I used to take things quite literally. I still do. But I used to, too.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist a Mitch Hedberg-derivative joke. But yeah, I used to take things literally quite often. In this article, I want to talk a bit about my experiences of taking things literally.
Fool me into infinity
I don’t take things literally as often anymore, because the older I get, the more phrases people say with non-literal meanings I remember. So I essentially update my mental database with scripts on metaphorical language and subtext. And with that, I’ve gotten a bit less naivé as well. In my early 20s, my friends could be sarcastic repeatedly, and I would believe them each time. They would make a sarcastic remark that I would take seriously, after which I thought, “The joke has been made now, so the next thing they will say is surely going to be literal and serious.” But no! They would make another sarcastic remark that I would fall for. Surely they will be serious now. Wrong again! They would fool me three times in a row, which was all good fun. I would laugh at my naivete as well. As the saying goes, “Fool Me Once, Shame on You; Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me.” And fool me thrice, shame on all of us!
That hasn’t happened in years now. But to tell you the truth, I don’t think it’s because I’m less naive now necessarily, but rather that I only have autistic friends now. Not that they’re never sarcastic, but they tend to make their sarcasm obvious, rather than exploiting my weakness. Having said that though, I notice that I understand metaphorical language more readily most of the time. But I get surprised when now and then, I fall for it again!
It sort of happened just today. Not taking things literally per se, but completely missing the intended metaphorical meaning. Natalie shared a story of an autistic person at a new workplace, whose colleague came to her and said, “Bob is going to throw shit at you in a moment.” The intended meaning was that Bob was going to give her a lot of work to do. But she took it literally, and felt quite scared—expecting her new colleague to literally throw shit at her soon. Because you know, maybe that’s how they do things at this workplace? It could be an initiation ritual!
Now, I laughed at this, in part because I understood the phrase was meant metaphorically. But I responded with surprise when Natalie explained what the phrase was supposed to mean. I thought “throwing shit at you” meant “he’s going to throw insults at you in a moment.” I find that quite funny, because if I were in her place, I guess I would have been equally scared; but not because I was expecting to be covered with shit, but because I was anticipating a barrage of insults from my new colleague. I don’t know what I could have done to deserve that. But you know, maybe that’s how they do things at this workplace? It could be an initiation ritual!
So yeah, my mental database of metaphors and subtext isn’t quite complete, and not all updates I make are perfect. I’ve gotten better at understanding when a phrase isn’t meant literally, but I might still guess rather than know the true meaning and intention. Oh by the way, I previously wrote an (appropriately titled) article on literalism & subtext, if you’re interested:
But let me tell you one of my own literalisms from about 6 years ago. One day, I decided I wanted to eat fries on my way home. I guess it’s more of a Dutch tradition to get a cone with fries and mayonnaise that you can eat while walking. Anyway, so I go to this food stand that sells fries and various fried meat snacks, and the person from the stand gives me two options formulated in a single question:
Do you want to eat the fries here;
or do you want to take the fries with you?
I thought, “I don’t want to roam around this food stant while I eat my fries; I want a cone of fries to eat while walking.” So clearly, the second option is what I wanted. “I will take the fries with me, thank you”, I said.
But what do I get? A container with fries like below, packed inside a paper bag inside a plastic bag to carry home.
Turns out, option one (getting the fries here) means ‘getting a cone of fries now, and you can eat the damn fries here or wherever and whenever else you want’; whereas option two (taking the fries with you) means ‘you’re taking it home, so let me pack this up nicely so you can eat it while it’s still warm at home’.
But I desired this:
Let me tell you, it’s not convenient to eat fries out of a plastic bag—with the fries packaged inside a paper bag—while walking! So because I took a phrase literally, I now had to wait until I got home before I could eat my fries! I guess it’s not the most offensive thing to happen to me, but I was perplexed and frustrated. And annoyed with myself for not understanding the sophisticated nuances of a fast food joint!
The things I have to put up with as an autistic person! A neurotypical would undoubtedly have gotten that wonderful cone of fries.