How Unhealthy Jokes Damage Good Connections: ADHD Social Nervousness
In intimidating social situations like dates or parties, I feel most comfortable when I can make someone laugh. Telling a joke or a silly story for a few laughs helps me relax – and usually it helps to loosen up the conversation.
I often use humor as an inclusive, heartfelt tool to gauge new social audiences. You can say a lot about a person, what makes them laugh – or what doesn’t.
But recently it dawned on me that I also use humor as a shield – usually when I’m feeling uncomfortable, vulnerable, or a little threatened. When a conversation or situation becomes overwhelming or awkward, some people with ADHD withdraw; Instead, I make impulsive jokes (for example, I made the nurse laugh on my last blood test, much to my detriment). Sometimes it gets me out of trouble and sometimes it buries me deeper in my ADHD hole.
See, I can’t tell the difference between “fake laugh” and the real stuff. Since the British communicate almost exclusively in the subtext, which often goes undetected by me, things can get a bit tricky. However, these days people aren’t sure what to laugh about in public and it can be hard to tell what is really inappropriate. So sometimes I find myself in the wrong circles a little more gritty and awkward than I’d like to admit.
When working on judging boundaries, it is inevitable that I will cross the line every now and then and offend someone, especially if I get carried away or get too comfortable too quickly, or if they can’t tell you exactly. In such situations the nerves start and I tend to accidentally burst out with something inappropriate (shocker!). Then I stagger back because the crowd’s eyes don’t match their smile or their gaze wanders across the group. When I can’t read someone or feel that something is going wrong, I ask or joke that I’m digging a hole. That doesn’t always work brilliantly.
[Read This: 7 Masks We Use to Hide Our Faults]
How can you get to know me if I never stop joking?
I recently had a call before a date with a very tense feminist activist with the emotional baggage of a freight train and more red flags than Chinese New Year flags. I really liked her a lot. She was fascinating, intelligent, and empathetic. She had some tough experiences that piqued my interest. I felt we had a lot in common and I was able to learn from their perspective. During a 10 hour video chat, we shared all sorts of things, including ADHD (she thinks we like to start fires!). In the course of this often emotional encounter, we both became very vulnerable and opened up too quickly.
As the conversation got more intense and the lesson got later (4 a.m. on a school evening!), I made a few jokes that were a little edgier and funnier in my head than they were loud. When I got that judge’s look back instead of giggling, it added to that “iceberg ahead” feeling, so I teased her and told her to lower her eyebrow.
The next morning she canceled our date and told me that I had done this “check” 8 times (she counted!). I approached her insecure and asked her to respond with laughter – I was “one of those men who are not as funny as you think”.
When she called me like that, I panicked. I’ve forgotten that this stranger and her opinion don’t really matter, but I’ve heard similar words before from people who do. I felt very personally attacked by someone I knew I didn’t know well enough to trust, but whom I had shared too much with because they seemed open to me too. Her comment blinded my happy, flirtatious attitude and my confidence hit the bull’s eye. My cheeky grin disappeared and I had the feeling that I now had to explain what comes across defensively because it is so.
[Click to Read: “My ADHD Makes Me the Anti-Villain of My Own Drama”]
I immediately sent a gif of “Gladiator” with Russell Crowe yelling “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?”. in the desert arena. This did not help with my argument that I was actually more mature than I had experienced the night before and that I was sleep deprived in the morning. In retrospect, I should have just shut up and put my phone down.
She circled like a shark and went to kill.
She said that my need to project and entertain a stranger made her feel that I needed her laugh and approval to validate myself, and that I wasn’t really listening to her in pursuit of that complacency. She said that her opinions and experiences were overshadowed by my seemingly relentless urge to have her applaud for any of my funny stories or jokes, sometimes related to sensitive information we shared. She thought I was trying too hard, and it seemed condescending because she wanted those giggles, the fact that we’d been on the phone for hours so clearly that she was already interested in me with or without a laugh (see, I heard to! ).
How can I be comfortable with silence?
As my defensive reflex subsided and I calmed down from the proverbial slap in the face, I had the odd feeling that I could be more seriously, more relaxed with her, which took away a lot of the pressure I had subconsciously put on myself. From that conversation I learned that it’s okay if someone doesn’t laugh at every joke I make. Just because they don’t laugh doesn’t mean they don’t like to talk to me; they just didn’t like that joke or story, or they are waiting to speak (good luck!), or I accidentally persuaded them. Despite my learned instinct, it’s not my responsibility to make someone smile – it does, of course – and the conversation won’t stall or fail just because a laugh doesn’t come out of the can every few minutes.
In this case, a stupid, ill-timed joke would have completely discounted and belittled the vulnerability of someone I wanted to meet, something deeply meaningful, which is really offensive and insensitive. My confident use of humor made this woman feel foolish and even resented, which made it harder for her to trust me – the exact opposite of my intention.
To pick out the few positives in her closing speech, before saying goodbye to me somewhat aggressively, she said there were more interesting things about me than my jokes and jokes. She asked how people could really get to know me when my top priority is making them laugh. She didn’t pay to see a show or wait for my defense to break down. She wanted to get to know me, warts and everything – which is a lot less fun and a lot more intimidating (though I feel like we had shared enough by this point).
Ultimately, Shark Girls and I realized that we just don’t share the same sense of humor (if I have one). From this experience I learned what topics to avoid when joking around. When I finished licking my wounds that weekend, I went out with another who fitted better, and she was downright hilarious.
Bad Jokes and ADHD: The Next Steps
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Updated July 23, 2021