“Small talk” – the social convention of making polite conversation about trivial matters.
Apparently, it is considered an important pre-requisite to forming lasting and meaningful relationships.
I have always experienced it as both painful and pointless.
There was a specific point in my life where it became excruciatingly horrific for me to partake in “small talk” – the “school playground years” – when I would be expected to contribute to conversation around lunchbox contents and school uniform with other mothers. I was terrible at it. The other mothers would talk at me about their new kitchen surfaces or weekend trip to the hairdressers. I would listen in silence, desperately trying to formulate an appropriate response but always never managing to. Gradually, the other mothers stopped talking at me and forged friendships with others, over the banalities of life.
I had no inclination that I was autistic but neither had I managed to acquire enough “social communication skills” to integrate fully into neuro-typical life. Now that I know I am autistic, I am pleased that I didn’t waste precious moments of my life talking about utter nonsense. I feel no loss for the friendships that could have been formed had I known how to correctly perform those social niceties. A life condemned to surface affability with no depth or genuine connection seems much lonelier, in my opinion.
My preference for fewer but more substantial social connections – with others that share genuine common interests – is the correct approach for me. But what about my children? As autistic young men they are both happy enough with their own company but still want to connect with others in a meaningful way. Should I teach them the skill of “small talk” to ease their transition into adulthood? Or is it a neurotypical concept that shouldn’t be forced upon a neuro-divergent thinker? At what point do we say that being autistic is enough and we do not need to change; other people should try harder to relate to us?
I spoke to a speech and language therapist recently about this. She was adamant that the more these skills are practiced, the less anxiety provoking they are, the easier they become and the easier social bonds are formed. This thought process is logical; anxiety does lessen the more an issue is normalised or a skill practised. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is the morally correct approach. If autistic people were the majority, then perhaps “small talk” social bonding would involve mutual fact sharing or immediate, in-depth analyis of a given subject matter instead. The importance of “small talk” is only a matter of perspective, and there are many alternative ways to forge deeper social connections – like seeking out groups or activities that share our keen interests, and bonding through shared knowledge.
My position has shifted from considering “small talk” a necessary evil that must be embarked upon in order to create friendships, to viewing the acquisition of such skills as nothing more than pandering to a nero-typical majority. I don’t want to be any less autistic than I am, and I certainly don’t want my children to feel any pressure to be anything other than authentically themselves.