Monday, 23 July 2012

That Small Talk Does Mean Something After All

I  haven’t posted here for a while, as I’ve been either ill or busy with other things, including a great deal of family ‘social’ stuff. But in the midst of this social saturation, or perhaps because of it, I realised something. Or, rather, an understanding jelled that’s been forming for a while.

It’s about ‘small talk’ – you know, that seemingly idle chit-chat that NTs do so much of, the “hi, how are you, how’s your Bert’s lumbago, did you see that program on TV last nite, what do you think of that latest movie, I went to that fancy new restaurant, how did your trip go, we’ve been so busy lately,” kind of talk; on and on it goes, a seeming drivel of nothing much, simply filling the airwaves. Which we on the spectrum find either irritating, boring, or simply confusing and overwhelming. Because it seems so… meaningless, pointless, droning, superficial, and just plain stupid.

Well it isn’t meaningless, I’ve realised. Interwoven with a ton of non-verbal signals, ‘small talk’ sends a host of implicit ‘messages’, creating a two-way (or three-way, or more) flow of unspoken communications. At the very least, this unspoken communication says something like I see you, I acknowledge your presence. The better the participants know and/or like each other, the stronger their connections, the more of these ‘messages’ are sent - I respect you, I like you, I want to spend time with you, I find you interesting enough to care about your Bert’s lumbago or your trip, I’m willing to kowtow to your authority, and no doubt other transmissions I haven’t yet decoded. This is why ‘small talk’ gets called the ‘glue’ that binds people together socially. (There are of course often lots of negative messages sent too. These however are also, in their own way, part of the ‘glue’, as they let people know where they stand.)

Now of course, as our ability to read that non-verbal stuff ranges from poor to non-existent, we miss just about all of that, and hence can only hear the ‘top layer’ of the communications, which – on its own - seems, well, shallow and pointless. (I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it’s taken me till my fifties to realise all this, but hey, better late than never.)

If you doubt me, take the opportunity some day to watch any two NTs talking together. Ignore the actual words and simply observe their bodies. It’s like watching a dance. They will sway towards each other, then lean back. Gesture with their hands or arms, cock their heads to one side, perhaps shrug or twitch a shoulder, fidget in their chairs, shuffle their feet or cross their legs, tap their fingers on a surface or reach out and touch the other. If standing, they might move from one foot to the other, or turn away slightly and then back again. And then there’s things like tone of voice, and pitch, and facial expressions, all of which have meaning – to them. The words they use are simply a framework to hang all this on, a sort of vehicle to carry all the real messages. And NTs never think to tell us this, because not only are they usually unaware we don’t ‘see’ all that, but it functions mostly at the subconscious level anyway, so they’re only half-aware of it themselves.

Now I am not saying we need to learn how to do all that stuff, or try to decipher those unspoken messages. As I’ve said before, beyond basic politeness, I don’t feel it’s productive for us to waste a lot of time and energy on something we’re only ever going to be (at best) second-rate at anyway. If, however, we accept that it’s there, even if we can’t see it, understand it, or decipher it, I believe that it will eliminate or at least alleviate our distress and frustration (though perhaps not our boredom!) with the whole business. And I am all for anything that makes our already-difficult lives even a little easier.

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