Not everyone finds it easy to meet new people. Many neurotypical adults have the realization after college that they don’t really know how to make friends. For people with autism, social challenges and differences in thinking style can make meeting people even more difficult.
I’ve found it helpful to discuss the concept of meeting people in a new group using a handy analogy: finding a balance.
Finding a Balance Between
Revealing Information and Holding Back
Whether your first day at a new school, a new job, or a new club, we join new groups relatively frequently. Each group has its own dynamic—it’s own way that the people involved tend to interact. And it can be extremely complex to figure out every group’s expectations of what to say, how to act, whether to be funny or serious, relaxed or focused.
One of the concepts I’ve worked on with students with ASD when joining a new group is the balance of revealing information about yourself and holding back information. Like with all balance challenges, either extreme can cause predictable problems.
Revealing “Too Much”
If you join a new group and reveal “too much” about yourself, you can run the risk of boring people. Imagine joining a new computer club and talking for significantly longer than any others member of the group about your computer and what you can do with it—without giving others a relatively equal amount of time. Chances are the thoughts others may have will not be positive, which may make it more difficult to collaborate or spend time with those other people later on. That is an issue of quantity, oversharing.
Another potential downside of revealing too much is the issue of type of information you share. If you discuss very personal details about your life with people you have just met, it can make other people uncomfortable. On the first day of school, students don’t typically tell classmates about complex personal issues like divorce or deep fears. It may also leave you vulnerable for teasing if another person in the group uses that information against you in the future.
Holding Back “Too Much”
If, on the other hand (as they say), you join a new group and hold back everything, others in the group don’t have any way to connect with you. If you don’t share anything about yourself in your new computer club, the other guys in the group won’t know if you’re a Mac or PC person, if you use a QWERTY keyboard or Dvorak—important questions in a computer club!
Sometimes other people may ask you a question about yourself to start a conversation. If you don’t answer, or if you answer with a very very short response, that person may give up trying to get to know you.
That may lead to the same problem we discussed earlier: it will be hard to work with and socialize with other people in your club.
Striking a Balance
Different types of groups are going to require striking different kinds of balance. Some groups might be organized around a lot of discussion and so encourage lots of sharing, so you might tip the scales toward revealing. One group might have that particular kid that people know tends to make fun of other kids, so it may be safer to lean towards holding back.
Meeting people in a new group is a complex undertaking! There are even more questions that this balance challenge covers, like:
- What kind of information about myself is considered “too personal”?
- What if I’m nervous and can’t think of what to say?
- What if I’m so excited and am so eager to share what I know?
- What if someone asks me directly if my parents are divorced?
There is indeed a lot to consider. But you can only think about a particular amount at any given time.
The balance described here can be a helpful image to consider as a starting point.
Maybe you can uncover your own balance challenge that helps you be successful in new groups. Is it the humor/seriousness balance? Or the hard work/slacking balance?
Neurotypicals Take Note
This is not a concept unique to people with autism! Think about someone you know who made a not-so-shiny first impression by dominating the conversation or falling into the TMI trap. Remember that person you’ve seen several times in meetings but who never speaks up. Are they people you work incredibly well with? Whom you ask out to lunch?
And if you’re brave, consider your own tendencies. Might you need to tip the scales one way or another yourself the next time you join a new committee or meet a group of friends’ friends? Holding back is a personal life-long goal of mine… if that’s not sharing too much.
As always, feedback is most welcome, from folks who are autistic, folks who are not, and everyone in between.
For an explanation of the Balance Challenge framework, see Balance Breakdown, always accessible on the top navigation bar.