An Inside Look at an Outsider: Learning How to Small Talk

Small talk seems to be an easy, quick, and enjoyable part of the day for most people.

For someone on the autism spectrum, these quick conversations can be the prelude to much anxiety.  Anxiety, of course, can often make you forget what you are about to say.  Much like when you have a fear of public speaking and you forget a part of your speech!

As you know, not knowing how to conduct small talk is difficult in everyday life: talking to classmates or teachers, saying a quick "hello" to co-workers, running into acquaintances at a store, etc.  You can't go through life without this useful skill!

It is an especially important skill to have during the holidays, when there are so many holiday activities that require the art of conducting small talks.

Rather than choosing to live on a lonely mountaintop far, far away, I finally decided to tackle my fear of this skill that everyone else seems to have mastered!

5 Topics at Hand

Keeping five topics in your thoughts is useful.  These topics should be general topics on which you can converse for about 2 minutes or so.  These topics should be topics that are non-controversial like:

  • movies
  • television shows
  • weather
  • restaurants (good places to eat or not)
  • weekend activities
  • family
  • travel
  • athletic events
  • hobbies
  • do it yourself activities
  • places to take kids
  • sharing jokes

You will notice that controversial items like religion, politics, appearance, finances, death or illness, gossip, or offensive jokes are not on the list!  Controversial topics are a definite no-no because they may start an argument or a fight!

According to instructors Kari Zwieber Palmer and Ryan Hendrix, "small talk is a gateway to connection."

Conversation is Dynamic and Collaborative

According to Palmer and Hendrix, conversation is situational: we are thinking about places, people, and what is happening.

As mentioned above, there are certain topics that are great for small talk.  As such, how do we collect the knowledge for these topics:

  • On our phones
  • Magazines
  • News

Small talk and conversation is dynamic and collaborative as follows:

  • Dynamic = Consider the 4 steps of conversation (or using your brain, body, eyes, and words) to be in sync with the situation of where you are, who your audience is, what is the goal, and what is your role.
  • Collaborative = Find overlaps, shared imagination, narratives.

I especially struggle with the collaborative nature of small talk, so I found the following exercise especially useful.

Finding Overlap in Interests

First, consider creating mental files of the following:

  • Me files = my interests
  • People files = each person has an interest that you may find out through asking
  • We files - interest between myself and other people that are common!

Second, mentally open these files when you small talk and spend a few minutes talking to them about the We files!

Third, keep an eye on the time.  When you are at work or at school, these conversations are called small talk because they are short: 5 to 10 minutes.  Keep an eye out for cues from the other person that the conversation is over: looking at the clock, looking at their computer, etc.

Finally, don't be too hard on yourself.  Be kind to yourself with any errors.  According to Palmer and Hendrix, problems in conversation occur "every 84 seconds and don't underestimate how much others like you."  We tend to be harder on ourselves than is fair.  In addition, you can self-advocate for yourself by telling others that you are working on improving this skill.  Most people will be willing to help you!

If you have any questions or comments, please leave a comment in the section below!

Books About Small Talk

Stress-free Small Talk, book cover
The Serious Business of Small Talk, book cover
The Small Talk Handbook, book cover
The Fine Art of Small Talk, book cover
Better Small Talk, book cover