I had a bit of a minor epiphany this weekend regarding communication -- specifically, my own efforts to communicate, and what things contribute toward whether or not these efforts are effective.
Generally speaking, I feel that my communication is effective when the "output" I generate (whether it be in the form of text, speech, art, or any other means) corresponds to what I actually know, think, and feel about a particular subject or concept. While it can be difficult to gauge in advance whether any communicative effort will actually cause others to obtain a true, clear understanding of what's in my head, I can definitely say that my efforts "feel" more or less effective depending upon a variety of circumstances.
Anyway, though, the realization I had this weekend was that I probably need to be a lot more careful about using speech to discuss complex ideas. Sometimes I think I err too far toward the side of assuming I can do it effectively when, in fact, I would be a lot better off using a different medium or at least trying to get a sense of what the ideas I'm going to be discussing will be in advance (so I can write possibly-copious notes or even a script).
I'm usually reasonably okay with speech when I'm answering questions like, "What time is it?" or "What is your zip code?" -- that is, basic factual queries with easy reference points in the "world outside my head". There's also a particular sort of social setting I seem to do all right with as far as speaking goes, and that is the setting wherein those around me know me really well, to the point where we've got a lot of shared context -- and when the conversation itself isn't demanding constant responses from me.
The settings I find speech less effective in tend to be those wherein (a) those I'm trying to communicate with don't necessarily know me very well, and/or (b) I'm in a position of having to "summarize" ideas (or even just report on what I know about something, or how I feel) in real time.
The issue with trying to communicate with people who don't know me very well is that a lot of people apparently run around with all kinds of assumption sets in their heads regarding what it "means" when a person says this or that thing, or uses language in a particular way, etc. This is especially problematic when I'm trying to use speech, as one thing I've noticed is that speech tends to be taken as more indicative of what a person "really thinks" than writing is, even though for me, speech is actually a lot less likely to be accurate (which is one reason I love having a blog to point people to -- they're a lot more likely to get a sense of what goes on in my head from reading a few posts here than they are from talking to me for an hour).
I only became aware of this particular social bias a few years ago, and I'm still trying to figure out how best to deal with it.
Anyway, I've been told on more than one occasion, by people trying to reassure me (I suppose), that I "sound fine", and that I "shouldn't worry" about whether or not I'm coming across as articulate or not. This is where the major part of my recent minor epiphany really comes in -- basically, it occurred to me this weekend (in the context of a rather unusual communicative interaction, at least for me) that when people tell me I "sound fine", they're most probably assuming I'm nervous or something, and therefore trying to set my mind at ease.
But the thing is -- I'm not actually nervous, at least not in the way people seem to think I am in the circumstances where they tend to tell me to relax and not worry about how I sound. Rather, I'm just well aware of how often I've ended up saying things that have failed as far as communicating what is actually in my head goes, and when entering interactions, I am quite reasonably concerned about avoiding this.
I know I come across as "articulate" at least some of the time, but as far as I'm concerned, this can work at times as something of a liability as opposed to purely an asset.
For one thing, nobody (as far as I know) thought I had "speech issues" growing up, as I'd amassed a fairly large and complicated vocabulary by the time I was in preschool, and my elocution was generally very clear. But internally, I was often very disconnected from what I was actually saying -- to the point where I often couldn't describe sensations accurately at all, which led to no end of difficulty for my parents as they puzzled over whether I might be hungry, tired, sick, or just cranky. (I only found out later on that it is actually quite common for autistic kids to have no trouble reciting "innumerable nursery rhymes" -- as I could as a youngster -- yet not be able to explain how we feel in real-time.)
Furthermore, because I didn't even realize the extent to which words were "supposed to" connect with one's actual thoughts, I grew up with a lot of distorted ideas about what it meant to think something, know something, or even feel something.
I remember, for instance, teachers telling me that if I couldn't explain something from memory on demand, that meant I didn't really understand it. In sixth grade I once had to give an oral book report presentation, and even though I'd read the book I was presenting on multiple times, I was not able to summarize it in real time or even explain why I liked it. I had pictures and impressions in my head regarding what the book had been about, but the words just weren't there. This ended up getting me into trouble, as I ended up barely saying anything during the presentation, which was interpreted as me being "too lazy" to have actually done the assignment.
It wasn't actually until after college that I gradually came to realize that I actually knew a whole lot more than I thought I did about numerous things -- I just wasn't very good at expressing my knowledge verbally on every subject I had actual knowledge in.
Given this, it might sound contradictory that I have also experienced the opposite phenomenon on numerous occasions. It's not. Basically, due to the same general confusion over language that sometimes resulted in my being convinced I didn't know certain things because I couldn't talk about them, I also sometimes assumed that because I could speak fluently about something, that meant I did understand it.
I remember even in college being really lost in a chemistry class I was taking, only to be repeatedly reassured by the teacher that she could tell that I "knew my stuff", based on my sporadic interjections of certain words during class discussions -- when in fact, I'd barely studied and was actually quite clueless. I eventually buckled down, studied a lot more, and became considerably less lacking in clue, but my first semester went pretty badly in part because I still (at age 18) didn't really understand what it meant to "understand" something, and to demonstrate one's understanding.
So, basically, when I say that I'm concerned about how I'm going to come across when I speak, it's not about my having "public speaking jitters", or worrying about looking dumb, or anything of that nature. Rather, it's about knowing that my "speech module" doesn't automatically engage with my "thinking module", and hoping to find ways to avoid having this lead to problems. It's actually kind of astounding to look back and realize how much more clueless I was about communication even just five years ago than I am now, and I suspect I still have a lot to learn moving forward!