ve had to untangle a great deal of meaning, try to guess at your motives. You’ve pushed me to do all the things that I am least capable of doing at speed, and I’ve missed out on an interaction that would have strengthened my standing with you.

When someone looks confused at your friendly teasing, just consider, they might still be working through the multiple levels of meaning that you interpret with ease. They may be struggling with systems of communication that you take for granted. So next time you get that vacant “loading bar” look, reconsider your approach, and maybe don’t tease them again, however friendly.

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