Thursday, November 13, 2008

How was your day?


It’s a classic exchange between parent and teen, whether or not the teen (or the parent, for that matter) is on the autism spectrum. But for the autistic person, How was your day? can pose seemingly insurmountable difficulties. To this day, I would rather someone ask me to solve some equations or decline Latin nouns than take on that most difficult query.
Any closed ended question, regardless of difficulty, is preferable to the impossibly vague and confusing tell me about…format. When I hear, for example, How was your day? most often my mind goes blank, struggling to figure out what type of information is being requested. I say nothing, or I say fine. Sometimes I don’t know or I’m not sure yet, but these are usually taken to be poor attempts at humor or evasion.

Conceivably, How was your day? could be an inquiry into factual events. I woke up, drank coffee, took a shower and got dressed, drove to work, (the traffic was not too bad), I arrived at work, the boss was not there yet, I went into my office and started to work on my latest assignment…

No, I realize that’s not right. These are the wrong types of events. And it doesn’t come close to getting at the “how.” One must reorganize the information, not recite it in the order in which it happened, but according to priority. And with somewhat meaningful commentary.

There are a couple of problems with this. First, my memory just doesn’t work that way. I am more of an associative thinker, a style which lends itself fairly well to chronological reporting. First this happened, and then, that happened, caused or not by the first thing, but most likely influenced by it or linked to it by some object or feeling or sensory experience. I woke up, and since I was awake and had someplace to go, I got out of bed, and since I wasn’t awake enough, I drank some coffee. Using this style of unfolding memory that comes naturally to me, I will eventually arrive at the type of fact that someone might want to hear.

By that time, though, the asker has either become annoyed at my “refusal” to answer, or moved on to telling me about his or her day. Relieved of the responsibility of speaking, I could try to use the other person’s illustration as a template. It seems to go like this: Big Event 1, what they did, what the other parties did, how they felt about it, how they thought the other people saw it, resolution (or not), and on to Big Event 2.

This brings me to the second problem. My priorities, my Big Events, are rarely those the listener would choose if given a video of my day. When asked How was your day? I am as likely to land, after several (and several more) seconds of thinking, on the interesting pattern of a stone wall I saw at lunchtime as on a heated argument between co-workers. What I have to say about the wall might shine an accurate light on the workings of my mind, but this is not what the conversational partner expects or wants. Any reporting of facts needs to be sprinkled with plenty of interactive human drama. There needs to be a plot.

It is possible to prepare for the question, but time consuming. This requires first recognizing that the question is likely to be asked, and then compiling a list of possibly appropriate responses. This part isn’t difficult on days I consider something to have happened. The day an armed robbery occurred at the business where I worked, I knew exactly what to talk about. Most days, it isn’t clear at all. But consciously noting things that might be of interest to others, keeping these in a sort of file I can call up using some associative technique, that can work sometimes. Not always, though.

It’s a lot of work considering that I usually get the same blank stare or look of strained patience. Whether I’ve taken too long, used the “wrong” facial expression or chosen the wrong sort of story again, my answer to How was your day? is never going to be “right.”

After many years of this, I think I understand something about this:

How was your day? is not about my day or anyone’s day. It’s one of those “connection” questions or statements. It’s one of those conversations made up mostly of subtext. So when you say:

How was your day?

and I say:


You might think you have said:

I recognize that you are a person with experiences of your own, and if you tell me some of them, I will tell you some similar ones, and we will then celebrate what it is we have in common.

And that I have said:
Who cares?
I promise, that is not what I meant. I meant that my day was (well, more or less, as much as I know how to explain, and a number of frustrating conversations notwithstanding) fine.


  1. I am in perfect understanding of that first sentence. The one's that ask that type of question are part of the have-a-nice-day terrorists.


  2. I have the same issue (with a few minor differences) with that question (and similar questions).

    I have decided to say, if someone asks me that again: "Could you clarify that question, make it more specific? Because I have no idea what you're asking me for, what kind of stuff you want to hear."

    This will most likely result in them never asking me again, which would be perfectly acceptable too. Saves me a lot of anguish and wasting a lot of time and effort thinking on what they want to hear or, if I can figure it out, how to put my answer into words. That, by the way, is something I cannot stop myself from doing once the question is asked, and if I know the person asking it very well and feel comfortable, I will just get very angry with them.

  3. My usual question to such questions is `Normal.´, even when there are some good or bad events that people tend to recite when asked the same question. It seems to annoy some people once they realize this is the default answer.

    More specific questions are often worse, because they're not vague enough to answer `normal´, yet too vague to answer with concrete facts. Few people actually ask questions with concrete enough focus when they're trying to be specific.

    Oh, and when I ask people to be more specific, they sometimes get annoyed too.

  4. Normal, that's a good one.

    Normally, I don't even think about the question, just say fine, and move on. I could be on my deathbed:

    "How are you?"

    "Oh, Fine."

  5. I never know what to say, in almost any situation. That's why I don't understand why I used to get so frustrated when Ben would say "fine". What I REALLY wanted to know was if anything good happened, or if anything bad happened, so that's what I'd ask him.

    I was always relieved when he could tell me something good, or when he said, "No, it was just a regular day."

    I was also relieved when he could tell me something bad happened to him or others. We would then proceed to talk it out.

    For Ben, it was just a matter of asking the wrong question.

  6. Okay . . . Bev's right; when people ask you how your day was, they are at least attempting to appear that they value your experiences and perceptions. (Even if it is just a gateway to them telling *you* about *their* day.) Getting visibly annoyed -- even though the question can be frustrating -- or asking for clarification just makes you look like a pain in the ass. In person, I don't think there's any way to explain the frustration without looking like a pain in the ass.

    Even though "How was your day?" is not a question that holds much meaning for us, we can still offer a kind gesture in return. As in, "Pretty good; thanks -- how was yours?" The "pretty good" is a nod to a "normal" day with no suggestion of concealing real or perceived awful stuff that happened, and it makes you look more "positive" than saying "fine" does; the "thanks" acknowledges that it was nice of them to ask -- even though it can be problematic for us, most folks really are trying to be nice, if not kind, when they do it -- and the "how was yours?" is a reciprocal gesture of good will on a level they understand. To them it shows you care, and it gives them an easier transition into their account of *their* day, which they were probably bound to tell you anyway. (It also diverts attention from you to them, saving you from having to come up with a more extensive answer.)

    In very rare instances, once you've figured out the social significance of a mainstream gesture, there is a simple and fairly fail-safe rule to playing along. (I realize this is not the case for other questions along the same lines as "How was your day?", but we have to take what we can get.) This is one of those very rare instances, and we can play along and be "accommodating" to the mainstream without compromising our principles. It means something to the people who ask, so why not give a little? It's just . . . polite.

  7. I really hate this question with a vengeance. It's a trite question - one which the listener isn't really interested in the answer to (unless it contains something interesting).

    It would be better if they said;

    "I've got nothing to say. Can you give me an interesting topic to discuss".

  8. I cut my last comment short because I realised that I had so much more to say...

    In the end, I did a post of my own.

    Thanks, for raising such a good topic.

  9. I have an equally hard time with "How was your day," but the worst is when my MIL asks me, "How did you sleep?"

  10. It is one of those silly social rules some person made up. My girl has come up with "torture" as a response rather than "fine"....gotta love it...:)

  11. "What do you mean? Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

    Gandalf said that.

    I love it.

  12. Boy was this interesting. This is a conversation we try to have daily with our three kids, one with Asperger's, one with ADD and one with HFA. They manage the "good" or "fine" response to the "How was your day?" question...we have to prod a bit for I know why!! thanks so much for the insight.

  13. My 15 yr. old son and I are both Aspies. I can relate on several levels to what you are saying....good ideas.


  14. haha yes! this is what i've been trying to explain to people for ages. my son can't tell you how his day at school was, because the first hour was "good", the second "horrendous"the third "boring" the fourth "a nightmare" and so on. there are 8 hours in a school day....try summarizing that into one sentiment! i don't even know how other kids answer that question...they probably mumble an automatic "fine"...

  15. Everything is just code for something else. You can kinda get it but then it's hard when you're trying to react in real time. They may as well just be talking pig latin.

  16. 'How are you' = 'I recognize that you are a person with experiences of your own, and if you tell me some of them, I will tell you some similar ones, and we will then celebrate what it is we have in common'

    That is a beautiful interpretation!



  17. How was your day?

    "Living the dream!"

    -but I don't elaborate into what dream that might be. -_-



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