How to improve social skills - Mirroring and Reciprocity





Non-verbal and non-literal communication, known as mirroring or reciprocity, is something that is fundamental in social interactions and is so automatic with NTs that they are probably unaware of it - until it is absent. Unfortunately for Aspies, this is precisely what happens, resulting in causing offence and mistrust where none is intended, and leaves the Aspie confused and doomed to repeat it time and again. This is because each time is like the first time as Aspies need to remember to consciously reciprocate in every interaction, as it is not just a matter of learning it once and then applying every time. To an NT, it's as if the Aspie is deliberately pretending that they have never been told this stuff before, never learnt a thing about how to get by. Generally, the only way an Aspie can become adept at mirroring is through practice, and trial and error, with some guidance such as below.

So what is reciprocity? Reciprocity affects all Aspie and NT relationships at all levels. In essence it is the tie that binds every social interaction because they are more than just words, which is where Aspies come unstuck, requiring also mirroring of facial expressions and gestures, or even set phrases. An example would be when someone smiles at you and you (should) smile back. It's what puts NTs at ease, lets them know they're being listened to, cared about, and thought about. This establishes a basis of trust and understanding that both parties are 'on the same wavelength'. Even more confusing is that NTs are so adept at mirroring that they also use it, and its unconscious acceptance, to imply something other than what it means. This creates a range of social conventions alien to Aspies, from conversation, through sarcasm and flattery, to deceit and lying.

Understanding motive

Mirroring is important as it underlies the meanings and context behind the words. This is not relevant to Aspies as their literal grasp of dialogue is clear and unambiguous. However, NTs use these non-verbal queues to understand motives. Absent or inappropriate responses have specific meanings to NTs which explains why offence may be taken from how an Aspie speaks when reciprocity is missing. This is why NTs often believe Aspies are rude or arrogant, when this is just not the case.

Unlike other advice we have given, there are no set phrases to learn and apply, although there are some common situations which we will address below. Rather, the best way to succeed is to understand that mirroring exists, observe any NT mannerisms and gestures, and reciprocate. This will not be easy as Aspies don’t have an innate emotional reciprocity, Aspie brains don’t work like that. And even when the techniques have been well learnt, there will still be times when we slip up, and the NTs in our lives instantly get upset and interpret our failure as our not liking them, not caring, or not being interested etc. Blank expressions are met with distrust and interpreted as dislike, and can even be interpreted that the Aspie feels the NT is stupid.

How does mirroring work?

Take this scenario: two people like each other and work in an office. When they meet, one smiles and the other smiles back. Everything is normal. Now, imagine one discovers that the other has been spreading rumours about them. When they next meet, the rumour-monger smiles, but the one who feels betrayed doesn’t reciprocate. Instantly, the former knows that something is wrong.

Now if the two friends were an NT and an Aspie, and no rumours had been spread, if the NT smiled as they passed each other and the Aspie did not smile back (forgetting the convention), to the NT the Aspie response would mean the same as in the previous example for the person slighted. This is why everything is important, everything matters, everything is a sign, a message, a nuance and everything has significance.  

Using mirroring is not as straightforward as it might first appear. In the example of reciprocating a smile, this is easily remembered, but there are others that require constant practice. These other common conventions can, and should be, learnt. However some of these are counter-intuitive to an Aspie as the meanings often contradict the words. These include:
  • Congeniality
  • Sarcasm
  • Flattery
  • Lying

Congeniality

This is most common and usually comes in the form of a question. What is important to note that despite appearance, it is not a question that requires an (honest) answer. As difficult as it might be to an Aspie, the following questions do NOT require a frank answer:
  • Hi, how are you?
  • Does my bum look big in this? / Should I say XYZ? / Should I interfere in ABC? / etc.
In the case of the first question, this is merely a greeting and should just be mirrored as "Fine. How are you?" regardless of how you might actually be feeling. Resist the urge to tell the truth (unless you are fine of course).

As for the other types of question which appear to be asking you for advice, they are not. Do not offer advice unless you know it to be what the person wants to hear (which usually it is not). These are in fact rhetorical, yet need some kind of affirmation.  The best way to answer these is with a counter-question or statement such as: "What do you think?" or "I'm sure you'll make the right decision". If however you feel that the question demands advice, then please use our techniques on how to give advice.

Sarcasm

This can be tricky to recognise. The important things to remember is that a question is not always a question (such as above), and that the words used may not reflect the real meaning, especially if the speaker is emotional such as angry, joking, or deadpan. In fact, the words may actually be the exact opposite of their literal meaning.

This means that you must be aware of the person's mood, and circumstances for that mood. Everything about the circumstances and the person are important, even if not obviously relevant. If in doubt, be openly honest and say that you do not understand. Again this is something which can only be learnt through experience, and trial and error.

Flattery

The hardest part of this convention is knowing when it is expected. Aspies don't need affirmation nor flattery and so are ill-equipped to recognise the needs in others. The mechanism itself is fairly straight forward, in that you just state the obvious as in "this meal is delicious" (obviously as you wouldn't be eating it if it weren't). The difficulty arises when what you are expected to say is not accurate. This commonly happens when discussing the talent of children of friends: "the school play was wonderful and Fred was the best actor on the stage" for example. This is harder as it more than likely would not be true. If you can't bring yourself to do it (and most Aspies can't) then find something positive to say that is true such as "I enjoyed it" or avoid the question by diverting the topic.

Also where you should be careful is knowing when to say it, and how to say it. If said at the wrong time or the wrong way, it often becomes perceived as sarcasm. So when complimenting 'Fred' on his performance for example, remember to say it with a smile and lilt in the voice. Again practice makes perfect, but be aware that some NTs need more flattery than others, and flattering the wrong person will probably create mistrust. Only through trial and error can you hope to become successful.

Finally, if someone is flattering you or paying you a compliment, then remember the rules for 'congeniality' described above. More than likely the compliment will be stating the obvious, but it is important that you do not respond by agreeing, nor by stating how the compliment was stating the obvious. The correct response is a simple "thank you" which acknowledges that you have understood the intent.

Lying

What you may have already recognised is that mirroring is often associated with un-truths, as in the example where you are expected to reply "fine" when in reality you are in great pain. The same is true of sarcasm where the words state the contrary position to the truth, such as referring to a rainy day as "great picnic weather". While in truth these are lies, they are socially accepted and not seen as such. Other examples are referred to as 'white lies' where an NT believes a situation warrants the telling of a lie for the greater good: "your performance was wonderful".

On the whole, Aspies cannot lie. It is not just that they choose not to lie as NTs think, but that they honestly physically can't. Thus many normal social conventions, particularly relating to reciprocity, are very difficult for the Aspie to negotiate. The best way to survive therefore is to resist the urge to answer, walk away, change the subject, or explain your predicament. Another technique that Aspies adopt is to manipulate the answer so that you are not lying but you have worded the reply in such a way that the listener misunderstands. Of course, this is not to sanction lying but to conform to socially acceptable norms of conversation as described above.

"I didn't mean it"

Something else which Aspies find difficult to address is the intentional lie. This can be anything from a 'white lie' to a deceit. Generally, with the socially accepted lies is that everyone just accepts it and moves on. So when asked "is my hair a mess?" the answer would be "no" even if it were. You know it isn't true, and probably the questioner does too, but all they really wanted was some support and affirmation, and not the truth. And if they need a hug, reciprocate (but for no longer than 3 seconds).

Another instance of a common, yet non-malicious, lie arises in personal relationships during arguments. This is commonly recognised by the statement: "I didn't mean it" that follows it. This is difficult for Aspies to understand as they never say something they do not mean, and so to hear it must be true, especially given the circumstances around it. However, this is not the case as NTs are adept at lying as a consequence of innate mirroring. The difference between NTs and Aspies is that Aspies can't lie and that NTs choose not to lie. So in the heat of the moment, an NT may lie in order to wound (as telling of other non-detrimental lies is required for most reciprocation) but just as in other mirroring situations, the lie is not meant, and is just used for a socially emotional reason. In the case of an argument it is intended to momentarily hurt, and is often immediately regretted. NTs know this and so both say these and then withdraw them, withough any lasting effect intended. For an Aspie however, it can be confusing and remain hurtful. It is best to understand that it is just a mirroring effect and forgive the lie.