‘Fingers crossed’: on being both clever and stupid

Asperger Syndrome is having a masters degree in English and yet being quite oblivious to the fact that ‘fingers crossed’ does not mean that people are literally contorting their fingers for you.

Yes, it only occurred to me today, at the ripe age of nearly 37, that ‘fingers crossed’ might fall into the ‘just an expression’ category. In fact, this would probably never have occurred to me had I not seen someone make a joke in response to someone’s comment of ‘Everything crossed’, pretending to take it literally, with smiley faces to show they were joking. I have observed that when people jokily pretend to take an expression literally, then this means the expression isn’t actually a literal expression. And so it dawned on me – all these years of being reluctant to join in choruses of ‘fingers crossed’ because I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep my fingers crossed all day long, and I didn’t understand what good crossing my fingers would do anyway, were quite misguided. ‘Fingers crossed’ is simply a non-literal way of saying ‘Good luck’. And the logical extension to this, much to my relief, is that ‘everything crossed’ is not the boastful, bizarre and unrealistic deception I always thought it was (my poor imagination had such a hard time trying to work out what exactly this would entail!).

How on earth did I not ever realise this? It seems so utterly obvious now, but it simply never occurred to me before. I’d simply become accustomed to it as a phrase that bothered and confused me – one of the many things in the world that simply don’t make sense – and so I’d never thought to see whether it could be interpreted differently.

And yet I am able to recognise and dissect complex non-literal language in poetry and novels. The difference is that when studying English literature, we were taught to look for symbolism and non-literal language. Analysis of it is demonstrated time and time over in the published literary criticism. Nothing is left unsaid, or assumed to be understood – it’s all acknowledged and analysed. I absolutely loved studying English literature because of this. Never before had I entered a world of in-depth analysis and interpretation of things I encountered. Suddenly the world made more sense than it ever had before!

In general conversation, however, people don’t tend to dissect their words or much is left unsaid. So non-literal language can be harder to spot – particularly if it’s an expression I’ve known from an early age, and have just accepted as something that doesn’t make sense. Had I heard the expression ‘Fingers crossed’ for the first time today, the strangeness of it would have stood out more and I would have googled it and thus learnt straight away what it meant! In fact, I’ve just done so now, to see how easy it is to find the answer, and lo and behold, answers.com has the answer: ‘If you say that someone is keeping their fingers crossed, they mean that they are hoping for good luck.’ (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_does_fingers_crossed_mean)

I think I’ve mentioned before how, when I was a teenager, the other girls in my class would sometimes call me stupid. When I pointed out that this was illogical because they would often call me clever at other times, they agreed and said that I was very clever at schoolwork, but that I was also stupid. I asked how this was possible, and they said they didn’t know, and that it was weird. And at moments like this, when I realise how I’ve failed to understand something obvious, I understand what they mean.

Adults tend to be politer than teenagers, so people generally don’t tell me I’m stupid nowadays, but they sometimes indicate it in their tone of voice and facial expression (and contrary to stereotypes about autism, I do see and hear such things – I may not process them on the spot, but I observe them and analyse them afterwards). And other times they tell me I’m very intelligent. And sometimes they respond to something I say with a look of surprise that I’m not sure how to interpret – when I analyse it in context of what is said, this look seems to be saying that I am right/clever, but in a weird way that most people aren’t, and the person isn’t sure whether to admire me or to see me as an oddity!

Anyway, I am as I am, regardless of how people choose to interpret me! And hopefully this blog demystifies some of the ‘oddness’ of people on the autistic spectrum.



  1. I am also on the spectrum with a master’s degree in English, and I’ve always had a good grasp of idiom, metaphor, and other non-literal language. However, I occasionally find myself in the same situation as you describe, taking something literally without really thinking about it. Sometimes, this is a function of taking something literally as a kid and then getting used to my interpretation over the course of decades. At other times, I’ll know that the expression cannot possibly be literal, but my mind goes to the literal meaning first and it stays foregrounded, even though I understand the non-literal meaning completely.

    The latter mostly happens with sarcasm, where I know the person is being sarcastic, but the literal meaning is so much the opposite of the facts on the ground (the definition of sarcasm) that I start arguing the literal meaning. While I can generate sarcasm as well as the next person, listening to sarcasm is very difficult. It takes a lot of work, because I hold the literal and the non-literal meanings in my head at the same time, while most people skip past the literal quickly and let go of it. I think this may account for why kids on the spectrum pitch a fit when something isn’t literally true. It’s not that they don’t understand the non-literal meaning. It’s that it’s just too much to hold both meanings at once. As an adult, I don’t pitch a fit. I just get very tired. 🙂

    • Yes, this is true of me, that even when I know something is non-literal, I still always have the literal meaning in my head and can’t get rid of it. And yes, it’s tiring to juggle both meanings – I didn’t think of it that way, but now you say it, I see this is quite true. Just like how I find it tiring when people are being indirect – even when I know they are being indirect, and I can work out what they mean, I would still find it so much easier, cognitively, if they were direct.

      • Hi, I don’t know for sure whether I suffer from Asperges but I feel I really know what you mean; I can find conversation with people so tiring and I always feel I need to be on my guard to spot when something is ‘real’ or not. I hate it when I feel people give me that look like you’re stupid.
        It’s strange reading all your comments, but comforting at the same time.

  2. I automatically cross my fingers when someone says (and it turns out when I read) fingers crossed.
    Another note not quite on topic I was talking to a class (of 7 year olds) a while ago about the difference about the difference of Non Fiction and Fiction and discovered while they all knew that non fiction was factual text where you find information. Quite a few told me that Fiction books were fake or lies. Which I found really fascinating and we had quite an interesting discussion about it. They had been told fiction stories weren’t true or were made up, then put what they had been told when they had been in trouble and lied to make up for it, don’t make up stories, don’t tell lies. End result fiction stories are fake or lies.
    I love how your blog gives me a different perspective on everyday things.
    Keep up the good work 🙂

  3. Respectfully, capricious one, perhaps adults don’t tell you you’re stupid not from politesse but because with more experience than kids, we can tell you are NOT stupid.

    I was once quite stunned when an acquaintance (we were in our twenties) told me with awe she’d just figured out it’s dark all night! And yet I’ve done, and do, the same thing… and then feel like an idiot because, well. Duh. Seems common, particularly amongst the intelligent. “Ohhhhh. Why am I figuring this out only now?”

    Your “ohhhhs” are in keeping with having Asperger’s, but I assure you it happens to many, many others, too.

  4. When someone tells a joke, even if I expect the joke to come, I must first analyze what is said before understanding, and it’s hard for me to push past those literal meanings. I have learned to laugh immediately (if others found the joke funny), and attribute my late laughter to “I just thought of something funny.”

  5. *nods thoughtfully* When I tell someone “fingers crossed” – I tend to cross my fingers automatically. Or when I say “knock on wood” (another phrase that means wishing good luck, or trying to avoid ill luck), if there’s any wood nearby, I’ll knock on it. (My parents’ dog sometimes barks if I’m up in the living room and say that to a friend in chat, because he’ll think that someone’s knocking on the door.) I’ve known that they’re expressions of good luck since I was a kid, mostly I think because my mom taught me about superstitions (and observes some herself), so I comprehended that.

    On the other hand, I have a *lot* of trouble dealing with my dad when he starts making jokes or sarcastic comments. *Sometimes* I can tell it’s sarcasm, because of the context, but I’ve often found I can’t. I finally managed to get up the courage a few years ago to ask him to cut down on the amount of jokes he told around me, because I *can’t* get them. (He agreed, and I was *so* relieved that it worked….)

    And I never thought of things as recognizing both meanings and trying to hold both in one’s head. I think I’ll analyze my next encounter with something like that more carefully. Or maybe that’s not an issue I have, because aside from word images, I think a lot in metaphors. The brain is like a computer (which is something I have a bit better understanding of than neurology and psychology, though I’m working on that) – at least, for the general level of detail. Sensory “filters” are like dams, or like strainers, and ours have holes (or bigger gaps) in them than most NTs. etc, etc. That’s linked to the concrete thinking, I believe.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents!

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