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Small talk

Why is smalltalk so hard for autistic people and how can we get better at it?

I saw something on instagram a few days ago that labelled smalltalk as:

Noise pollution

For autistic people, this is a common belief. Autistic people are known for hating smalltalk, often going great lengths just to avoid it. For example, avoiding people they know in public, just to avoid smalltalk. Smalltalk often occurs in everyday interactions with acquaintances and people we don’t know. And there is good reason for such an endeavour as small talk is something that is not always done on your own terms and doesn’t exactly achieve a defined goal. It is very much superficial and neither party really gets any information of substance or use from each other.I think it is likely one of the reasons autistic people are often labelled as being so intense – because we often drive into the deep, meaningful conversations straight away.

According to the Cambridge dictionary, small talk is:

Conversation about things that are not important, often between people who do not know each other well.

However, looking more in depth reveals that actually, smalltalk isn’t actually about the context of the conversation but more to do with social connection. I always hated smalltalk. It made me uncomfortable and gave me the desire to just leave the conversation. Despite this, I’d say I’ve got the hang of it now as I understand its purpose more. It isn’t about the content of the conversation, but the context and connection. Additionally, having everything online during COVID really helped me to develop my skills in a “safe” environment ie. behind a screen.

Photo by Tim Douglas on Pexels.com

I think that one of the reasons smalltalk was so beneficial in the past is because it signalled that people were not intending to be a threat to each other. In some respects, this is still relevant to today. If people don’t engage in smalltalk then they could be perceived to be unfriendly and therefore a threat. For example, a few days ago, I was waiting at the bus stop at 2am and it was only me and one other person around. If we had just stood there in silence, then we would possibly have viewed each other as a threat but a simple and superficial question of “Is this where the national express stop is?” meant that we knew we had a common motive.

If we think about it a bit deeper, small talk should be easy for autistic people. It is highly predictable. Almost like playing a game where each player knows the next move. People can have an entire conversation without even having to share any information of substance.

Beyond this, small talk can be termed as “social lubrication” and a mutual agreement for people to coexist. It can provide the means to slide into deeper topics and potential friendships. It is the way that we give people first impressions and make new friends and acts as a funnel into deeper relationships. It is highly important in the world of work for networking and there are a lot of courses out there to help business people perfect their skills in smalltalk as it can be the difference between making lots of money or very little.

So, now we have established the importance of smalltalk, how can we get better at it?

  1. Be prepared for common questions

Like I said above, smalltalk is highly predictable and a lot of topics of conversation are often those that are equalisers. For example, the weather is a great thing to talk about as it is something that everyone experiences the same.

Other common questions include: What do you do? Where are you from? Why are you here? What was your journey like? etc

When you first meet someone, you could start with a direct opener such as “Hi, I’m Finty, I don’t think we’ve met before?”

Then you could ask open ended questions that the person can’t just answer yes or no to. Things like “Have you ever been here before?”.

  • 2. Active listening

Show the person that you are listening by responding to them appropriately. For example, by nodding your head, leaning in slightly or saying things such as “uh-huh” or “mmm”. This way, you are showing the person that you care about them and giving them a good impression of yourself.

  • 3. Practice

Whether it be through playing out scenarios in your head or making a conscious effort to speak to one stranger each day, practice makes perfect!

  • 4. Learn how to get beyond the smalltalk stage

Really pay attention to what other people say and latch onto any personal information they give. A good rule of thumb is to tale one piece of personal information, give some information about yourself and then ask one question. eg. If someone says they like sports, I could say “I love sports too! I’m a runner, what sport do you do?”. This way you can get to know a person more and get beyond the smalltalk.

  • 5. Plan your exit

It may seem contradictory but I know that personally, as long as I know that I have an easy get out, I am okay with doing something that makes me uncomfortable – such as smalltalk. One of the worst parts of small talk is worrying that you might be trapped in a conversation forever. Knowing that you have an escape just helps you relax a bit more.

You could say thinks such as: It’s been great chatting with you. Maybe I’ll see you again some time” or “Sorry to rush off. but I hadn’t realised the time!” or “It was lovely to meet you. Have a nice day!” or “Sorry but I’m gonna have to dash off to another meeting!”.

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