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Small talk

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.

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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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autism decision making loneliness social skills university

How to get better at socialising as an autistic person

People with autism don’t tend to have the best reputation when it comes to social skills. Autism is primarily a social communication disorder so wether it be due to inability to read people, to understand social cues or make eye contact – as a person with autism, socialising can be very stressful. Despite this, I know many autistic people who thrive in social situations and in this post, I want to try and understand why.

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Things you may be doing wrong

  1. You don’t know what skills you need to work on.

If you don’t know where you are going wrong then you can’t possibly know what to work on! Once you’ve identified where you are going wrong, you can work to push yourself to overcome them. For example:

  • If you get anxious making phone calls, try making one in the next week.
  • If you find yourself interrupting people when they are talking, challenge yourself to let people finish what they are saying before you talk.

2. Not socialising with the right people

I used to think that I was rubbish at socialising but when I came to uni and joined societies where people with similar interests went, I found that actually, I’m okay at socialising. I just needed to find the right people. People are generally nice and will accept your differences just as you’d accept theirs.

3. Not socialising in the right place

I find that if I meet up with people in groups and indoors, (for example in a cafe) I really struggle to participate in conversations because I can’t focus on everything that is going on at once. When I arrange to meet people, I often suggest going for a walk as I find it a lot easier to talk as there is less pressure and it is more acceptable to have periods of silence.

4. Dwelling on negative thoughts and overthinking

It is very easy to spiral into thinking about what you are doing wrong and ways you’ve messed up when reflecting on social situations. However, it is important to practice self compassion because everyone makes mistakes! Rather than overthinking things you may have done wrong, learn from them. Identify where you’ve gone wrong, think about how you can do things differently next time and move on! This is easier said than done, but by focusing on thinking about what you can do going forward rather than what you have done wrong, you are doing something positive and proactive.

5. Not getting on with people

Sometimes, you may perceive people to not like you or sense friction when really, you are just misinterpreting them. Some things you could do to get over this are:

  • Learn about other cultures. Friendships aren’t all about similarities. Sometimes you’ve got to appreciate differences too. Look up documentaries, exhibitions or books on different cultures so you can understand them more.
  • Keep and open mind and try not to jump to conclusions.
  • Ask questions – Rather than saying “You’re wrong!” ask “How come you think that?”

Ways to overcome these problems

  1. Study other people

Socialising is an art and is just one of those things that is better learnt through observation than learning a set formula. Think about:

  • What is their body language and eye contact like?
  • How do they make people feel?
  • What do they talk about?
  • What are their energy levels like compared to the other persons?

2. Visualise

Another thing you can to to improve your social skills is visualise certain scenarios and play them out in your head. It links to the above paragraph because you can visualise yourself doing the things that a ‘good’ socialiser does.

3. Active listening – encourage people to talk about themselves.

Active listening is a really good skill to have and will make people want to spend time with you. I actually did an active listening course a few years ago that really helped me. Some top tips are:

  • Show that you are listening through your body language. For example, make eye contact, nod occasionally as they talk and lean forward slightly.
  • Listen to non verbal cues. Are they rubbing their eyes because they are tired? Crossing their arms in defence? Or maybe they are just smiling.
  • Try to focus on listening and not preparing your next question while they are speaking.
  • Say ‘yeah’ or ‘uh huh’ to show that you are listening.
  • Don’t try and solve their problems, just offer a listening ear.
  • Ask questions relating to what they’ve said or repeat or paraphrase things back to them eg. ‘It sounds like that made you really upset…’

4. Start and end the conversation right. To start the conversation:

  • Ask a question eg. ‘How’s your day going?’
  • Ask for their opinion eg. ‘What do you think of the new….?’
  • Give a compliment eg. ‘I love your t-shirt! Where’s it from?’
  • Make an observation about the surroundings eg. Isn’t the wether great!’

Then to know when a conversation is over:

  • Summarising statements eg. ‘Well, I hope it works out for you!’
  • Short pleasantries eg. ‘It was great spending time with you!’
  • Mentioning meeting again soon eg. ‘We should meet up again to do this again!’
  • Referring to other commitments eg. ‘I have sooo much work to do later!’

Non-verbal signs include:

  • Packing up belongings
  • Looking at their watch or a clock
  • Appearing distracted

Hopefully these tips will help you have better social interactions!