Small Talk

“Small talk” seems to almost be a dirty word in many of the circles I run in – specifically, circles of introverts and the socially awkward (to be clear – those are SEPARATE circles, and I just happen to be in both of them, and small talk just happens to be a similarity between the two). I, too, have struggled quite a bit with the small talk of conversing with people I don’t know well, but a combination of getting my anxiety under control and re-framing how I thought about small talk helped quite a bit.

I used to see small talk much as how it is portray in the Star Trek:TNG episode Starship Mine. It shows Data rather hilariously making horrible, brain-numbing small talk with everyone, and eventually meeting up with someone who was equally brain-numbing with his small talk and, well, hilarity ensues.

This is how many people seem to view small talk and idle conversation – as mind numbing, boring, and ultimately pointless. I have found, though, that this is not the case at all. Or at least, it doesn’t have to be.

At this point, I view it as yet another social ritual. When making an initial connection with a stranger, it is entirely healthy for the conversation to start highly impersonal and gradually move towards the more personal. At first, yeah, the conversation won’t have much substance. That’s ok.

Personally, I view that as an excellent time to learn things like that particular person’s speech patterns and facial expressions. For me, being able to interact comfortably with someone requires that I first learn these things. There are two basic ways for me to do it – be the silent watcher who just hangs back and observes other people’s conversations, or engage in small talk that does not demand much from me to pursue, while leaving most of my brain power to learning how to interact with that person. Because yeah, for me, that’s someone I need to learn one person at a time. If you don’t need that, you are quite fortunate.

Being the silent watcher can come across as creepy, so I try to engage instead. So the next question becomes, what are good ways to engage?

It can be good to have some standbys. As I’ve ranted about before, asking about a person’s job is a common one. Personally, I prefer to ask about what a person does so that it is more open-ended – this can include job, school, hobbies, pastimes, etc.

On the highly impersonal end, usually done between people who have little to no established connection, there’s the weather, sports, tv shows, celebrity gossip, and pretty much anything in pop culture. Admittedly, I struggle with this as I live under a rock and am pretty blind to pop culture, but I can still comment on the weather and do my best to make appropriate noises in response to other things.

Next up, ask questions. Small talk does not have to stay small talk throughout an entire conversation. Allow for conversational drift, show interest in the person you are talking to, share things about yourself. Oh, and AVOID RELIGION AND POLITICS holy wow. Ok, this is not universally true – on rare instances you can talk to strangers about those things, but in general they are far too contentious for early conversation. Just don’t go there.

One thing I see come up is the acronym FORD:

Food
Occupation
Recreation
Dreams

Change ‘occupation’ to ‘obsession’ and it’s actually a pretty good script. It starts fairly idle and impersonal, and moves into personal and significant. Nee suggested we change it to FJORD: Food, Job or Recreation, Dreams. Regardless, it’s a way to work through conversation with a person you’re getting to know.

But, you may be asking, what about small talk with coworkers when it never moves past the pointless and small? Well, then I see it as pretty much another version of the “hi, how are you?” ritual. It’s not about the words that are spoken, it’s about creating and maintaining a low-level connection between people who are otherwise not connected. Among co-workers, it can be incredibly useful to have at least a basic connection with each other, while being impractical or outright impossible to be close friends (or even friends at all). The solution is short, pointless conversations that involve acknowledging the other person (“Hi! You are a person!”) and interacting in a friendly and functional way (“We are capable of talking to each other without fighting!”). This is a worthy goal, and spending a minute here and there to comment on the weather or the sports team or TV show or whatever else is a low-cost way to do it.

So small talk doesn’t really bother me anymore. The more I practice the better I get at it, and I view it as a useful social ritual with distinct beneficial outcomes.

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5 Comments

Filed under social skills

5 responses to “Small Talk

  1. Very cool – may I add a link to this on http://www.autistikids.com/life-skillsstrategies?

    And I googled that ST:TNG episode – for one bit, it looked like the actors playing Dr. Crusher and Riker weren’t expecting the impression – the shocked amusement was great 🙂

  2. Autism Mom

    I love that ST episode – the interchange between Data and Commander Hutchinson is hilarious. Small talk hyperbole at its best!

    And this conclusion is brilliant: “It’s not about the words that are spoken, it’s about creating and maintaining a low-level connection between people who are otherwise not connected.”

    Exactly! Great post, thank you!

  3. I like your attitude to small talk, and I agree – that the social ritual in itself is a good thing. For me, it can work well in certain circumstances, such as chatting with a good neighbour whom I’m already well familiar with, so we have a conversation routine established, where we pretty much say the same kind of things just with slight variation every time we meet.

    Small talk with strangers, where they ask personal questions and jump frequently between a variety of realities/contexts (job, family, weather, TV programmes whatever…), is stressful for me and doesn’t allow me to observe & learn about the person I talk to, because I’m busy managing my body language, trying to grasp the context(s) and coping with sensory inputs/ ambience/overwhelm (especially face/eye expressions, if the person looks right into my face/eyes) while in the same time answering questions and ask questions in return (I tend to forget the latter in that type of situation).

    So for me small talk doesn’t fall into the category “doesn’t demand much for me to pursue, while leaving most of my brain power.. “[available etc], it demands a lot of brain power and tends to crash my mind.

    Personally, I view that as an excellent time to learn things like that particular person’s speech patterns and facial expressions. For me, being able to interact comfortably with someone requires that I first learn these things. There are two basic ways for me to do it – be the silent watcher who just hangs back and observes other people’s conversations, or engage in small talk that does not demand much from me to pursue, while leaving most of my brain power to learning how to interact with that person.

    What tends to work best for me is a “third wheel” strategy: where I’m alongside my husband (or another person I know well) in a small talk situation, so I’m part of the small talk in principle but don’t need to “deliver” much. I can listen from the sideline, add to the existing conversation with jokes or questions if I have anything to say but I don’t feel under pressure to respond, can skip the parts of the conversation I can’t follow by e.g. going over and take a glass of water without interrupting the conversation with that. That allows me to be observe and be part of the conversation. My husband gets to be in the centre of attention (which he likes) and get extra inputs for whatever he chose to talk about; the other person/s get to be more in focus (which people often enjoy). and I enjoy that I can observe & learn from the sideline and be part of the conversation under flexible conditions, that the other person/s won’t usually look straight into my face/eyes most of the time but mostly look at my husband instead, that I can position myself at an angle relative to the person (which I much prefer) instead of straight face to face without it seeming odd (as it often would in a 1:1 small talk), and that I’ve got a much better chance of being in control of my behaviour and what I say because I’m not overwhelmed, more aware of other people and the potential impact of my actions, so I have a better chance to make a good impression and potentially establish a positive connection.