Tuesday, 24 July 2012

...And Keeping Our Talk Small

While I’m on the subject of talking, there’s one area where I feel we need to make our talk ‘smaller’, ie shorter.

I’m referring to those situations where someone shares some news with us, whether it be ‘negative’ news – “I think I’m getting a cold”, or “my car has broken down”, or ‘positive’ – “we’re going on holiday next week”. Often, our response is to start listing - in great detail and at interminable length - all the illnesses we’ve ever had, or all the problems we’ve ever had with any vehicle we’ve ever owned or even driven, or all the holidays we’ve ever been on and how good they were, etc, etc.

Now, I can understand why we do this (this ‘we’ is literal, I’ve been as guilty as anyone else of this!), and I suspect many of you also know too. We’re trying, in our own admittedly socially clumsy and awkward, roundabout way, to express our sympathy or even empathy, to in effect say “hey, I’ve been there too, I know what it’s like, I feel for you”. Or, “I’m happy for you.”

The trouble is, that’s not what the other person hears (especially if they’re NT), and not what they are thinking or feeling. In fact it’s far more likely they’re thinking “God, this person is so selfish, so self-centered, they do nothing but talk about themselves!” And then they go away disgruntled and put-off, maybe disliking us, and we lose another chance to make a connection, or even a friend.

So here’s my suggestion. Next time someone shares news of the above type (it doesn’t have to be these exact examples), instead of making a ten- or twenty-minute speech, simply say something like “I’m sorry to hear that”, or “that’s a bummer”, or (if it’s good news), “that sounds nice!” And then shut up.

That’s right, make one comment, and then just STOP. If they respond with more information, make one more comment, maybe a bit longer, or ask a question or two, and then wait for their response again. And so it goes on.

You don’t have to remember these exact words or phrases. It’s the idea that’s important, of keeping it short, sweet, and focussed on the other person, and which may help us get along a little better with the NTs we are invariably surrounded by, and incur, hopefully, a little less (bewildering, to us, because we don’t understand the reasons for it) hostility from them.

It’s worked for me, and I think it’s worth a try for others on the spectrum too. What do you reckon?

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.