Tag Archives: introvert

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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Parallel Play

Parallel play! Picture by the fabulous Kimchi Cuddles

So there’s this thing called parallel play. It’s one of four general stages of play that people are generally expected to progress through as they mature. So first of all, how about a quick run-down of those stages:

Solitary play: Basically, this is when you’re doing your own thing in your own way.

Parallel play: When you’re in the proximity of someone, and you’re each doing more or less the same thing, but you are not otherwise interacting. The above picture would be an example of this.

Associative play: When you’re with another person (or a group of people), doing the same thing, and interacting to share materials and whatnot. So everyone drawing pictures but sharing/passing around the paper, markers, etc would be a form of this.

Cooperative play: A more organized form of social play, such as playing a board game together.

These types of play are usually described in terms of age groups, with the idea that as a person gets older, they progress to increasingly social forms of play. What tends to not be explicitly stated but I kind of feel an undertone of is that the more social forms of play are somehow better. This article while ultimately paying some lip-service to the idea that parallel play is healthy among adults, still gave me an overall sense that parallel activities were bad. Or at least, less good than social activities.

Thing is, the more social of an activity I’m doing, the more draining I find it to be. Only I do actually like having friends and while I may ultimately want to spend the vast majority of my time alone, I do want to socialize now and again. Which basically is to say – I LOVE parallel play. Sitting on a couch with a friend while we both read but don’t talk to each other is, to me, a lovely way to spend an evening. When I socialize around crafting it is much the same way. Sometimes we will talk and interact, and sometimes we will simply each quietly do our own thing, in proximity to each other but not interacting.

This is a relaxing, pleasurable way for me to socialize. Because to me it IS socializing. I am (hopefully) enjoying the proximity and shared activity, and I find that meaningful. We don’t actually need to interact all the time.

I think parallel play does not get enough respect. This article actually listed it as a “warning sign” for autism in a toddler, even though it is a totally normal and developmentally appropriate way for a toddler to play.* Personally, I think parallel play is an awesome thing for adults to do as well. Actually, I suspect parallel play is fairly common amongst adults (though I cannot actually verify this), though it may not be the primary way adults interact. I also think that’s AWESOME! The picture I chose for this also illustrated the pressure I sometimes feel that I’m not “supposed” to be engaging in parallel play. If I’m with someone, I should be interacting with them, right? Well… maybe not always, really. Maybe we should consciously make room for this as a totally valid social activity. I could see someone claiming it as a problem if it were the only way I ever interacted (I’m not entirely sure I’d agree, but I at least think a solid argument could be made); but as a low-cost way to enjoy another person I think it’s great.

What do you think of parallel play? Is it something you like to do?

*Though that article also referred to autism as a “childhood epidemic,” so I’m not sure how seriously we should really take it.

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How to talk to me

At first I thought about making a “how to talk to introverts” post. Or maybe a “how to talk to anxious people” post, or a “how to talk to aspies” post. However, I really don’t think I’m qualified to speak on behalf of entire groups like that. I may be part of all of those groups but I’m not their spokesperson, and even within those groups, different things will work for different people. So instead, here’s a “how to talk to me” post.

Many, if not all, of the points I make will apply to lots of other people besides me, so this isn’t entirely self serving. They may apply to introverts, or to the socially anxious, or to autistic people, or any combination of the above. Ultimately, your best bet is to get to know people as individuals and figure out what works for them.

So, onwards to what works for me.

One of the biggest is to give me time to process and answer. If I am putting lots of energy into socializing, I can usually process quickly enough that people don’t notice much of a lag. However, if I am focused on something else or not pushing myself to process at top speed, it will take me some time to process what you said, come up with a response, and put that response into words that make sense. Importantly, I really need you to stop talking while I’m working on that. I cannot listen to someone and process my response at the same time, so every time you start talking again I need to begin the process all over again.

Really, any time you are wanting a response from me, it is important to stop talking in order to get it. I’ve noticed that sometimes people seem to just keep talking and talking and talking and just won’t stop, and I’m politely waiting for them to stop talking so that I can respond and it never seems to happen. Eventually I will tune them out (which feels very rude and I don’t like doing it) so that I can come up with a response, and then interrupt to say something. What’s always so odd is they respond as though that is what they were waiting for me to do.

I don’t like socializing this way. Let’s take turns, and please give me the time and space I need. If you want me to be at all relaxed around you, this is even more important. The more relaxed I am, the slower I am to process and respond (Nee would probably attest to that one). So I like it when people are ok with that.

Moving on – this goes against the usual tips I see about socializing, but please don’t touch me without permission. Not even a handshake. I will be far more comfortable with you if you keep your hands to yourself and refrain from thrusting body parts in my direction with the expectation of grabbing one of my body parts. Eventually I might feel comfortable enough with you to engage in social touch, but please let it be on my terms. Beginning an interaction with a handshake guarantees that I will feel tense and icky for it.

Don’t try to force eye contact. I might look at your face when we talk, but I will never even glance at your eyes. Even looking at faces is draining and I might more look in your vague, general direction. However, that is draining too, so I might just look away from you. It depends on how much energy I have, and how I feel it’s best to use that energy. I don’t need to look at your in order to listen to you. On the contrary, oftentimes I listen much better when I’m looking away, and don’t need to process lots of visual information at the same time that I’m processing all that auditory information. Respect that.

Mostly what I need is for you to respect my differences. Don’t try to force me to interact like everyone else thinking that it qualifies as “improvement” because it does not. Improvement is being able to interact with people without being unduly stressed or exhausted. Allowing me to be the way I am is the best way to accomplish that goal.

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