Why Small Talk Is Important for Neurotypicals (An Autistic Perspective)

Two women having a conversation outdoors. One looks confused or intent on listening while the other appears to look away. Text reads, "Small talk".

For the longest time, I could not figure out why non-autistic people have a tendency to engage in small talk so frequently with one another.

It made me think of wider society as shallow and vacuous because I literally thought that topics like reality shows, dinner, and French fries were of all-encompassing importance to non-autistic people.

Turns out, non-autistic people use small talk as a tool to ease their way into discussions about deeper topics while “testing the waters” with safe topics first.

Neurotypical people also use small talk as a way to read facial expressions, mannerisms, and body language to see if this is someone they are interested in getting to know better.

Therefore, WHAT they are talking about isn’t nearly as important as HOW they were talking about it and what they are perceiving from their conversation partner.

For autistic people, preamble is not much of a thing. We think it, we feel it, we express it; whether we’ve known you for 20 seconds or 20 years.

Also, since we rely quite a bit on literal language, we tend to convey our messages verbally, saying exactly what we mean and meaning exactly what we say. No subtext.

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The best way to improve communication with your autistic loved one is to understand how your autistic loved one’s mind works! Intentions, motivations, and personal expressions (facial expressions or lack thereof, body language, etc.), are often quite different in autistic people than they are in neurotypical people.

Experience a better understanding of your autistic loved one by reading books about life from an autistic perspective as well as stories that feature autistic characters. You’ll have so many “Ah ha!” moments and start seeing your autistic loved one in a different light (and you’ll have a better understanding of their behaviors, which you may have been misinterpreting up until now).

Books I recommend for a better understanding of your autistic loved one:

To non-autistic people, this approach can look abrupt and awkward, for autistic people, this is a perfectly acceptable way of exchanging information in the most efficient and accurate way possible.

Also, we rarely hurt each other’s feelings communicating in this way.

I think until we truly understand the literal purpose of small talk, it can look very strange and confusing for autistic people to see so many of our non-autistic counterparts enthusiastically chatting about the weather and other innocuous topics so often, even around people we see frequently.

I think taking small talk at face value and literally is what made me mistakenly misinterpret this as shallowness when it was anything but.

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9 Responses

  1. Akiko says:

    I still think it is shallowness. 90% of the time they never get deeper than small talk.

    • Smth says:

      Right ?!
      I don’t consider it to be small talk if it goes somewhere else than the surface of a subject.

      It’s so frustrating when NT ask questions just to get to something else. Like, if you’re not really interested to know how I’m doing, why do you even ask ?

    • Claire says:

      It’s definitely shallow. But I think the point of it is that the goal of “socialization” should be treated almost like a business transaction. Like “networking.” Even when it’s not supposed to be a business transaction. They’re trying to assess if the person will be dependable to exchange resources (mental, emotional, physical, and/or financial) with. And then only after a certain number of years of dependability, then they can feel that trust is established enough to be vulnerable and be close. I guess it makes sense in a way, especially since we get burned so often for being too trusting.

  2. Jason says:

    Why shouldn’t it be shallow? As if neurotypicals deserve all of their feelings and I deserve none of my own. Let there be gas lighting and may the best argument win. After decades of a special interest in being normal, at the expense of learning anything else, driven by mountains of self loathing, I just don’t care anymore. They can be as indignant and petty and obtuse as they want and I’m finally prepared to stare back with a stone face and say “what?” instead of beating myself up for months or years trying to understand one problem.

  3. Morgan says:

    It definitely feels tiresome and annoying to participate in. But I once saw someone compare small talk to a dog wagging its tail, just to say “hello, I’m friendly and want to interact with you!” So now that’s what I imagine when they talk about something boring or repetitive.

    They usually don’t have anything important to say, they just want to be around you or want your direct attention for a few minutes, and that makes them happy. Or at least I think that’s what’s happening?

  1. June 5, 2020

    […] a previous post, I wrote about the purpose of small talk amongst non-autistic folks: To ease into conversations about more personal matters and/or get to know a new person by reading […]

  2. November 12, 2020

    […] I now understand the purpose of small talk for neurotypical people, I didn’t when I was younger, and I truly hated it. I didn’t hate it because I […]

  3. February 27, 2022

    […] Why Small Talk Is Important for Neurotypicals (An Autistic Perspective) Neurotypical people also use small talk as a way to read facial expressions, mannerisms, and body language to see if this is someone they are interested in getting to know better. via […]

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