Tricky Small Talk

Back in high school, I remember some acquaintances bumping into me at a local Target. The conversation went something like this:

Them: “Hey, Robert.”

Me: “Hey.”

Them: “What’s Up.”

Me: (Pause) “Fluorescent lights and ceiling tiles.”

Many of my classmates and teachers thought I either had a very dry sense of humor or that I was being smart. In truth, I just had no idea how to answer that specific question. While I’ve caught onto the rules in recent years, I remember the concept of small talk being pretty tough when I was younger. Perhaps it works hand-in-hand with having a very literal mind, but small talk can be a challenging activity for someone on the spectrum.

image from xkcd

How have I been? That depends on how long since you’ve last seen me. That you would ask, “How’ve you been?” expecting nothing more than a one-word answer seems unusual to me. Sure, I’ll answer, “Fine,” because I know that’s the rule, but I still won’t know why you bothered asking if that’s all expected.

Sometimes seemingly simple social rules can catch individuals on the spectrum off guard, especially if those are unspoken rules. When to shake hands, body language, engaging in small talk – these are elements of social interaction you may take for granted that an individual on the spectrum will find challenging. It’s not that the activities seem meaningless so much as the meaning is lost in translation.

If you’re teaching a student or family member with Aspergers or autism about dealing with small talk, here are a couple pointers:

  • Practice a small selection of stock question. “How are you?” “What about that weather?” Keep the questions short and literal. WIth minimal verbage, they will receive an answer that fits their question precisely.
  • Practice a selection of stock answers. “I’m fine.” “It’s a nice day.” “Thanks for asking.” Even nodding works in some cases. Keep the answers short and exact.
  • Practice looking toward the other person. Eye contact may not be essential, but it helps the other person feel more comfortable.

I’ve read about others on the spectrum dismissing the skill of small talk as inessential and unimportant. It reminds me of what Douglas Adams writes in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about humans was their habit of continually stating and repeating the very very obvious, as in It’s a nice day, or You’re very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you alright? At first Ford had formed a theory to account for this strange behaviour. If human beings don’t keep exercising their lips, he thought, their mouths probably seize up. After a few months’ consideration and observation he abandoned this theory in favour of a new one. If they don’t keep on exercising their lips, he thought, their brains start working. After a while he abandoned this one as well as being obstructively cynical.

While small talk may seem inessential, it’s an important aspect in connecting with others in our culture. Sharing thoughts about the state of snowfall may not change the world in any meaningful way, but it can help dissipate those barriers that cause sensations of isolation and lonliness in many individuals on the spectrum. Small talk is an important triviality.

That small step may then improve an aspie’s world in a meaningful way.


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