Work Social Skills for the Non-Socially Inclined
August 17, 2011 6:37 PM   Subscribe

Social Skills filter: I'm looking for proper resources to learn social skills, especially around the workplace. Very much a special snowflake-type situation with lots of details inside.

I am a female in her mid-twenties with Asperger's. It's been very hard for me to make friends, since I have really bad social skills. Aside from that, though, I've tried to lead a fairly functional life--I went to a good school where I got decent grades, and a few months ago, I landed a decent job in a field of my choice, right in the middle of this economy. Everyone at my workplace was and is fairly nice, and I'd try to get along with them and talk to them, and I actually felt like I was fitting in somewhere. I'd say I was friendlier with them than I've been with co-workers at my previous jobs, but I feel like they've lent themselves to it--they seemed very sweet and understanding, and so I talked to them more than I normally would have. I guess you can say I let my guard down. On occasion I would catch myself saying a non-sequitur, but I got the impression that people usually brushed something like that aside later. I did not tell anyone about my Asperger's because I've been trying really hard to become normal; I hadn't really told people in college or any of my previous positions, and I guessed I figured, deep down, that if I didn't tell people about my Asperger's, then I'd be seen as normal, and eventually would become normal.

But then yesterday, my supervisor and the head of HR pulled me into her office, and basically told me that several people had come up to her and told her that there were things that I said that made them feel uncomfortable. This was news to me, considering no one had told me how they felt, and I had felt that things were going fine. I asked for specific examples, and my supervisor gave me one where I had told a co-worker about how I had a crush on someone who worked there. Why this was an issue confuses me, considering how 1) I've seen other people do it at work, and 2) people did this all the time at the other places where I've worked. But to be fair, there were some things that I did that I know would be issues anywhere, like lurking outside of peoples' offices. I didn't really know that this was a problem, and no one said anything to me. I was told to basically think before I say things, and to try and not make others feel uncomfortable.

I decided to then tell them about my Asperger's, not because I was looking to get out of it, but because I wanted them to understand that this is very hard for me, and that in doing the things that I did, I was not being malicious. They seemed very understanding. I have been afraid of telling them that, since I heard that I would likely get fired or get duties taken away if I did, and they assured me that my job was not in jeopardy and that they liked my work. They offered to tell anyone if I needed them to, especially the people who talked to them, and told me that they would not baby me, which was another thing I feared. In short, they have been nothing short of understanding, although there is a part of me that fears that maybe they were lying or that they'll change their mind and let me go.

What I need to do now is figure out where to go from here. I just feel really bad about everything. This isn't the first time I've had someone talk to me about these issues (not at previous jobs, because it's never come up there, but at various other points in my life) and this time in particular, I just feel guilty, like I'm some sort of criminal. I want to become this nice, normal person, and instead I just come off as one of those people you hear about on the news who stalk and harass, the creepy people they write those magazine articles about and tell you you should beware of. I don't want people to feel uncomfortable. I especially don't want the person I had a crush on to know because someone tipped him off, and have him say something, and then have my supervisor call me in for a talk again. I had to take a personal day today for other reasons, but I'm afraid to look everyone in the eye when I go back tomorrow. I just want to be a normal person who isn't perceived as the resident weirdo.

I know I can partly achieve this by working on social skills, but I don't know how to do that. I am seeing a therapist, primarily for anxiety issues, but I don't think she knows how to proceed with teaching me social skills. I told her about some of the interactions my supervisor referred to at the time that they happened, and to her they seemed fine, but that's because they seemed fine to me--she only knows what I tell her. I've inquired about a social skills workshop in my area, but I haven't heard back. I've tried Asperger's support groups in the past, and it hasn't worked--a lot of the people there were lower functioning than I was--like, they couldn't leave their houses or hold down a job. Some were also a little pompous. I think if I were to present this scenario to them, about half would commiserate with me, saying that they've gotten fired because of it (which definitely wouldn't help me, since I'm deathly afraid of getting fired), or they would adapt a kind of separatist attitude and tell me to quit my job where I can be my own boss and not have to put up with the arduous social niceties of modern society. At least, that's what they'd say. Either way, I wouldn't get much in terms of actual advice.

What I really want in the world is something I can implant inside my brain that would act as a filter, so I no longer have to worry about being the weirdo criminal. But since that's impossible, I'm looking for books from which I can learn social skills. Because I like my job and I don't want to mess this up. I want to be liked for once, and I don't want to get fired, and I want to stop feeling like a bad person. How can I do this?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Firstly, you are Not a criminal or a bad person or guilty of anything but being human. You're a good worker with neuro thing that makes reading social stuff really challenging. You've landed a job (go you!) and done the right thing in sharing this with the folks that talked to you.

There are definitely people out there that can help, and resources to help learn this stuff - I'm constantly amazed at the therapies that have helped Aspies I know and love. I don't have any specific book recommendations for you, but the good folks at AANE or similar organizations certainly could point you in the right direction. You ARE a good person, and you can totally do this!
posted by ldthomps at 6:53 PM on August 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is there someone at work you feel like you click with more than others? I know if someone who I was getting on with at work came to me with this problem, I would do whatever I could to help you with the social dynamics of our job. Aspergers is not a character flaw.
posted by freshwater at 7:05 PM on August 17, 2011

I want to hug you. Can I hug you? It's hard for me to tell these things.

My own work-friend-who-interprets-for-me has left to pursue other things, so now my sorry coworkers will be exposed to a lot more unfiltered… me.

If possible, take freshwater's advice. Find a coworker who doesn't bristle at your eccentricities, they can help you navigate socializing at work. It's enormously helpful.
posted by Nomyte at 7:33 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Do you know about Wrong Planet? There's a good discussion forum there. You're far from alone.
posted by SillyShepherd at 7:36 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you read articles like this? It's not geared towards people with Aspergers specifically, but maybe it would be helpful to read anyway. One problem is, like you said, some workplace environments are more lax than others, and some people are more sensitive to certain remarks and more likely to tell the boss about them than others. This is why I mostly like letting other people do whatever sharing they want to do, while I mostly just listen.

Unless you have solid evidence that a person is your friend outside the workplace (some people are good at acting like everyone they meet is a close friend, even if they don't actually believe that), it's best to keep personal feelings private and keep your work relationships professional.
posted by wondermouse at 7:50 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Ask your boss and HR if they can help you find a mentor to help you deal with social issues and learn how things work at work. Ask your therapist to coach you and roleplay social skills.

It's probably better to stay away from sharing very personal information until you get more practice. Every day, prepare a few talking points, like a popular tv show, local events, sports teams, industry news, etc., so that you have safe topics to discuss. Also, people like flattery. Look for ways to say complimentary things to co-workers - true things, like You got the project done way ahead of schedule. That's impressive. Your email reply to the boss' question was quite thorough and I found it really helpful. How was your weekend, or How was your vacation is a good conversation point.

This can't be easy for you and it sounds like you have a good attitude. You're not a bad person, and you deserve a happy life.
posted by theora55 at 7:56 PM on August 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Feel free to memail me, I was diagnosed in my late 30s and I'm still figuring out the social dance at work. I'd give more examples but it's a bit personal.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 8:21 PM on August 17, 2011

It's coming from a slightly different direction than you are, but you may find helpful. It has tons of material on social skills, all written by someone who had to work most of it out for himself. It tends to take a fairly concrete, almost mechanical approach.
posted by whatnotever at 8:24 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

"Why this was an issue confuses me, considering how 1) I've seen other people do it at work, and 2) people did this all the time at the other places where I've worked."

You are correct that people DO do this all the time, and that most of the time it comes to nothing. However, it's generally not a very good idea, because nobody's HR department wants to deal with dating, break-ups, stalking, someone sobbing in their cube or unable to come to work because they might see The Ex ... many companies have rules about dating, and it's basically because it can make the workplace awkward. And yet most adults spent the largest part of their day with their co-workers, so it's a natural place to meet and date. So it does happen all the time, and people do talk about it all the time -- but bosses, lawyers, and HR are much, much happier if it's never brought to their attention in any fashion.

(I review HR reports for a large organization, and in the past year I saw a problem created where a husband was supervising his wife and there were accusations of preferential treatment (which I don't think was there, but people who disliked the husband naturally felt awkward about his position supervising his wife), and a problem where a married couple who were totally abiding by the rules of the organization and had worked in the same organization for over a decade with no problems went through an UGLY divorce. They both ended up quitting because neither could cope with the office stuff. I know our younger employees date each other. I also know if I happen to hear about it, it's only because a) they're getting married or b) it's about to go badly, badly awry.)

"I want to become this nice, normal person, and instead I just come off as one of those people you hear about on the news who stalk and harass, the creepy people they write those magazine articles about and tell you you should beware of."

You already ARE a nice, normal person. Your post shows a lot of care and consideration for others. Do you sometimes express it awkwardly? Probably. But, honestly, so do we all. Asperger's is not remotely outside the realm of normal for human beings, and normal is a broad, broad spectrum. I know Asperger's isn't easy (someone close to me is severely autistic), but in the grand scheme of things, it's truly, honestly not that big a deal to those around you -- and I say that having watched someone close to me cope with being autistic, and watching the world around them react. Sometimes in a truly sucky fashion. Occasionally freaked out. But mostly with generosity, particularly once they understand that my someone is autistic. My someone is an awesome person with a lot to offer, and 90% of people see that. I'd much rather deal with some moments of human awkwardness (particularly if I know the reason is Asperger's) than with meanness or hypocrisy or willfull stupidity.

"I'm afraid to look everyone in the eye when I go back tomorrow."

Someone told me a long time ago that one of the problems teenagers have is that they thing they're the star of everyone else's movie. But that's not true. Everyone is the star of their own movie. Nobody's looking at the zit on your chin; that only matters to you, you know? Because everyone's the star of their own movie going, "OMG THERE'S A ZIT ON MY NOSE." etc. Well, the fact here is that most of the people who discussed this with your company have probably already dismissed it from their minds and aren't going to be worrying about it when they interact with you. Anyone else who may have heard anything is already past it. In YOUR mental movie, you feel super-awkward and embarrassed because you're the star. But in everyone else's mental movie, you're a supporting player and they aren't that worried about you because they're busy worrying about themselves.

I don't know if that will help you, but that always helps me to remind myself of when I have to face the awful/embarrassing/awkward/etc. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:04 PM on August 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

Wow. Hang in there. It must have been really rough to hear that. I would have gone into the bathroom and cried. Hell, I would have cried right there in the office of the person "gently taking me aside."

Just a little perspective from a neurotypical who's definitely on the nerdy side. The "[telling] a co-worker about how I had a crush on someone who worked there" really sounded familiar to me. Not because I've been there on that particular topic--I get crushes everywhere else, but not at work--but because it reminded me of the gap between cool and uncool people. (Stop laughing!) Sometimes I think there are these magical cool people who can get away with whatever. Say for instance that Supervisor X wears a suit to work one day when he doesn't normally. [This example assumes no icky intent anywhere, btw.] Cool Coworker Y says over lunch, "Wow! That X in his tie! Not bad for an old dude," and everyone laughs and it's all good, because of course Cool meant nothing bad by it. But us people on the uncool side--ranging all the way from me to the support group people who can't hold a job--have to be really careful with stuff like that. I'm the one who says something and the table is totally silent all of a sudden.

Now, I'm not at all equating Asperger's with mere social awkwardness. I'm just trying to be supportive by saying that lots of us seemingly must "overcompensate" and avoid stuff that other people get away with, whether or not they should. Be well!
posted by skbw at 9:05 PM on August 17, 2011 [8 favorites]

I just feel guilty, like I'm some sort of criminal. I want to become this nice, normal person, and instead I just come off as one of those people you hear about on the news who stalk and harass, the creepy people they write those magazine articles about and tell you you should beware of.

This isn't necessarily helpful for your larger question (although I think freshwater's advice is good on that score), but the way you recounted this was very affecting. If it came to that -- and I think your desire not to overshare is correct -- I think anyone who was put off by your behavior would be sympathetic if you explained your behavior to them the way you did here. You sound like a nice, likable person who's working hard at not bothering neurotypical folks, and you absolutely shouldn't feel guilty for trying.
posted by snarkout at 9:29 PM on August 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Did I write this while I was asleep?? I guess not, but I've written basically the same question in other places. Social skills are SO HARD. I spent pretty much a year trying to figure out how to understand and navigate the social situation at my job and it was incredibly frustrating and I got all this bad feedback that I was too quiet and not interacting right and stuff and it was getting in the way of me being a good worker. I wasn't sure what my filter was supposed to be at my job since they were interacting in a way I couldn't fathom or deal with so I just stopped talking, which I guess was the wrong thing to do. I readjusted my filter and now I can:

- ask questions about work
- volunteer answers when I know them or when I'm asked a question
- laugh at jokes
- tell jokes, sparingly

Sometimes I tell a joke that's too mean or weird, and it becomes immediately clear that I told a malfunctioning joke, and then I lie low on the joke front for a bit. Luckily a lot of the people I work with tell bad jokes, so I don't think it's held against me even though I HATE it when I miscalculate and say a joke that doesn't work. But mostly I think people think I'm a funny, clever person who just doesn't say much unless it's funny. It's worked okay. I wish I could really be myself at work, but I guess most people wish that. So I guess I have solved the social problem with a crude rule-based heuristic.

You should memail me. One of the things that I did to help myself go from total silence to sparingly joking was make a big spreadsheet called "social skills" about setting goals for myself, and I'd write things like "go team!!" and "great work!!" when I did something that took stones. It actually really helped me because there was stuff to check off, and I could get past how freaked out I was about the interaction and start feeling victorious that I managed it. I guess you're in a slightly different place since you're not cripplingly shy as much as I was, but if you want to chat with someone who will cheer you on when you hit a goal that you feel ought to be easy for any regular human I am SO there.
posted by troublesome at 9:38 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

You sound really nice. Do you live in NYC? I do. If you live in NYC, I am happy to be your friend. We can get together in person and perhaps the social time we spend together will be useful practice in calibrating your filter.
posted by prefpara at 11:14 PM on August 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

Another suggestion--clearly this topic really hits home for me--is developing a chitchat area of specialty. It may be a bit putting the cart before the horse at this point, because I know that workplace social challenges are much, much more than water cooler talk. But re: my example above, I actually am the person who can get away with "Check out the spectacles on Attorney Z" or "I fondly remember being married to Robert De Niro," probably because I have a very small-c conservative demeanor overall. But I can't, for instance, do lunch with the girls, even though I want to (I am one). Doesn't work at all.

You could be the expert on local takeout food or the one with National Wildlife Fund clippings on the wall or the one who's always messing with the coffee maker to maximize its output or even the one with a dish of Hershey's Kisses at your desk. "Oh, that Anon. Again with the chocolate." Yes, many of these examples are food-related...not a coincidence. Breaking bread together and all that.

From the friendly, solicitous sound of your posting, I would bet real recession-time money that the people who brought these matters to your supervisor did so with the caveat, "Wow, Anon is a great coworker, and I just thought that someone should mention this so that it doesn't get to be a problem..." If they're thinking anything, which likely they are not, it may well be "Great! I see that got nipped in the bud and Anon won't get any flak about this habit."
posted by skbw at 12:40 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

In addition to the ideas mentioned above I would recommend reading a book by an Aspergian if you haven't already. I know you don't need insight into the type of person that you are but seeing how other Aspergians have made a go of it might help you realize that you are not alone and there is nothing wrong with you.

I read Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger's by John Elder Robison and never have I read such a book that made me feel like it's OK to be me. He also has a new book (just published in March 2011) called Be Different: Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian with Practical Advice for Aspergians, Misfits, Families & Teachers which sounds awesome. He's a funny writer and smart guy.
posted by dgeiser13 at 7:09 AM on August 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

There really seems to be a dearth of concrete resources on developing social skills. Someone needs to create a book like this geared to the adult world.

I'm not an Aspie myself (that I know of - though I am starting to wonder) but I have major social anxiety and really relate to a lot of your issues. I've checked out and while it has a lot of good advice it seems really disorganized or overwhelming or something. I feel like I need a step-by-step guide to becoming a normal person and if I ever find one, I'll let you know.

I had the same impulse as Nomyte when I read your question. It sucks that you were made to feel so bad for something so harmless. It's so weird to me how people seem to be able to get away with a wide range of much more damaging pathological behaviors in the work place (sociopaths, narcissists, and people with borderline personality disorder seem to get on just fine at my work, for example) but seem a little awkward and off to HR with you. But I'm glad your HR is at least being decent to you.

You sound really nice. Do you live in NYC? I do. If you live in NYC, I am happy to be your friend. We can get together in person and perhaps the social time we spend together will be useful practice in calibrating your filter.

Anyway, same here, if you're in Chicago.
posted by Jess the Mess at 12:46 PM on August 18, 2011

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