Group Therapy is a relationship advice column that asks readers to contribute their wisdom.
A reader writes: I am an unmarried woman in my late 30s, recently diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome. Despite having two degrees and working on a third, I've always had disappointing, underpaid jobs. My psychologist says Asperger's impairs the ability to socialize through small talk, and I have never been able to chit-chat at work. How can I find a job where socializing is not expected, and how can I find it without networking?
Focus on your strengths
Perhaps, like many people with Asperger's syndrome, you are talented in a particular area. If so, you need to ascertain your main strength, whether it be computer programming, research or writing, or anything else that can be accomplished online, without face-to-face interaction. Then go for it.
Aileen Ridley, Waterloo, Ont.
Don't hold yourself back
You are obviously a smart and determined young woman. My candid advice is that if you avoid learning social skills, it will hold you back for the rest of your life. I am a psychologist and my son has a touch of Asperger's. We found help in books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, which talk about eye contact, smiling, handshakes and how to go about surface socializing. He still gets anxious, but he has come a long way and is now accepted at work. I wish you every success.
Margaret Young, Victoria
My career in medicine has taught me how much emotion is a driving force for people. Your challenge is to recognize that others may perceive you to be uninterested and therefore uncaring, which may be in stark contrast to your inner being. Challenge yourself to intellectually register and respond to the emotional stew that is our world. Few jobs do not require social interaction. In the end, you may find yourself less isolated and truly satisfied when your social skills improve. Start with a specialist.
The final word
You don't need to have Asperger's to feel bewildered in a culture that relies so heavily on inconsequential chit-chat to grease the wheels of day-to-day life. You can be, say, a natural introvert who grew up on an east coast island where the only etiquette that mattered was tea-related - knowing how strong to make it (the spoon should stand up), when to offer more (when your guest blinks or inhales), and how to serve it (in a mug; a cup and saucer would constitute "acting fancy").
In short, I went into the world confident my tea training would open many doors. And I did particularly well with the Irish and fellow Nova Scotians over 60. But this only got me so far. It took a long time to cultivate the tricks of easy social interaction.
I don't mean to make light of your circumstance. My own social ineptitude (which I am making fun of) can't compare to your struggles with Asperger's. I relay this story to illustrate that, while humans are generally social animals, social nice-making is a learned skill.
Yes, it comes more easily to some, but one of the smartest people I know has Asperger's and has negotiated it by making a study of what one is expected to say and do in everyday discourse. It may sound forced, and his efforts do sometimes come across that way, but people can see how much he's putting into it and are frequently charmed. After all, who do you like more: the slickster who breezes past uttering obligatory greetings, or the person who's genuinely making an effort to connect?
That's all small talk is - a quick way to connect on a human level - which is why it is by no means as irrelevant as the people who are bad at it insist. In short, it's worth making the effort. The longer you avoid it, the more difficult the challenge becomes.
Lynn Coady is the award-winning author of novels Strange Heaven and Mean Boy.
Next week's question
My husband and I are planning a trip to Europe, during which our sister-in-law will join us from England for a week. The last time we travelled together, we were irritated by her habit of chatting or texting on her cellphone in restaurants, leaving us to carry on the conversation alone. Should we write to her to request that she not bring the phone to the table? Or wait and see?
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