I’ve been too busy to post a new article these past couple weeks because—drumroll—my boyfriend and I just moved to New York City! We’ve now managed to get all our things unpacked (and mostly put away), braved the arduous journey to and through Ikea, and set up a few tables and shelves. Predictably, I then fell sick and spent several days in bed, or rather, lying on the wood floor of our apartment when I wanted to come out of the bedroom to be social. Obviously, this delayed my writing a little more.
But now I’m fully recovered and in a mood for writing!
I have a feeling that the title of this post is going to go over some readers’ heads. But I’m a huge Elvis nerd, and I refuse to shy away from such a perfect opportunity to work the king into a caption.
Anyway, I want to talk a little about a topic that’s so broad I’ve been avoiding it, struggling to find the best approach. Like body language, conversation is such a huge umbrella that I couldn’t be sure where to start! I figure it’s time to bite the bullet and try my hand at a concise summary—as if I’m capable of such a thing!—of one of the most basic, and most difficult elements of conversation: small talk.
Before I begin, I want to explain that I will be using the word “allistic” in this post to describe anyone who is not autistic. I feel the word “neurotypical” is too specific to refer to non-autistics. While a person with dyslexia and ADHD, but not autism, is decidedly not neurotypical, she is still allistic.
The first, possibly most general point I want to explore is a fact that I think plays a key role in the disconnect during conversation between autistics and allistics. This is the thing that makes it so comforting to talk to a fellow autistic, the thing that makes small talk so difficult for spectrumites, and (one of) the reason(s) so many allistics come away from conversation with autistics feeling hurt and offended.
Conversation often serves a different purpose for autistics than it does for non-autistics.
As an autistic woman, my first, gut instinct is to think of conversation as a way to share information with another person.
To me, conversation is the exchange of ideas, opinions, and facts. If I’m going to feel comfortable in a conversation, I want to know what the conversation is “about.” Conversation for the sake of conversation is totally alien to me, and something I never realized people still did until embarrassingly recently. I thought empty talking for its own sake was a relic of antiquity, buried in the past along with neck ruffs and snuff boxes.
From years of careful and obviously very scientific research, AKA conversing with allistics, I’ve come to the conclusion that non-autistics see conversation differently.
Namely, allistic people think of conversation as a means of making an emotional connection, a way of deepening a social relationship with another person.
While all human beings love to share ideas, opinions, and facts with others, this is not the only purpose of verbal communication. It is not even necessarily the most important purpose. Questions like, “how are you” and “what do you do for a living” are not merely icebreakers that segue into the real conversation, but attempts to forge emotional intimacy so that the subsequent, likely more specific conversation will feel more comfortable.
While I still struggle with small talk, my skills in this area have grown exponentially ever since I realized I was going about the problem in the wrong way. I thought of small talk as a basically pointless social ritual, part of the illogical unwritten rules that govern Neurotypical Social Interaction™. I saw it as something to avoid, and, when I couldn’t, something to get out of the way as soon as possible. I learned canned responses for the canned questions, and tried to rush my conversations through the shallows to get right to the deep end, the good stuff. Like biology and video games.
But playing in the shallows is the safest way to learn to swim, the best way to get to know a new lake, and an important part of getting to know a person, which is what conversation is really all about (at least at first). If we all jumped right into the deep middle without wading through the shallows and treading water before diving under, we risk hitting our heads on those big rocks we couldn’t see from the surface.
Enough of my weird diving metaphor. I haven’t even lived in the city two full weeks and I’m already missing my small town swimming holes!
What I’m trying to say is that while memorizing those canned responses is an important way to remember social courtesies, small talk actually serves a very important purpose. I know that, at least for me, I’m not really capable of learning social rules unless I can appreciate their practical value. While it may not seem like it, small talk can be another logical, analytic tool that can serve autistics well in social situations.
Let me put it this way:
Imagine you’re at a party. You were dragged there by a friend who knows the host. Your friend insists that you come along because she knows that the party will be full of “nerdy people who will totally get you!” Right away, your friend introduces you to a group of three people. “Reader, this is So-and-so, What’s-her-name, and Some-guy! You all have so much in common, you should talk!” Then your friend walks away to greet the host and you’re left alone with these strangers. What would you think if I told you that you could sound out this group for quality friend material using small talk?
With small talk, you can quickly make cursory social connections with strangers. What this means is that, instead of diving right in and talking about paleoclimatology, ignoring social protocols and potentially alienating all three strangers, you can ease in slowly, and figure out which people will actually want to talk with you about your special interests. When the small talk comes, don’t panic! Take a deep breath, and think of it as yet another social engineering tool, another learning opportunity.
- Some-guy: “So… Reader, you from around here?”
- You: “Yeah, I grew up in the area.”
- Some-guy: “Cool, a local! Know any good bars? I actually just moved here a couple months ago and I’m still scrounging for good hangout spots.”
- You: “Not really. I don’t really go to bars much.”
- Some-guy: “Oh, ok. Never mind then.”
- What’s-her-name: “What do you do for a living, Reader?”
- You: “Oh, I’m actually a senior at Local University. I won’t graduate until next spring.”
- So-and-so: “Hey, I went to Local University too! I graduated in the class of 2008. What are you majoring in?”
- You: “Anthropology. I mostly study archaeology. Lately I’ve been getting really into paleoclimatology, so if I get into a grad program I’ll probably try for that.”
- Some-guy: “Wow, you’re a real smarty-pants. Probably one of those Discovery Channel types, right?”
- You: “Um, I guess? So, you went to Local University, So-and-so? What did you major in?”
- So-and-so: “I actually did environmental science at Other University. I don’t really know much about paleoclimatology, since I’m basically a Holocene, onwards kind of guy, but I can definitely see why you’re into it. It’s a really cool field.”
- What’s-her-name: “I was environmental too! It’s so neat to find another climate geek! All our other sciencey friends are into medicine or rocks. It’s hard to find somebody who really appreciates this stuff.”
- Some-guy: “Ugh… I’m, uh, gonna go look for That-other-dude to ask him about, um, that thing. Bye, guys.”
- You: “Would you guys be at all interested in hearing about the crazy climate amelioration that happened when we transitioned from the Pleistocene into the Holocene, and how that’s the reason humans were able to develop agriculture?”
- So-and-so: “Oh, yeah! I think I heard that once, but I don’t know anything about it.”
- What’s-her-name: “Yes, sure! That sounds really cool. I’d love to hear about it.”
And just like that, you’ve made two friends, and learned that the third person probably wouldn’t have been your kind of person anyway. And think, if you had thrown out one-word, bare-minimum answers and tried to jump right into the paleoclimatological understanding of Neolithic agriculture, you might have confused all three, and made the conversation feel forced and uncomfortable.
Now, the magical back-and-forth pattern of this type of conversation can seem utterly elusive to a beginner, but don’t worry. Like everything, this too has a logic that can be learned.
The essential point to remember, what I think of as my golden rule of conversation, is that
Conversation is like throwing a ball back and forth.
When someone says something to you, they are tossing you the ball (“Ugh, I’m so tired! I stayed up way too late last night trying to get my toddler to fall asleep”). If you reply with something unrelated (“I like trains”)—or don’t reply at all—you’re dropping the ball. Instead, you have to pick some element of what was said to you, and elaborate on that, passing it back (“Ha, me too. Except my excuse is way stupid compared to yours; I was up all night binge-watching 30 Rock on Netflix”).
Look back over that party dialogue and see if you can spot a few of the ways my hypothetical non-autistic party-goers use this rule in their conversation style. For example, notice how So-and-so replies that he went to the same university as hypothetical-you, even though this information was not explicitly asked for.
And even in those (more common) instances where you won’t find yourself talking with someone who wonderfully shares a special interest of yours, small talk can be used to get a feel of a person. You can sometimes tell whether or not you’ll get along with someone within even the first minute of small talk, crazy as that may sound.
I’ve had small talk conversations with people who seemed offended at my general presence. I’ve had small talk conversations where both parties struggled to answer even the most basic questions, and we simply had nothing to say to each other. But I’ve also had small talk conversations where the mood was enthusiastic, friendly, warm, and comfortable even though we hadn’t yet said anything beyond those basic icebreakers. Those are the people with whom fun, substantive conversation is almost certain to follow.
And, regardless of whether you want to befriend who you’re talking to, small talk is the tool you use to show you care about other people.
If the person you’re talking to thinks you care about them and their life, they will like you more. And life is always easier when people like you.
And while small talk is more than just canned conversation, I do think it’s important to mention that learning basic canned small talk language is an essential skill. Below are a few example small talk questions which will be asked of you, and that you should ask of your conversational partner if you don’t know ‘what to say.’
- “How are you?” (NOTE: Always follow your answer by repeating this question. Small talk is all about reciprocity and it’s very rude to not do this, apparently.)
- “Where are you from?”
- “What do you do?” (NOTE: No matter what response you get, replying “That sounds hard” will usually win you brownie points.)
- “Where do you go to school?” / “What are you studying?”
- “How do you know [event host]?” (NOTE: When talking with a stranger at a party, you can feel confident that you probably have at least one social connection in common because you’ve both been invited!)
- “What’s keeping you busy these days?” (NOTE: This is a great question if the conversation seems to be going nowhere.)
And sometimes, you will find yourself in situations where small talk is just being used to fill time. These are instances where everyone involved knows they’re not in this for serious friendship, but engage in shallow social exchanges for recreational purposes. I’ll talk about how to navigate those situations in a later blog post.
Treading water in a small talk conversation may feel uncomfortable at first. But remember, small talk isn’t just about making sure you ‘seem normal,’ and it isn’t something to be rushed. Small talk is like smelling food before you take a bite, or reading the first paragraph of a book to see if you like the writing style. It’s about showing you care about who you’re speaking to, even if you don’t. And if you do care, this is the time set aside to see whether you really want to be talking to this person. Who are you talking to? What is their name? Their background? Their field of expertise and interest? And once you know who they are, you can get an idea of what the two of you might want to talk about together.