Is Small Talk confetti?
I guarantee you that this topic is the lynch pin to everything you need to know to understand and communicate with your ASD loved one. This is because Small Talk is everything to Neuro-Typicals (NTs), and means absolutely nothing to “Aspies.” How to get past this relationship abyss is the solution to many of your emotional woes.
I have heard disparaging comments from “Aspies”regarding Small Talk, and their NT partners penchant for chatting. They refer to it as “back story,” or “wandering,” or “window dressing.” They often demand that their NT loved ones, “get to the point!” And if you don’t get to the point, your “Aspie” may just walk out of the room, or turn on their computer.
Some “Aspies” are a bit more polite. They sit quietly waiting for the NT to finish, then they change the subject, or say something unknowingly disrespectful such as, “May I talk now?” Often they will sit there quietly, staring out the window, or playing on their phone, “. . . until you are done talking.”
My favorite “Aspie” description of Small Talk is “Confetti.” One day this ASD husband smiled at his wife, ever so condescendingly, as he described her communication style to me. He said, “She fills the room with Small Talk, as if it is confetti. I just wait for the confetti to sift to the floor, and then I talk. She never gets to the point, so I have to direct her.” Ouch! How painful for her to hear this.
Why is my “Aspie” good with Small Talk with others?
Many NTs ask me, “Why is my “Aspie” good with Small Talk everywhere but not at home with me?”
Don’t kid yourself. They aren’t good with chit chat anywhere else either. However, they may have mastered the art of sounding like they get it. It’s not hard to practice the social graces as long as no one digs deeper for a meaningful conversation. Haven’t you wondered why they don’t get it that Aunt Susan doesn’t want to talk about her ex-husband’s fishing expertise? Yes, Uncle Jerry and your brother-in-law Karl want to talk fishing, but not Aunt Susan (especially not Aunt Susan, whose ex-husband bored her to death with his fishing stories). Good grief, why does the “Aspie” not get it?
How many times have you stepped in to save Aunt Susan? How many times have you prostrated yourself in front of family and friends, doing your best to patch up the broken connection? How many times have you had that same argument with your “Aspie” on the way home in the car? You know the argument don’t you? The one where you do your best to help him understand that there is meaning behind the Small Talk, but he still says, “What’s wrong with talking about fishing? Lots of people do.”
The meaning of Small Talk.
All NTs use Small Talk. Whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, whether you have top notch empathy, or just average empathy. Whether you are Nigerian, French, Australian or Korean, and you are NT, you will use your culturally appropriate Small Talk. Why?
Pay attention because this is very important. We use Small Talk as a guide to connecting with others. When we NTs talk, we aren’t just drilling down to prove our point. Small Talk enables us to synch with others, to insure that we are on the same page. Like dancing, if the other person leans to the left, so do we. If we laugh, we look to see if others are laughing. If they aren’t leaning or laughing, we adjust.
The point is that Small Talk enables us to guide the conversation in the direction of the topic, but not necessarily to even stay on the topic, if to do so would destroy the cohesion of the relationships. What’s more important to NTs, is to keep the people involved, connected, wanting to talk with each other, feeling positive about the interaction, ready to keep working toward a solution, or whatever is important at this moment in time, with this group of people.
In other words, Small Talk is an art form, a structure in which the artistic message is intertwined. Writing a stage play is much different than writing a novel, even though both tell a story. Even more sophisticated a distinction is that writing a screen play is different than writing a stage play, for obvious reasons. Those of us who readily use Small Talk, understand these differences and adjust accordingly.
Bridging the relationship abyss.
One day Arnie asked me, “Dr. Marshack. Will you help Darren understand how to get to the point sooner? I’ve tried to explain that I really don’t get the small talk. It would just help me if he would be a better listener and stay on track with me.”
Arnie is obviously a caring, ASD guy. He wants to solve this problem with his husband, Darren. However, because Arnie doesn’t understand the dynamic of Small Talk, he thinks it is something irrelevant to Darren. In other words in Arnie’s mind, Darren needs to accommodate to Arnie, get to the point of the interaction, and move on to the next topic.
Before I could say anything, Darren burst in, “But I do get to the point. I am a very direct person. Most people find me an excellent communicator. It’s just that no matter how direct I am with Arnie, he still drifts off.”
“Wait a minute guys,” I said, as I interrupted them. “Let me help you understand how you are wired differently. For an NT, Darren is direct, but he also needs Small Talk in order to interact with you. He uses Small Talk to gauge where the conversation is going and if you understand him. He is looking at your face, and your eyes, and your gestures, and your tone of voice, and a myriad of other cues that help him redirect his “directness,” depending upon what might be needed to further the discussion toward the topic goal.”
Both men looked at me with wide open eyes. Darren was incredulous. He said, “That’s exactly what I do. I had no idea that is what I do! So that’s the purpose of Small Talk? Amazing!”
Arnie turned his face away and started to cry. Darren and I both asked, “What’s going on Arnie?”
Arnie was choked up but he was able to say, “I am so sorry Darren. I love you and I had no idea that you were trying to read me with your Small Talk. Do you mean all of those non-verbal thingies— that never register with me — but that you are always telling me about — that they mean something to you and other people — Oh my gosh! — are you telling me I have been pushing you away all of this time when I ask you to ‘be direct.’ I feel terrible. I’m such a loser.”
Of course Arnie is not a “loser,” but the healing for this couple has begun. Darren knows that his husband cannot read the Small Talk that he uses so easily. Arnie knows that there is a mysterious world of Small Talk communication that is an extensive network of non-verbal connections, that Darren relies upon to navigate the social world.
Both men now need to learn to accommodate the other respectfully and lovingly. With the right attitude, why can’t they get past these communication snafus? I’ll be talking more about ways to navigate the social world of Small Talk (or lack of it) at our second quarter video conferences. Hope to see you there.