initiating conversations

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:

My voice is really quiet when I speak. People don’t hear me the first time nine times out of ten. I feel like I’m yelling and people still barely hear me. I’m shy and sort of autistic. Help?

realsocialskills said:

This sounds really similar to a problem I used to have (and to an extent, still have). I used to regularly get such a complete non-response from people I spoke to that I couldn’t always feel sure I’d even said anything.

For me, part of the problem was volume (and I might write about that part eventually), but another part of the problem was that people often didn’t realize that I was trying to talk to them. I wasn’t doing any of the things people look at as a way to tell the difference between someone talking *to* them and someone talking *near* them.

A major cue that people look for is eye contact, which I basically didn’t understand at all until a few years ago. I know that eye contact is a loaded, so I  want to be explicit about this: I am not here to tell you to make eye contact, or to tell you that you’re irredeemably socially broken if you can’t or won’t. You’re ok, and capable of social interaction, whether or not you ever look anyone in the eye.

That said, I think that it’s worth knowing what people are expecting.

Most neurotypical sighted people in English-speaking cultures assume that people who want to talk to them will make eye contact with them first as a way of initiating conversation. 

That kind of eye contact works kind of like this:

  • You look at them, indicating that you’d like their attention
  • They look back, indicating that they noticed and are paying attention to you
  • Then you talk to them, and they hear what you say

People who expect conversations to be initiated with eye contact often have trouble understanding the intentions of people who don’t make expected forms of eye contact. They often don’t understand that we’re trying to talk to them. So, it’s important to find an effective way to tell them that.

One possible way is to learn how to do something approximating the form of eye contact they’re expecting. Some people who can’t handle full-blown interpersonal eye contact *can* learn how to use eye contact for the purpose of initiating conversation. (I can do it some, but it’s a skill I’m still working on and I’m not totally sure how to describe it.) 

I find that it helps to keep in mind that using eye contact to initiate a conversation doesn’t mean that you have to use eye contact to *sustain* the conversation. I fairly frequently use eye contact to start a conversation and then spend the whole conversation starting at a stim toy. For me, it works fairly well a lot of the time.

It’s also not all-or-nothing: 

  • If you can’t look at eyes, you might be able to initiate conversations by looking at noses, foreheads, or chins
  • If you can’t look at faces at all, you might be able to initiate conversations by turning your head or body in their general direction

For some people, it’s well worth learning how to do this. But others can’t, shouldn’t, or don’t want to, and it’s not the only option.  Fake and real eye contact aren’t the only ways to start conversations.

The basic principle is that, if you want to start talking to someone, you need to indicate in some way that you want their attention *before* you say what you want to say. 

One way you can indicate that you’re requesting attention is by saying their name (if you know it). Most people listen for their name, and will assume that a person who says it near them is probably trying to get their attention.

Eg, this is a fairly typical interaction:

  • Brenda: Hey, Mandy?
  • Mandy: Brenda, did you say something to me? 
  • Brenda: Yeah, I was wondering if you knew where the extra chairs are.

There are also other kinds of attention words/phrases that people listen for, eg:

  • “Excuse me?”
  • “Hello”
  • “Hi”
  • “Do you have a minute?”
  • “ma'am?”/“sir?” (these two are loaded in all kinds of other ways which I hope to address in a different post)

These all have somewhat different connotations, but they all contain the message of “I am trying to get your attention. Now would be a good time to let me know you’re paying attention and listen to what I’m saying.” Eg:

  • James: Excuse me?
  • Bill: Yeah, what’s up?
  • James: I’m trying to sleep. Would you mind wearing headphones to listen to that heavy metal?


  • Carla: Hi
  • Judith: Hello
  • Carla: That picture is pretty. Where did you get it?

tl;dr: When you want people to hear what you’re saying, it helps to make sure they know you’re talking to them. Eye contact is one way, but it isn’t the only way.

Readers, what say you? How do y'all get people’s attention so they hear you?