Missing the Joke: Taking Things Too Literally

It’s not news to me that I miss a lot of jokes, by which I mean I take things literally almost all of the time, so I miss the fact that something is stated with the intention of being a joke. There are rare cases that I catch the joke in real-time in its context, usually only if I know the speaker well and his or her sense of humor or if I’ve encountered that joke or a near exact replica elsewhere previously. This denseness or propensity to only take things literally has always described my social interpretation and serves as one of the main reasons why social situations are confusing or overwhelming to me. I often feel like I’m getting laughed at, appear stupid, seem boring and flat, and am listening and understanding in a different language than everyone else involved in the conversation. I imagine that I share some of the struggles that non-Native English language learners face. The meanings of the words in the sentences according to their dictionary definitions are understood, but the nuances and changes in these meanings change when strung together in certain phrases. Add to this challenge the fact that I cannot correctly interpret, or even sense, tone and inflection placed on verbal speech, it becomes clearer as to why I misinterpret or completely misunderstand a lot of what is said, particularly things in jest.

Figures of speech and slang are also notoriously difficult for me to identify and understand. Because my default is always to assign the literal meaning to words, I often fail to recognize that a phrase can take on a meaning quite different than the sum of meanings of its constituent words. Of course, like most people, the explicit definitions of slang terms and other figures of speech must be ascertained either through research or simply asking, which I find myself constantly doing (thanks to the ease of a quick Google search on my phone).  After a phrase is learned once, I can catch it moving forward and follow along in the conversation with relative ease. Unfortunately, there isn’t a comparable resource or research strategy for jokes. Trying to catalog and explain every joke out there would be as impractical as trying to catch lightening in your hands. It’s not possible, not just because of the sheer volume of things that could count as entries, but because the very nature of some jokes is their freshness, their absurdity (that no one ever thought of that before), and their specific use in instantaneous context. For the same reason that making a master guide would be impossible, so too is trying to install that mental software in a brain like mine that just doesn’t have the drivers to run such a program.

What I mean is that my brain simply works differently for some reason and it’s like attempting to carry water (jokes and intricate, nuanced social interactions) in a bucket that is actually a sieve. I catch all of the words coming in, but their function, their intended meaning, can leak right out without me even knowing it.

Most of the time, I don’t even know I’ve missed the joke, let alone know what was meant by it. I’m operating from an interpretive place thinking that I’m understanding what is said while it’s said. Herein lies one of the biggest issues with this language processing difficulty. I’ve often lauded the powerful benefits of having an awareness of a challenge for helping counteract, breakdown, or decrease the deleterious effects of the said challenge. For example, learning of my autism diagnosis doesn’t fundamentally change who I am, but it puts me in an informed place, which thus becomes a more powerful place, to understand myself and work on some of the challenges that being autistic imprints on my life. In contrast, I know that I miss jokes, and like I said, I’ve known this since childhood. I can’t begin to quantify the number of times people have laughed at me when I’m confused or repeat something or ask a question that would only make sense if the joke was taken in entirely literal terms. All this is to say, I’m “informed” about the presence of my deficiency. However, in this case, simply having the awareness that it’s a perpetual struggle is not the same nor translatable to knowing a missed a joke in real-time. It is true that sometimes, based on the reactions (laughing) of others involved in the conversation, I do catch that whatever was just said that I took at face value was intended as a joke (though, of course, by and large the meaning will have evaded me), but this is an exception and not the norm. When this does happen, I’ve learned to laugh along to feign comprehension and a sense of belonging to the group, driven by my very human desire to be accepted. However, far more often are the cases where I don’t even pick up on the fact that I’ve missed a joke. This “error” goes completely undetected. Unfortunately, this amplifies the negative effects caused by missing an intended joke to potentially disastrous levels. There have been far more instances where I could describe humiliating ramifications of this inability (or at least great deficiency). Other times, thankfully, it just results in a mildly embarrassing situation where I realize I’ve misunderstood. When this happens in the presence of others, I’ve learned to laugh at myself, in an attempt at self-preservation and easing the tension of those in my company, though I must admit, usually it’s a forced laugh, covering up my true feelings of shame or feeling “stupid.”

I was reminded of this challenge this morning after talking to Ben about the episode with former President Barack Obama on David Lettermen’s new Netflix show. At the beginning of the episode, when the two men are bantering, David Lettermen says that he was fired from Late Night, and Obama quips that though his job is over too, “at least he wasn’t fired.” Since a lot of jokes do seem undercutting or slightly mean to me, I assumed he simply said this in a teasing and playful manner, but that it (Letterman being fired) was a factual statement and they were both just trying to make light of a bad situation. I even looked up David Lettermen on Wikipedia (a tried and true credible resource! (See, I can joke too!)) to learn about why he was fired because in my recollection, he had just retired after a very long career as the host. I didn’t find anything about being fired so when Ben woke up, I brought up that I didn’t know he was fired. Ben, fully accustomed to explaining the meaning of jokes to me or simply the fact that something was a joke, politely informed me that this was a joke. We then engaged in a discussion about why he thought it was a joke, while I still defended my position that since they said it, it must be true (when will I learn to automatically accept that I’m wrong in this domain?!). Of course, this is a silly, incredibly minor example of misunderstanding things, and one that carried zero consequence. I wish I could say that this harmlessness is always the case, but that would be a blatant lie. The frequency of truly mortifying situations has luckily been greatly reduced since I am no longer attending school, working in an office, or hanging out in groups of others with any regularity. Fortunately, the silver lining of having few friends and social interactions is that most of the times that it does happen now, I’m in the company of loved ones who know me well and can explain or better yet, speak directly without obscuring my interpretation.

Finally, I don’t want anyone reading this who doesn’t know me well to take what I’m saying about my own social challenges and extrapolate that every autistic person is joke-blind like me. I highly doubt that is the case and in truth, I’ve never talked to anyone else on the spectrum about this subject nor read anything confirming this challenge. I have heard that autistic people tend to be more literal, but I don’t know if this relates to or causes this problem that I experience. In that vein, I inserted a quick aside purporting that just because I miss most jokes does not mean I don’t have a sense of humor.

Although I’m normally fairly self-degrading, here is a place where I’ll defend myself. I do have a lively sense of humor and in fact, I’m frequently goofy and silly, and even try to crack my own jokes. I hope it goes without saying that just because I, or perhaps another autistic person, struggles with detecting and understanding jokes does not mean we can’t be funny, have a good sense of humor, and enjoy playful goofiness. Like most people, some of my humor is only funny to me, and some of my jokes flop terribly, but that doesn’t seem any more likely to be the case than it is for anyone else.

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