two men engaging in small talk

Small talk

Life without small talk might be more difficult than you think. How would you talk to people you don’t know. Do you just jump right in to politics, describe your horrible day in detail, or when meeting new people do you just grunt and stare?  I’m not always crazy about small talk but it serves in important role.  For people with weak skills or who choose not to engage in small talk getting to know new people, like those on the autism spectrum or others who have social  deficits being in unfamiliar spaces can be a challenge. Politicians and sales  people are usually exceptional at having small light conversations, how else do you think they get people to vote for them or sell someone a larger car than they need?  For many generating this form of communication is challenging.

Did you know that some countries don’t use  small talk.  Russians use small talk very little  because they form small tight friendships. When you primarily engage with friends the tendency is toward meaningful deep conversation, no small talk needed. (Wow, I would prefer that situation myself.) So, does that mean in America we engage in this form of communication because we are more likely to talk to people  that we don’t know and are different from ourselves. YES!

We use small talk  to break the ice and  engage in conversation with people we don’t know very well. Responses are short and light. For instance, asking someone you just met “How  they are doing?” takes little thought, but if the other person answers with  a litany of real time complaints we are likely to turn away and not talk further.  Social niceties help us to have positive “light conversations.  My Russian friend told me that in Russia people seem unhappy and dour. They only say what they mean. “No, I’m fine,” just doesn’t make you smile. ” It’s a beautiful day?” acknowledges the beauty around you while conveying to the other person you are doing well.

If you are on the spectrum or have social skills deficits how important is it to be a master of small talk. Honestly, that is hard to answer because it depends on the context and your lifestyle. Do you work outside of the home or attend school?  Where do you live? In the US it is important to have some skills; however, if you live in a small town and everyone knows you it’s not as important. If your culture doesn’t engage in small talk and you only do things with people from your culture, well this skill isn’t very important to you.   Ultimately, our success in life is not just determined by how well we learn to use small talk, but it sure does help!

How do people on the autism spectrum or with other social language deficits learn to engage?  Practice! practice! practice! First step learn some automatic sayings and practice using and responding to them.Take this activity on the road, practice everywhere.  Second, think of several topics that are okay to talk about with anyone, but remember especially if you are on the spectrum, to be careful to choose topics of interest that allow others to contribute and have different opinions. It’s probably best to steer clear of special interests unless it’s clear that this is only a short conversation. Practice showing interests and asking and answering questions, one word answers will not do.  Small talk is a way to have light conversation with anyone, and although it’s not expected or necessary to become a pro  having some ability to use it in unfamiliar situations is helpful and necessary.