Friday, 12 September 2008

Small talk, small minds

When people without Asperger Syndrome (AS) have conversations when they meet in the street, or at the pub, there are certain rules that seem to be followed. It seems that cliché conversations are perfectly acceptable, as are conversations that involve stating the obvious. Cries of "bloody foreigners, taking our jobs" and other such canned reactions to topical news are the norm. Listening to two non-AS people talk reveals some insights into what I, an AS sufferer, am missing. Or not, as the case may be.

To me a conversation is an exchange of information, ideas and, if needs be, opinions. If there is a news story about how some kid has run amok there really is no need for you to inform the room that in your day your dad would have given you a slap. If there is a story in the Red Tops about a neglected child, or a paedophile, or a rapist there really is no need to tell us how the perpetrator should be castrated, or "left in a room with me and a baseball bat". It appears to me to be conversation for conversation's sake. It seems that non-AS people have a desire to talk, and other non-AS people recognise this and allow them to spew forth the hackneyed opinions they've been told to have by the gutter press. I assume this occurs as they themselves also want to talk for talking's sake and may need to also utter cliché opinions. It's like an "I'll rub your back and you'll rub mine" social club.

I hate this kind of conversation. It seems like keeping up the momentum of a conversation must be done at all costs. When conversation stops you can see people rack their brains for something else to say…anything to say no matter how tired or obvious. One of the reasons I'm rubbish at small talk is that I refuse to take part in this. I'll only add to a conversation if I think I have something unique and/or funny to contribute.

That's not my only problem with small talk though. If I meet someone there is usually something that has happened that I think we have a mutual interest in so can talk about for a short while. But after that, my mind goes blank and we quickly reach uncomfortable silences. Now one thing I don't understand is that surely it takes both people for the conversation to halt, so why do my conversations always halt? Why does one AS and one non-AS conversation fail, but two non-AS conversations don't? I don't know, TBH, I can't explain it. Anyway. That's a one-on-one, if it is a group chat the result is that I am quickly excluded while the other people continue to talk among themselves. This means that I don't mind group situations but I'll quickly tire of them as I am always on the outside, and it seems too much of an effort to break back into the circle. This makes me conscious that I'm seen as "quiet" and "odd". However I get really anxious in a one on one as I know I can't keep conversation going. This is awkward enough if I just meet someone briefly on the street, but my worst nightmare is someone wanting to "do something" with me, or we're in a group situation and the other people need to leave briefly (toilet or whatever) leaving it just me and another person. Much staring into space and awkward atmosphere is guaranteed. The pair of us obviously both praying for the others to return. What is it about me that my input into any conversation is like poisoning the wine?

Even the introduction phase of a conversation is stressful for me. When someone asks how I am, I hate that. I just reply "good". I note that when a non-AS person asks another non-AS person how they are, the other person always replies "Good, and you?" However I can never bring myself to ask someone this. For a start I genuinely don't care how they are, and what if they start talking about something that is happening in their life and I don't know how to respond? Won't they be thinking "why did he ask how I was when he obviously isn't interested?" So when someone asks how I am I never reciprocate…but then I think to myself "should I have asked how they were? Do they now think I'm rude?"

Often I don't even think to make introductions, I'll just barrel into a group situation without saying anything. It's not because I'm rude, but I genuinely just don't think to make introductions. However I have had people say (when they're mad at me for something else and want additional ammo) that my lack of introductions at such-and-such an event was very rude. This just adds to the AS sufferer's general anxiety, as we now think we're constantly offending people but don't know it and they're just too polite to say anything.

The social world can be an awkward place for people with AS, all these unwritten rules and rituals we are completely blind to. All the taboos and faux pas we walk around drenched in. The self-doubt and anxiety. When you have AS you do appear to be a not nice person sometimes but we genuinely can't help it. We don't know we're breaking your rules because no-one has written them down for us.

1 comment:

J said...

I can relate to a degree. As Bauhaus say "Small Talk Stinks". For me, my conversational momentum depends on who I am chatting with and how I am feeling at the moment. If I am chatting with a person I know very well, click with well, and have lots in common with, then words tend to flow fairly easily. If I am chatting with a complete stranger, say I am introduced to someone by a friend of a friend, don't really click with the person, and have little in common with the person, I become a mute towards that person. Situations where I have no choice but to be with another person, like when I am forced to associate with an employee or classmate, and I just don't really click with the person, I have to really pull my teeth to say something. I do try in vain to just accept the silence and sometimes I am successful in doing so. But then there are times when awkwardness creeps in and tension starts to build up, sometimes to the point of hostility.

Then there are situations where I have chance encounters with acquaintances with whom I have nothing to say. It is common courtesy in our society to great an acquaintance or at least make some sort of gesture of acknowledgment such as a nod or a wave. Maybe if I see the person once it may not be so awkward, depends on the person. But what's worse is when I constantly see the person in public. I can only nod and wave and say "hi" so many times until I become tired of the mundane exchanges. If I am bold, I may pull my teeth and endeavour to make small talk, but 99 times out of 100, it just leads to more awkwardness. In my ideal world, not acknowledging acquaintances with whom you don't want to acknowledge would not be a big deal. But in the real world, oftentimes not acknowledging acquaintances brands one as stuck up or whatever. But then it takes two to tango, and sometimes I've noticed that if I don't acknowledge an acquaintance, they don't acknowledge me. But then that's awkward as well, especially if you encounter them again like in class or at work. Both parties know they didn't acknowledge one another and both parties may perhaps will say they didn't see the other person or make some sort of excuse.

What's worse than bumping to acquaintances periodically in public is having a flatmate with whom you don't really click with and who is a non aspie. When the conversational momentum dries up, awkwardness ensues and the game of "hiding from the flatmate" begins. There were times when I just hid in my room whenever I knew my flatmate was home, and I'd place myself in voluntary room arrest. But if I urgently needed to leave the room, I'd hold my breath and exit as quickly as possible and just say "later".