Why is Small Talk the Bane of “Aspies”?

Is Small Talk confetti?

Kathy Marshack - Why is Small Talk the Bane of “Aspies”? 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?

Kathy Marshack - Why is Small Talk the Bane of “Aspies” 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.


16 Replies to “Why is Small Talk the Bane of “Aspies”?”

    1. Joanne, yes this a a tricky dynamic. My husband, daughter and her husband are all on the spectrum. These three are my entire world since I’ve retired. Being an nt can be lonely and difficult. None are interested in chit chat. I have fallen into a real depression and despair. They don’t understand me and they can rage, cuss, scream and give me the middle finger because they don’t read me at all. There is no empathy, compassion, care or understanding. I am living a nightmare and all I can do is stay quiet just to keep the peace.

  1. Can you also explain why those in the Dominant Culture avoid deep and meaningful conversation or connection, avoid breadth of connection of ideas and aspects of the people to connect, and the topics that call for feeling, empathy, caring, moral courage, and action? What can one do when the others with whom one wants to connect are too self-focused, narrow, and disinterested in people and applications… and others who are too shallow and disconnected/defensive?

    1. Hi Edie,
      You are absolutely right to be concerned about this. There appears to be huge growth in narcissism in our world. Many professionals are noticing, not just those who are hurt by these callous individuals.

      For example, one of my neighbors was hostile and rude to me for several months, until I finally put a stop to it. He apologized which took me by surprise. But then he said something very interesting. He said, “I don’t know why I did it.”

      I think I know why. Being a bully comes easily if you don’t see the other person as valuable. And if you are living a life with a growing tolerance for narcissism, you may just slip into this horrible conduct without thinking.

      It takes courage, doesn’t it Edith, to stand up, speak out and talk back. Don’t let the bullies get you down. Take them on when you can, or walk away when you can’t. Either way be the brilliant, shining light of love that you are.

    2. That is a 100% insight. My aspie husband is deeply religious, studying bible and attending church as a lifelong chorister. He is a consultant cardio thoracic surgeon. I noticed a lack of emotional attachment and describe him as scold fish. I fell for his intellect. It’s a lonely and unloved partnership for me. Showing him love was a waste of time and rejected. Married many years now and not changing.

      1. Go to a neurodiverse couples coach. (Asperger marriage counsellor). He will regard the words of another professional. You’re just the wife. But I’d bet my last dollar changes would happen. 😊

    1. Glad you’re here Kathy. The Small Talk observation is one of the subtleties that you can only know about if you look at the ASD/NT relationship. In other words, we have to pay attention to the interaction to understand what’s working and what’s going awry. Most family systems clinicians consider this approach of course, but they assume that both parties have empathy. “Aspies” don’t have empathy (EmD-0). Thus they don’t fathom Small Talk, and even disparage it —- which leads to gas-lighting. It’s either fascinating or a dreadful vicious circle.

  2. I’m Autistic and my wife is Allistic (though she has sensory processing challenges so we both get that part of each other).

    My question is this: How can you create a communication where in the Allistic person can get the social “reading” information they need withOUT small talk?

    I find small talk and tangents so uncomfortable, I get irritated. I want to focus on what the other party is saying, but I simply can’t till they deliver a point. If they delivered the point FIRST, it would be easier, but that seems like something Allistics aren’t always wired to do.

    Thank you,
    The Autsitic Wolf

    1. Hi Wolf. I agree that it would be easier for Autistics to understand the gist of the conversation if their “Allistic” partners and friends stated the topic or target of the conversation, right up front. Sometimes “Allistics” can do this. Other times they need Small Talk to process their thoughts, and to make sure that others are on the same page. Small Talk is an interactive process for them.

      I do suggest that “Allistics” use a journalistic method, with a headline that says it all. The Autistic may not follow the rest of the conversation, but at least they will know what the topic is. If the “Allistic” is not able to identify the topic, either because they are still thinking it through, or because they are just making Small Talk to connect, they can always say something polite. For example, “I’m just thinking out loud. Give me a minute to get on track.” Or they might say, “You know me, I like to chat and connect for a moment before getting to the point.”

      I call these approaches work arounds. They aren’t exactly using the deeper meaning of Small Talk, but they do provide “cover” for both parties.

  3. My in-law siblings feature Asperger and at dinners when they might be in town together would only talk to correct the others at the table rather than using small talk as a means of re-establishing their relationships. If they didn’t have instructions to issue then they would eat in silence but sometimes might vocalize by saying “Mmm” as a means to break the silence, or the one who smoked would just go out and light up rather than chat.

    Interestingly the birth order precedence still determined the nature of the relationships until late in life, with instructions flowing from older to younger even in middle age. It always has an influence I guess but was/is much more noticeable with them.

  4. I so much appreciate this topic, Dr. Kathy, and the discussion. This puts words to my questions of trying to understand my adult son and why he struggles to stay focused in ‘small talk’ conversations with groups of people. Understanding him helps me, but it hurts to not be able to help him (he is not diagnosed). He knows he doesn’t “fit in,” lacks friendships of any kind, and struggles to understand why not. Thank you for your continued advice and support in this difficult journey.

    1. It is tough to know these things and still not be able to help. I wish this field were further developed so that families like yours could get help sooner.

      1. I am reading a book by Dr. Gary and Barbara Rosberg, Healing the hurt in your marriage: beyond discouragement, anger, and resentment to forgiveness. On page 146 they give the sixth principle: share what your spouse needs to hear. They say that most of the time men want the bottom line main point or request upfront and a sense of direction for the conversation. And most of the time women want to focus on the processing and the journey together going over the details spiraling up to the climax of the story, with the reason to appreciate the punch line, the main point, the persuasive rationale for then the request. It is not just a difference between those who focus on detail and those who focus on the generalization or big picture, but what is most important and the reason for talking or listening. that fits with my experience, and my travels around the world where people think one is extremely rude or intentionally destructive when one uses a different pacing and communication style – – the news paper lead sentence for the men in New York City, the novel for women and Central France and Africa. When I deal with dominant culture male or higher status or autistic in meetings, they insist on the concise bottom line demand and even silence, shame/hate, discipline, and try to remove those who want to build cohesion, community, buy-in, Horizontal, regenerative social change . They don’t seem to understand that to accomplish their stated goals they need do to use a different process and communication style, and without it they lose members and political influence.

        1. Tony Atwood Ph.D. Has said that ASD embodies “extreme male thinking” for these reasons. Of course, this is why so many NT women are dismissed by others with the phrase, “men are just like that.” However, we all know men who empathize, who are willing to listen to women’s stories (or more holistic view). Plus I have ASD clients who struggle good naturedly to understand their spouses, even though the empathic method confuses them.

  5. I’ve also noticed that in the environmental social justice activist groups there is a lot of talk about honoring Indigenous people and being Indigenous led, But they insist on the white supremacist dominant culture style of communicating: top down, linear, direct, demanding, dismissive of relationship outside of status establishment, reductionist, binary, I am right you are wrong, clock time versus relationship and lifetime, and dismissiveness of elders, women, and diversity of processing and experiencing, and dismissal of the spiritual and the respect and gratitude for other living beings throughout time.

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