Lost Jokes: The Perils of Literalism

There’s a popular figure on the internet, a writer, who has a hobby. She likes to throw out inaccurate information on twitter and waits for people to “correct” her. It’s a logical practice in her situation. She’s a woman in a male dominated field and faces men constantly assuming she’s not an expert in it. I don’t fault her for baiting trolls for this reason. It’s a game she plays constantly

But there’s another angle to it. My friend @erabrand, a fellow autistic, watched the latest round of it and saw it differently. To her, it was extremely awkward and painful to watch as people “corrected” the writer. Why? Because it occurred to her many people might not get they’re being played with. Many of them are earnestly trying to correct information and being made to feel foolish. In her eyes, making people look stupid for not getting a joke was cruel and bullying. This led to her unfollowing the writer and after hearing her reasoning, I not only agreed but decided to write.

See, all have been in that painful place of not getting a joke no matter their neurotype, but autistic people fall into that situation more often than most. After all we’re less cognizant of social cues. It’s harder for us to grasp sarcasm. Often humor carries with it increased nuance that we’re not as able to grasp. We’re prone to taking people at their word. As a result we’re often frustrated.

This might seem like a small thing, but it serves as a prime microcosm of how our minds work. We’re very literal people which means that if something is said, it is meant as serious, unless the context is loud and clear. Sure, we get common idioms and some measure of metaphorical language, but if someone announces something that makes perfect sense to us, we’re going to buy it without blinking. Why wouldn’t we?

At the least, this is a quick moment of humiliation that will fade for us over time but in the moment reminds us of our differences. It’s a funny thing to find frustrating but humor is a social glue. Not grasping humor means not fitting in with others. Literalism is also often a trait associated with small children. We suffer enough stigma in terms of how others look down on us. This doesn’t help things at all.

At worst it can be weaponized against us. I had a couple of kids growing up who used to claim they had movie novelizations (I’m a collector) that I’d never been able to find. Every day they’d claim to bring them in but something would happen. Over time I realized I was being played for a fool, but not until I left the city I lived in. This was a childish act admittedly but many of us find ourselves falling for similar things as adults simply because we believe those involved. I hate to say it but unless we’ve been burned enough, we’re easy marks.

Furthermore, this small thing, not getting a joke, reflects a much larger issue. We are often utterly adrift regarding how society works. I’m serious. To us, things work a certain way. Pay money, get goods. Do good work, get rewarded. The biases and inherent inequalities of our world make sense to those who grasp things in life don’t follow a literal system of rules. But we don’t have that within us. Yes, we learn it in time, but I’d argue it’s an awfully hard system to disabuse ourselves of. Inevitably we live with a lot of frustration.

We are literal people and we can’t help it. Perhaps the best way we can cope is this: We need people to stop thinking our literalism is a joke. When we don’t get something figurative, have patience with us. We can’t help that our OS lacks the context you have. Once we get what’s going on, we’ll react the right way.

Literally the right way.

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