The Weight of Words: Big Thoughts on Small Talk

by Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso

How do you feel about conversations? We have so many of them in our day-to-day routine, from little talks about how the work day is to bigger talks about serious topics with those close to us. Which one do you find to be more difficult? If you’re a person on the autism spectrum you might be more inclined to say it’s the small talk. If you aren’t on the spectrum, you might wonder why that is. Many on the spectrum avoid social interaction and it’s often not because of a larger factor but rather a fear of making what we call “small talk” in our modern society. Today, we’re going to discuss why small talk can be a big reason socializing is challenging to those on the spectrum, not just for those on the spectrum wondering about it but also for those who might be looking for some guidance and understanding on how to better approach a person in their life that’s on the spectrum.

Overview
  • What is “Small Talk”?
  • Roadblocks to Socializing
  • Tips for Talking Better

We’ve all at one time in our lives heard the term “small talk” or maybe even something related like “breaking the ice” or “chatting”. Long before I was diagnosed as being on the spectrum, I would cringe at the idea of any situation that would lead to encounters that involved such conversations. I could never pinpoint it before diagnosis, but making small talk just made me tired and anxious. I couldn’t figure out what people were saying and often ruminated over what the proper response would be, often still saying something that was too blunt, off topic or inappropriate. This was often a heavy factor in the stress I had growing up because my mother works in the Catholic church and I would often be taken along to many church events because she had to go to them. The events were often rife with people who wanted to make small talk and even worse, try to hug no matter how little you knew them.

But what is small talk? In essence, it is a small chat or conversation. It is often a quick and primarily impersonal exchange that utilizes common pleasantries such as “How are you?” or “What do you think of this weather?”. You might discuss something casual like something in the news or something related to entertainment or media. It doesn’t seem that intimidating on the surface. It seems like something that should be a simple thing anyone could grasp. If we were to look at conversation types on a scale, it would definitely be on the mild end and nowhere close to say discussing an important matter with a family member or discussing business with a co-worker in a business correspondence.

But what if small talk was looked at with a microscope. When you really go beyond scratching the surface, there’s nothing small about small talk. Every talk by the coffee machine or chat in a line at a store is an impression. Whether we say a few words or hundreds of words, we’re making an impression on a person and possibly the only impression we’ll ever get a chance to make on them. It might not seem like a big deal, but in reality we have no idea what impact that small interaction has on the other person. When we take social interactions for granted, even small ones, we overlook an important concept. Every single thing you do affects something or someone. Chatting about the news while waiting for your coffee at a Starbucks could introduce someone to a viewpoint they never considered before. Making a joke to a person on the subway on your way to work could end up being the high point of their day. What you say about a person’s clothes in the elevator at your office could make them decide to throw something out or wear it again. Small talk makes big impacts so don’t take those small interactions for granted.

What most neurotypical people will filter out is that there many hidden elements to making small talk that make it a much bigger ordeal for a person on the spectrum. On the surface it can be a chat by the coffee machine about seemingly nothing but many things are involved to make that interaction happen in the first place. In order for small talk to be initiated, one or both parties must be interested and confident in engaging the other party. In many cases it’s a person you don’t know as well, like a coworker, fellow person waiting in line or even a cashier checking out your groceries. This is a key thing to understand when trying to piece together why it is a cause for anxiety to a person on the spectrum. Let’s consider the key factors to the autistic mindset to clear this mystery up.

Many people on the spectrum….

  • Thrive on routine
  • Have a gap when it comes to understanding some common social standards
  • Have difficulty reading facial expressions or interpreting voice tones
  • Need more time than others to process responses and information
  • Are distracted by sensory input around them

Small talk carries a big social expectation with it but is also rife with uncertainty. It’s not a conversation you can plan and they are often quick interactions that leave little time for processing. If you add to that the stress of not being able to read the person in front of you and having distractions everywhere, making small talk becomes a nightmare. I know personally that I had at least two or more times the stress when I worked at an office because it was a very social environment and I feared messing up in one of the many tiny interactions I would be bombarded with daily more often than not. I was exhausted before my day even started because I almost had to study fresh every morning to be able to cope with the social environment of my job. Closer to the time I lost my job I had started to just not leave my desk or attend social events around the office. I even tried to time my bathroom trips and stops in the break room based on when I would be less likely to run into people. It was a huge weight on my quality of life during the day.

But even deeper than that, many like myself deal with another layer that hinders being able to fully engage in small talk. That layer is one of verbal abuse and invalidation. For many on the spectrum they have encountered either being made fun of, shamed or scolded because of their social awkwardness. When you’re on the spectrum, it simply comes with the territory at times to be a little blunt or off topic. Many neurotypical people can misinterpret this as the person being weird,rude or even stupid. I would often say whatever was on my mind as a child and while my mother just thought I was quirky, many others were not as kind. Other children would make fun of things I said and some adults would act as if I did something wrong.

I’ve been told as an adult that I’m a very quiet person and there’s a reason for that. Many times I’m afraid to speak.  In my mind, someone is going to yell at me or make fun of me for doing so. It’s not at all true that I have nothing to say or that I’m stupid as some might choose to interpret. I’m also not antisocial. I want to make friends. I want to join conversations. I’m a very bright and friendly person when you take the time to get to know me and let me be me. I am going to say blunt things and maybe even inappropriate things because I have less filters and interpret things around me differently. Let me repeat that for you. I interpret things differently, not incorrectly.

I think in our modern society there is a whole lot of stress on different being scary or even wrong. I see the world differently and express myself differently. That’s not wrong. It’s just different. Sometimes I ramble. That’s because when I’m really interested in something and do want to talk, I can be prone to what some would call “word vomit” and I can’t always control it. Sometimes my manner of speech is going to sound “aloof” as some people would like to term it. I’m not trying to be aloof. I just don’t have an intuitive understanding of slang or vague terminology so I speak in a concrete manner as a result. I’m also trying to avoid having to ask you what you mean. Why is that? It’s because another very common form of abuse many people on the spectrum go through is being scolded for asking questions.

I often need clarification on instructions and very direct communication. I’m not wired to interpret figures of speech or vague instruction. But often I would be made to feel stupid for asking for further detail or clarification so I avoid having to do that at all costs now. A person asking for information isn’t stupid in any instance. The expectation that every single person will understand exactly what your saying the very first time you say it is a bit stupid though, or at the very least a short-sighted assumption. Communication is a skill and part of that skill is understanding we all communicate uniquely. Understanding that my vocabulary, comprehension and way of thinking differs  from yours and really that any other person’s will is key to actually communicating in a way where we aren’t unintentionally  hurting another person. Knowing what the other person is bringing into the conversation, no matter what the length of the conversation, means you can better understand and communicate. This means understanding what communication works best for them and you but can also mean choosing appropriate topics, responding in ways that are respectful and understanding the true context of that interaction.

But what I think hinders those on the spectrum when it comes to small talk the most is that we aren’t wired for small talk. We want to have an actual talk. Many people on the spectrum may not excel at a short chat, but they blossom when you approach a real conversation with them. I used to hate that I ramble about my special interest or my feelings about a topic, but what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not something to be ashamed of at all. I love that I can get immersed and passionate when I engage in talks with people. I like to debate and I thrive on thoughtful conversation. I may not understand how to properly use some pleasantries or figures of speech but I love discussing art, technology and even world events from a very unique standpoint only I can offer. I like having a conversation with meaning and substance. That’s not a deficiency. It’s something we can all benefit from in our modern world. Stop collecting snapshots and immerse yourself into making a whole photo album. Realizing that small talk is often a squandered opportunity and appreciating that the people in your life on the spectrum have a lot of great things to say is the first step to bridging the communication gap between the two groups.

You may run into a wall at some point when trying to interact with a person on the spectrum. You may have even unintentionally done enough to scare them into being non-verbal around you already and need to repair that. Here are some tips to consider if you are a neurotypical trying to connect with a person on the spectrum.

  • People on the spectrum tend to exhibit what can be interpreted as atypical speech patterns. This can include speech that is concrete,blunt,unfiltered or overly formal. It may come off that they are aloof or rude but this is rarely the case. Try to keep in mind that they are likely not trying to be that way and will not have the more open communication skills of a neurotypical person. Don’t take it personal if it seems like they’re taking a jab at you. It is likely not intentional.
  • People on the spectrum do not lack emotions despite what some psychologists and myths would have you believe. Many of us have and feel emotions but express them differently. Some can fall victim to a monotone, flat affect or occasional lack of empathy but this is usually something that can’t be helped by the person and shouldn’t be held against them. Try to avoid being put off if the person isn’t displaying something on their face or conveying it in their voice. It doesn’t mean the emotion isn’t there. People on the spectrum just express it differently or not as overtly.
  • People on the spectrum love to talk and can be prone to unintentionally rambling. Don’t scold them or make them feel bad about that. You can either listen and let them talk a little or politely  explain to them that they’re being a little overwhelming as they are most likely unaware they’re doing it. If you yell at them, make fun of them or give them the impression they’re doing something wrong it will deter them from socialization in general and even cause psychological damage if this response happens enough times.
  • People on the spectrum tend to have less filters to what is socially acceptable. If they aren’t offending you or anyone else then try to be understanding and polite. If they are being offensive you can find a compassionate way to explain that to them and also make the effort to explain why it’s wrong and what alternatives there are. Because of the lack of grasp some on the spectrum have for social practices, just beating them down without educating them will cause psychological damage and anxiety over time.
  • People on the spectrum are prone to stimming or repetitive behaviors. This is something that we do to exert extra energy, calm anxiety and process the sensory input around us. It is often done unconsciously so unless the person is a danger to themselves or others, just be polite and understanding about it and don’t embarrass them by pointing it out or scold them as if they are doing something wrong. Many of us need to stim to cope but don’t really need it pointed out. It’s only weird if you choose to point it out and make it weird.
  • People on the spectrum process sensory input differently so while a background noise,fluorescent light or texture may not bother you it can be agony for them. If you’re having a chat with someone on the spectrum and they seem distracted or agitated, try to be understanding and even try to continue the conversation in a less distracting area. If they get overloaded, try to help them get to a safe and comfortable area and don’t judge. For a person on the spectrum things like light or sound can be painful and while you may not be able to relate, it goes a long way to try to at least be understanding.
  • People on the spectrum can have noted issues controlling the volume of their voice and some are very self-conscious of that. If the person is yelling or using an inappropriate volume you can let them know in a compassionate way and maybe even work out a signal between you to let them know when it happens. If you make fun of them or scold them they may take the stance of clamming up out of fear instead.
  • People on the spectrum can often have a skewed sense of time. If you find that the conversation is running over, understand that they may not be able to recognize that intuitively. You can politely explain to them you’d like to postpone or end the conversation without making them feel awkward or bad about it. If you cut them off abruptly or just walk off they will likely not process that well or understand what message you meant to convey.
  • People on the spectrum sometimes need time to process and interpret information. It’s not because of a lack of intelligence. Understand that a person on the spectrum might need time to think about information or make a decision and allow them that time. If they pause between information given to them it may be because they need more time to process what they’ve heard and form an appropriate response. Don’t make them feel stupid and give them the opportunity to respond in the time they need.
  • People on the spectrum will understand direct and clear communication best. Try to avoid slang and confusing figures of speech and make sure you aren’t making them feel stupid for not understanding these things if you do use them. You can make an effort to explain the terms to them or just simplify them. Do not talk down. People on the spectrum are bright and resent being spoken down to as much as any other person. Direct communication doesn’t mean dumbing things down. It means clarifying them.
  • If you’re making an arrangement with a person on the spectrum be clear on it. Instead of saying something vague like later or sometime next week you can avoid confusion by being specific with days,dates and times that are clear and concrete.
  • People on the spectrum often have issues understanding tone and facial expressions. They may have to study your face more,have you repeat something or may even inquire if they are more direct what emotion you are trying to convey to them. Instances like weddings which are happy but have people crying or someone smiling at a funeral may come off as confusing to them. If the person asks you to be more clear about your tone or emotions, don’t get offended or scold them for that. It’s just an attempt to try to understand you and engage in the interaction appropriately.
  • Some people on the spectrum have a tendency to interpret things literally. This means that sometimes they can miss jokes or get confused by figures of speech. Don’t treat them as if they’re stupid or call them out for missing a joke. It’s embarrassing and rude.
  • People on the spectrum sometimes need or want to ask questions to get detail or clarification. Don’t treat them like they’re stupid for doing so and be considerate enough to answer the questions. When you discourage them from asking questions it scares them from venturing into social interaction further down the road and can even lead to non-verbal behaviors developing.

The most important thing is to try to meet the person halfway and approach them with honesty  and compassion. People on the spectrum have very different approaches to communication than a neurotypical person  but they are also bright and want to engage others under the sometimes awkward exterior. Understanding and appreciating our differences can open doors to bridging the communication gaps that exist in our modern society.

If you’re seeking to make friends with a person on the spectrum or just get to know them, be prepared for it to require some patience and guidance at times. If you’re willing to put in the time and accept them for who they are, you’ll gain an amazing friend with a unique view of the world.

In Conclusion…

People on the spectrum may not be the best at making small talk but they shine when it comes to interesting conversations. You just have to make the effort and time to truly discover that. Communicating differently isn’t bad. It’s just different. If you’re frustrated from the small exchanges you’ve had with a person on the spectrum, I hope this article will give you some insight into how to improve that and ensure we can all take big steps to make our small talks matter more.


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