Chapter One: Communication Basics
WHY IS COMMUNICATION IMPORTANT?
This may seem like a no-brainer, but as those of us with ASD know, better safe than sorry! There are many different reasons why communication is important, often overlapping, and all meriting some exploration for the analytical thinker to truly internalize.
Below are some of the most common reasons for communication, which we will explore in more detail:
- To relay information (“The pharmacy closes at six p.m.”)
- To gain information (“What time does the pharmacy close?”)
- To arrive at information-creation together via verbal collaboration (“When do you think would be the best time for us to go to the pharmacy today? Probably after lunch?”)
- To establish or grow implicit emotional connection with others (“Have you seen the new Avengers movie? I loved the part when…”)
- To explicitly share emotional connection (“I love you.”)
- To effectively work together to achieve a common goal
Understanding that this list is not exhaustive, I want to delve a little deeper into each category. First, the informational—to relay information, to gain information, or to collaboratively create the information you need.
Communication for Information
This is the most straightforward reason for communication, and the one that many people with ASD, including me, will automatically assume is the fundamental reason for all communication. I need information, so I communicate with someone or interact with my environment in some way (Google, anyone?) in order to get it. I have information to share (The sky is falling!), so I communicate with another person or people in order to share it. I need information that is not readily available to me to make a decision or perform an action, so I engage in collaborative communication with other decision-makers.
This last one is a little wooly, so let me pull it apart a bit more. Sometimes information is not simple or straightforward, or it may require the input of more than one person to create. This can be a tricky concept for an analytical thinker to grasp; we tend to assume that information is its own pure and un-influenceable construct. But of course, it is subject to the many varied facets of human perception, perspective, and interpretation. It does not simply exist, always, for the taking.
I have found this understanding of information as a fluid concept, rather than as a fundamental truth, to be very freeing, and also unsteadying. Here is a concrete example from my professional life:
Many times, for work, I have been responsible for reviewing and signing a Terms and Conditions document with a new vendor. The first time this happened, I assumed I needed to review it before signing only for the usual reasons that one reads through any document before signing—such as making sure there is nothing egregious hidden in the fine print like “I will give you my firstborn child.” I was asked, however, to forward the Terms and Conditions document to our legal counsel for review as well, and they sent back several recommended changes in red ink. That shocked me. Terms and Conditions documents could be changed? They didn’t just exist as a pure-and-simple document laying out the information needed to secure a mutually beneficial and legal contractual business relationship between two parties? I forwarded the recommended changes to the vendor, fully expecting them to get back to me with an “Excuse me? Why is there red ink on my informational document?” But instead, they acquiesced to all the changes and sent back a revised version for us to review again and sign.
The contract review, change, and approval process above is a great example of how information as a concept can be complicated. Later, a colleague may require information: “What does it say in our contract about X?” and I might be able to provide that information easily: “On page 5
, paragraph 3, it says Y.” But that information, while it may be straightforward now, was arrived at via the mutual communication of more than one human being, and may have evolved to be something different from what it originally was, via that process.
Communication is so much more than just information exchange (even when the information is complicated). Of course, if you had told me that even a year ago, I would have looked at you like you had three heads. What I failed to realize is that human beings, with souls and emotions, need much more than information in order to thrive.
This is where the emotional reasons for communication come in.
Communication for Emotion
I find it helpful to approach this from an evolutionary point of view. Initially, humans evolved a socially interdependent nature for survival, to ensure collaboration against natural obstacles and predators, and the efficient sharing of limited resources. Our brains developed a chemical reward system to create positive emotions when we worked together. Now that we are the most dominant predators of our world and have the resources we need to survive (though we are still not so good at sharing them), we no longer need, on a broad scale, the benefits of social interdependency for basic survival. But we still need them to thrive. The human brain—including the ASD brain—is still wired to produce feel-good chemicals such as serotonin and oxytocin when triggered by positive human interaction (it just takes an ASD brain a few more times going through the motions of the trigger in order to produce the chemical payoff, than it does a non-ASD brain).1
I want to delve into two distinct areas in which communication is important for emotional reasons: (1) to create implicit emotional connection, and (2) to create explicit emotional connection.
This is perhaps the most difficult concept for an ASD or analytical brain to understand (and implement). In a neurotypical brain, sharing nonessential information verbally with another person—talking about the weather, asking about what they did over the weekend, laughing about a funny moment in a movie you’ve both seen—releases the feel-good chemicals stimulated by positive social interaction. In an ASD brain, it can take a lot more conversational effort to achieve that same chemical reward. This is one of the reasons why someone with ASD may not respond appropriately to small talk, or initiate it, yet may be perfectly comfortable diving into a deeply thoughtful conversation with a complete stranger. Get someone with ASD onto a topic of conversation that interests them, and it can be hard to get them to stop
talking (right?), because their brain is now doing the same thing for them (boosting them with serotonin) that a neurotypical brain does in response to surface chatter.
A lot of this implicit emotional communication goes beyond the words conveyed—via body language and vocal inflection. I will go into much more detail about this later in this book, but an ASD brain may not naturally read nonverbal and intonation cues the way a neurotypical brain does, because so much of the implied information meant to be exchanged during “light” or surface-level conversation can be lost on someone with ASD.
Here is a simple example from my personal life—just one of the many times when my husband, who is neurotypical, has tried to grow implicit emotional connection with me as we walked together down the street:
“What a beautiful day,” Larry said, looking around. “A little chilly, but I’m glad I didn’t wear a jacket. So nice.”
My husband and I have been together for just under ten years, but I only recently learned that there is a worthwhile purpose behind his casually commenting on how nice the breeze feels, or how long X construction project seems to be taking, as we walk together down the sidewalk. I used to let comments like this from him pass in silence. Why respond? Yes, the breeze is nice. Does he need me to reaffirm? Is he asking for information about the breeze? What information could I possibly give him?
In fact, his brain is prompting him to engage in positive, casual communication with me because he loves me, and he wants to stimulate the serotonin that will flow through his brain once I start engaging back. And he wants me to feel that too. I have been denying him this simple pleasure for years because I did not know that it existed. My brain does not reward me the same way, so I never learned to engage casually.
Now that I am aware, I can respond more frequently the way he expects, though this is a conscious effort for me rather than automatically-ingrained behavior, so I am far from perfect, or even good at it yet.
On this particular day, I recognized an opportunity for a casual response when he commented on the beautiful day. Consciously, I shut down my instincts to say something about solving the possible lack-of-jacket problem that he already said is not a problem. “Yes,” I responded, “it’s beautiful.”
Both of us walked in silence for a while, probably aided by my lack of any proactive reciprocal casual comment in return.
Larry tried again. “The sun’s a little bright,” he said. “Probably should’ve worn one of my baseball caps instead of the fedora.”
By that point in our walk, I was slightly distracted by my shoes rubbing in new places, as spring had newly dawned and I was wearing them for the first time in six months. I was also moderately distracted by two distinct birds chirping in two distinct frequencies at two different volumes, and wondering what they might be saying, and whether the two different species of bird could understand each other. At the same time, I was trying to decide whether I should take off my own jacket, because it did feel a little hot, but the wind on my arms might be more distracting. I consciously derailed my train of thought to realize that Larry had said something, and then I replayed what he said, in my head, and recognized it as another opportunity for a casual response. But this time, I lost the battle against my instinct to use communication for a productive purpose, forgetting momentarily the newly learned productive purpose of producing serotonin in my partner’s brain. “Uhh,” I said uncertainly, “do you want to—should we—go back and change hats?”
Larry sighed. “No,” he said. “We shouldn’t go back. I’ll be fine. Just making conversation.”
Realizing my mistake, I felt embarrassed, and sad that he was sad—or at least I thought he might be sad, because he was sighing and his shoulders slumped a little, but I couldn’t tell for sure. “Right,” I said. “Sorry.”
I wanted to compensate for lost ground, but I felt like an awkward teenager. I tried to initiate casual communication myself this time. “I’m still thinking about that episode of Doctor Who
last night…” I offered.
Larry seemed to recognize my proactive attempt to repair our stunted exchange, and wanted to encourage me. “Oh?” he said. “What part?”
I then launched into a particularly riveting concept from the TV episode, which gave me plenty of fodder for talking on a semi-casual, semi-deep level where I was more comfortable and still reciprocating in building emotional connection with the man I love.
As you can see, it’s a work in progress! I am getting better at this kind of casual communication, with practice. I now have the logical tools and knowledge that I did not before, and I can use them to build strategies which compensate, at least partially, for my brain’s lack of auto-process.
The combination of a lack of evolutionarily-developed brain chemical rewards for casual communication (as opposed to communication for the explicit purpose of productive information exchange), and a lack of natural ability to interpret implicit emotions communicated nonverbally, can make this sort of exchange seem entirely useless to someone with ASD. To the rest of the world, of course, it’s anything but.
A more clear-cut reason for emotional communication is to create explicit connection. Emotions in general can be tricky for an ASD or analytical brain, whether explicit or implicit. For one thing, many people with ASD may also have alexithymia, a specific neurological difference that renders a person unable to recognize or name their own emotions (people without ASD can have this too). For another, emotions can be very overwhelming on a sensory level, and someone who is already more prone to sensory overload can have a hard time processing them.
Personally, I have lived most of my life in a sort of emotional middle ground. I rarely get overly excited, and I rarely get overly depressed. I used to think this was more of a “nature” thing—a fundamental part of my personality. But after consideration, I believe it may have been a skill I developed early on, realizing that emotions could so easily overwhelm me. I learned to simply not allow myself to get overly emotional about anything, positive or negative. Caregivers or peers perceived me as “emotionless” or aloof. Of course, this balance has been much harder to maintain now that I am a wife of nearly ten years, and the mother of a highly emotional toddler and a new baby—some of the many reasons that I am writing this book now.
“I love you” is perhaps the most common example of a way that communication is used to convey explicit emotion. “I hate you” works too, but let’s stay positive.
A simple phrase like “I love you” can mean many different things to many different people.
This inability to be exacting and precise in our language about emotions can cause yet more difficulty for an ASD or analytical brain. Someone with ASD may prefer not to communicate that they are feeling any particular emotion at all, rather than to identify it the wrong way, or use the wrong words to express it. Neurotypical people do this all the time—approximating their emotions with their best guess at the right words—because a neurotypical brain can also make leaps of faith and infer deeper meaning. Someone who is neurotypical may even throw out a series of several words to try to describe how they are feeling, knowing that none of them really do the emotion justice, but hoping that together they may add up to a context greater than the sum of its parts. To someone with ASD, however, this can make for a very confusing melting pot of seemingly unrelated and contradictory emotional states—in other words, a big, scary mess.
One of the most helpful strategies I have found for being able to communicate my own emotions when the words can be so hard to find, is to literally describe what I am thinking, rather than to try to name the emotion. I am much more familiar with my thinking self (my literal thoughts) than my feeling self (my emotions). I might say, “I feel like I can’t get anything right,” which will more concretely convey my emotional state to a neurotypical person, and to myself, than if I were to try to use more vague terms like helplessness or hopelessness. Or, in another instance, I might say, “I feel like I just walked into a pitch-black room and can’t find the light switch,” in order to communicate deep confusion, fear, or paralysis.
Another reason for explicitly communicating emotions is to give strong emotions an external outlet and avoid the damaging effects of over-internalization.
Someone with ASD may be intimately familiar with the potentially damaging effects of internalizing emotions. Internalization is a common coping mechanism for people with autism, who may not naturally develop other tools for recognizing, channeling, and expressing strong emotions. But keeping your feelings “bottled up inside,” rather than letting them out, done over time and with consistency, can literally cause psychological and physiological damage to your brain and body.
I am often thrown by what I perceive to be emotional outbursts from people around me, when in reality these are often an entirely appropriate externalization of strong emotions that would do more damage, and last longer, if kept inside. If you have ever held a grudge, you know it can grow worse over time if not addressed via mutual communication. There is, of course, a balance—neurotypical people learn how to temper their own emotions so as not to rant and rave all over the place, and plenty of people who are not on the autism spectrum also internalize emotions more than might be considered psychologically healthy. There are also plenty of people with ASD who experience no issues with internalization and are quite adept at expressing any and every emotion as it comes along.
Personally, though, I internalize to the extreme. Not just emotions—everything. Someone is not satisfied with the quality of my work or the outcome of my efforts? It is my fault for not making sure I understood the direction or intentions clearly enough. (Likely partly true, but not the whole truth.) Someone is in a car accident within my visual field? Why didn’t I see it about to happen and scream or shout or wave my arms to stop them? (Likely would have made no difference at all, and nothing about the accident is my fault, but that doesn’t stop me from internalizing.)
If this sounds familiar, there is more on the tendency for internalization, how ASD traits can make it much worse, and some specific strategies for dealing with it in the Troubleshooting and Self-Care Strategies in chapter 7 of this book. For now, I want to share an example from my life to illustrate the importance of learning how to effectively use communication to externalize strong emotions.
When I was in high school, I developed a physiological condition that corresponded precisely to the times when I felt strongly about something, but instead of voicing it out loud, I swallowed it down and internalized it. After years of having done this since childhood, my body had begun to respond with a painful acid reflux. I developed fairly severe heartburn at the age of fifteen. It even started happening when I knew the answer to a question that a teacher asked during class, and yet I didn’t volunteer to respond, paralyzed at the prospect of hearing my own voice out loud in a crowded classroom, afraid I might in fact be wrong, afraid classmates would think of me as a show-off or know-it-all.
It was my mother, always conscious of the body-mind connection, who helped me see that the heartburn and the internalization might be connected. It took several years, but I slowly learned how to speak up when I needed to, recognizing which situations more urgently needed my voice than others, and how I could express myself in a constructive way, and as a result, the acid reflux slowly receded. Since then, the condition has resurfaced only a handful of times, always sparked by an instance of over-internalization.
Communication for Collaboration
Chemicals like serotonin and oxytocin do more than make a person feel good, they pave the neural roadways for other beneficial chemicals that produce other beneficial feelings and actions—a sense of purpose, a sense of community, a sense of courage, honor, duty, passion, love, and selflessness. These feelings can be powerful motivators for human behavior and contribute greatly to a sense of overall well-being.
Communicating in order to collaborate with others looks a lot like the “information creation” communication we discussed earlier. But there are distinct elements to collaborative communication that set it apart. In the case of collaboration, you are not just creating information, like a mutually agreeable Terms and Conditions document or the best time to go to the pharmacy. The stakes are higher—you have multiple deliverables to accomplish, multiple steps to complete, multiple perspectives and experiences and ideas and opinions to incorporate, and potentially even multiple cultures, personalities, and communication styles to account for.
This is where you will want to develop skills in professional relationship building and in conducting or participating in meetings. I discuss collaborative communication strategies more deeply in chapters 3 and 4.
WRITTEN COMMUNICATION VERSUS IN-PERSON COMMUNICATION
Throughout my college years, I never perceived any identifiable differences between written communication—texts, emails, books—and in-person verbal communication such as phone calls, talking in-person, seeing live speakers, and so on. In my mind, communication was communication, whatever the method, and its sole purpose was to convey information. Why would it make a difference whether the information was conveyed via email or in-person conversation? But it does make a difference—a big one. We’ll get there in a minute.
To me, written communication was preferable, because it limited the potential for confusion and distracting emotions. It was clear and precise, much easier to both express and understand. I thought this was true for most people, unless they liked to talk or were naturally extroverted. Little did I know that most people, unlike myself, gleaned a lot of information from body language and vocal inflection during in-person interactions. It is impossible to read body language in an email. It is very difficult to infer vocal inflection from a text. Even if you have known someone for years, misunderstanding and miscommunication still happens all the time, more often than not (for most people) in writing, rather than in conversation.
Two-Way versus One-Way Communication
Except perhaps for texting or instant messaging, which are very short-form and conducted on platforms designed to facilitate a close approximation of in-person conversation, written communication is a one-way communication flow, whereas in-person communication is usually a two-way flow.
What does this mean? Think of the last time you wrote an email. Likely, it included several separate but related points of information, all of which you conveyed simultaneously to
someone else. That person is then expected to read all (or most, or sometimes only half, as I have learned) of your words, and then formulate their equally one-way email back to you, adding their own thoughts or questions. This can take anywhere from a few minutes, if someone happens to be checking and responding to emails right then, to a few days (or weeks). Imagine you were to have the same conversation in-person, or even over the phone. Would you have been able to “read” your entire email out loud to them, making three or four separate points, without the other person responding? No. You would cover one of the points, then the other person would add their thoughts related to that first point. Then you would both move to the second point, and so forth. You might even find that after they’ve added their perspective to your first point, your second and third points become irrelevant, or change in a significant way to reflect the new information.
To an ASD brain, which may take longer to process and communicate thoughts than a non-ASD brain, the pace of two-way communication can at times be overwhelming. For example, I experience a minor audio-processing delay, because I often have to repeat in my own head what I heard someone say before I can actually “hear” and process what they said. This is a common tactic employed by people with ASD in order to participate fully in verbal communication. With thirty-plus years of practice, I have learned how to do this very quickly, almost instantaneously, but it can still interfere with the normal flow of two-way conversation, especially if the topic is confusing or emotional for me.
There are many other reasons why an ASD-brain may experience difficulty with two-way communication, including an inability to listen and form thoughts at the same time (neurotypical brains have difficulty with this, too, which is why people must learn how to “actively listen”), a tendency to be distracted by extraneous details (I can see a piece of white fluff on her shoulder flitting up and down while she is talking to me and it is driving me insane), and simple sensory overload (she is talking to me but the air conditioner is making oddly-timed plunking noises and there is another conversation happening right next to us and I am quickly becoming overwhelmed by too many sounds all at once).
You can see how someone with ASD might prefer one-way communication to the more overwhelming experience of two-way communication. And in many cases, such as in long-form communication like research papers, books, reports, or proposals, one-way written communication is much clearer and easier to understand. But for most neurotypical people, reading a long email about something that could be resolved quickly in conversation can be excruciating.
How can you tell if something should really be communicated in person? There are several red flags you can look for before you hit the “send” button on an email instead.
- 1. Timeliness. Does the person on the other end of this email need to know this information sooner rather than later? Or do you need information back from them immediately? You can still send the email with one of those “high importance” markers, but take into account just how quickly they/you need the information before you put it in an email rather than placing a phone call.
- Understand that, if you are requesting information from someone else, by putting your request in an email, rather than picking up the phone and calling someone on the spot, you’re forfeiting the expectation of an immediate response. An urgent voice mail can be followed up with an urgent email, referencing that you called. But an urgent email can’t be followed up (politely) with an urgent call until at least a few hours after the email has been sent, and even then, the situation would have to be dire. Putting your request into email form implies that you don’t need the information until at least the next day.
- 2. Length. If your email is turning into a dissertation—a.k.a. if it takes you more than, say, ten minutes to compose your email—you might need to put it aside into a journal or speaking notes for yourself, and cut your email down to just a request to meet with the person to discuss the topic at hand. If you find yourself going into a lot of details, asking a lot of questions, using a lot of explanatory language, describing your thought process or justifying your actions, then the person you are writing to has a right to respond to your communication in real time, rather than read several pages while sitting alone at their desk. You—if you are an analytical thinker or have ASD—also have a right, however, to get your thoughts out the way that works best for you, so write them all down if you must, and bring them with you to the meeting so you can refer to them during the two-way conversation. Later in this section, under “Combination Strategies,” is a more in-depth exploration of how to do this effectively.
- 3. Opinions and Assumptions. Are you taking any license in your email/written communication—assuming things you are not 100 percent sure about, or expressing personal opinions? These are often better received in a two-way environment, where your counterpart can immediately course-correct your train of thought if your assumption is wrong, question further to legitimize your opinion, and/or add their own opinions.
- 4. Emotions. We will get into this in a bit more detail below, but in general, emotions are best kept out of written communications, because neurotypical brains glean so much emotional information from things like body language and vocal inflection. Your own intentions can become lost and muddled if the person reading your communication is attributing the wrong emotional state to your words. Even though emotions can be overwhelming, and two-way communication can be overwhelming, and putting them together is doubly overwhelming, the long-term benefit far outweighs the temporary strife. There are many points throughout the rest of this book where I will lay out specific examples of how an ASD brain can tackle emotional communication with NTs in both written and in-person form.
Here is an example from my personal life of how one-sided communication can go awry very quickly, and a strategy for mitigating the potential damage:
Early in my romantic relationship with Larry, we would have what appeared to me to be a confusing or negative interaction, often quite brief, that would induce hours of mental gymnastics as I tried to unravel what had gone wrong. I was also formulating my own thoughts about what I should have said, or wanted to say now that I couldn’t think of it in the moment, until after I had been able to process his words more fully in the quiet of my own mind. To me, our in-person two-way interaction had been much more of a one-way interaction, because his neurotypical brain had communicated toward me in real time, while my ASD brain was not able to reciprocate a two-way response. Often when this happened, it would result in my sending Larry an email, hours later, sometimes in the middle of the work day, with what constituted my two-way response back to his one-way communication from earlier in the day. Imagine getting an email, seemingly out of the blue, about something that happened hours ago that you had already forgotten, with an entirely one-sided response to what you had said earlier that you might not even really remember saying. Frustrating, yes? But for me, it felt like the natural next step in the interaction. He’d gotten his thoughts out about whatever particular topic, and now it was my turn.
Neurotypical communication does not work like that. Before learning more about my communication style, Larry may have assumed that our earlier in-person interaction was as two-way as it was going to get, and to suddenly get a retroactive one-way communication that changed that was jarring and ineffective.
Today, we have both learned several strategies to address the gap in our communication styles. Larry understands that, in the heat of the moment, I might not be able to say what I need to or intend to convey in real time, so he tries to give me space to process and respond. I have learned that some negative interactions are not a big deal, and don’t require analysis or fixing, so it’s better to just let them go. If something particularly sticky comes up, I can still write an email with my longer-form thoughts, but I put “journal” in the subject line before I send it to Larry, so that Larry knows this is an intentionally one-sided journaling of my thoughts, which I want to share with him, but that I don’t expect an immediate response from him. These missives are more therapeutic for me than they are intended to actually continue the conversation.
Another subtle way that in-person communication differs from written communication is emotional reciprocity, inferred from body language and tone of voice. Now that I have learned about the most common forms of body language and vocal inflection, explored later in this chapter, I can glean much more from my in-person encounters by actively reading body language and interpreting tone while listening to the person’s words at the same time. It takes a lot of conscious effort, but the results are well worth it.
For a neurotypical brain, for example, someone crossing their arms over their chest generally communicates defensiveness, frustration, confusion, and in some cases, the beginnings of anger. Exactly which of these emotions is indicated will depend on the person and the context. For example, I once had a boss who crossed his arms when he was confused and thinking deeply about what to say next. Often the gesture was accompanied by a furrowed brow or drawing in of his eyebrows. I learned this over the course of many interactions, observing and noting the specific ways in which he used body language (probably unconsciously most of the time) to convey information about his mental and emotional state.
Another person might cross their arms when they feel under attack, because your words are striking on a deeper level than you perhaps intended. Interpreting body language manually will take a lot of practice—both to learn the quirks of specific people, and the larger commonalities of body language in your culture. But you can see how realizing, in real time, that the person you are communicating with might be becoming confused or defensive can (and should) change the way you approach the moment.
When my boss crossed his arms, I learned to finish my current thought and wait, so he had time to process whatever he was confused about. I braced myself for probing questions or pushback. Once he had worked through it, he would uncross his arms, and the conversation would continue. Such immediate emotional reciprocity would be impossible over email.
I go into more detail about various common forms of body language and what they generally mean, in chapter 2. But even if you don’t know exactly what someone’s body language means, you can recognize when something is amiss and change your interaction to match. “Does that make sense?” is something you might ask to determine whether someone is confused. Or you might pause and say, “What do you think?” to give the other person a chance to respond.
Earlier, I mentioned that I would share some specific examples and strategies for combining written and in-person communication to ease the interaction between an ASD-brain and a neurotypical brain.
The key here is to recognize that while a neurotypical brain generally experiences in-person communication as two-way, and written communication as one-way, an ASD brain might feel differently. For me, most communication, whether spoken or written, feels one-way. I find it very challenging both to process input and formulate and execute a response in real time. This is why, before heading to someone’s desk to chat, I prepare several pre-mapped pathways for where the conversation might lead, and responses I have already vetted. I share more of these specific strategies throughout this book.
Occasionally, when I know the in-person interaction will be emotionally taxing, I use a relatively unorthodox yet highly effective combination of both written and in-person communication, to participate in the way I need to.
My workload had become too overwhelming.
This was difficult for me to recognize and admit, given how much I internalize and take responsibility for everything. I asked myself all the usual questions: Were my priorities not aligned properly? Was I not using my time effectively? Was my work pace too slow? But the fact was, I simply did not have enough work hours—or hours, period—in the day to complete what needed to be done.
I had gotten into this situation mostly due to a mismatch of planning and execution. The way I had planned for things to go (hiring staff and other resource support, the pace at which growth would take place, etc.) was not the way that they were going in reality, and it was time to reassess the original plan and course-correct.
But how do you walk into your boss’s office and say, “I have too much work to do”? That’s not something most bosses will appreciate hearing. Everyone has too much work to do, right? Some people may have the kind of relationship with their manager that would allow for it, but I knew I didn’t. I needed to put together solid evidence, identify key problems that were blocking progress, and lay out vetted, strategic solutions he could evaluate.
I also knew that, because I can’t naturally regulate my own body language or tone of voice, if I walked into my boss’s office and launched into a long-winded explanation of all the evidence that had led me to the conclusion that my workload was too much, it would come across like a string of excuses. I needed to present some of my argument in written form, to avoid the miscommunication, and the inevitable pushback, that would follow.
So, I wrote out my key thoughts in advance and cut them down to a single page of short bullet points.
I made sure that no more than half-to-three-quarters of my one-pager focused on the fact-based “problems,” and the rest laid out, in bullet-point form, the solutions I had already identified. A solutions-focused conversation is much easier (for me, and I think for many people, ASD or no) to have in person than a problems-focused conversation. For one, the overall emotional tone of a solutions-based conversation is positive and constructive, which allows for smoother interaction all around, rather than the more negative overtone of a problems-focused conversation.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE: WRITTEN AND VERBAL COMMUNICATION
In order for a combination written/verbal communication strategy like this to work, the written portion must be exceedingly brief and to the point. Some emotional expression in the written portion is okay, but only to illustrate the importance and passion that you attribute to the subject. Avoid derisive or cutting language, attributing blame, or sarcasm in the written portion of your problem identification, as these devices can cause defenses to go up in your reader.
So instead of walking into my boss’s office and saying, “I have too much work to do,” I was able to walk in and say, “I have run into some issues that are impeding progress toward our goals. I know this is a little unusual, but I’ve laid out some key thoughts in this one-pager, which I’d like for you to take a minute to read before we talk them through, and then I want to focus on the potential solutions and how we can execute a better strategy.” I then handed my boss the written document and retained a copy myself, so we could both sit in the room together reading the document. The fact that I plainly acknowledged, when I handed him the paper, that this was a little out of the ordinary, made things less awkward. The fact that I also looked down at my own paper and read, rather than watch him while he read, helped remove any time pressure he might have felt as a neurotypical person, “rudely” reading a document rather than talking directly to the person in front of him.
In the end, the single page of written, one-way communication from me served its purpose beautifully, putting my voice into the room in a way that best suited my communication style, and empowering both of our voices to then come together and address the positive, forward momentum of solutions-building in a subsequent two-way interaction.
This strategy worked well for me in this case, but there are situations where it might not work as well.
For one thing, the other person in the equation needs to be at least partially receptive to the use of uncommon or unorthodox communication methods, and demonstrate at least a somewhat individualized approach in their interactions with other people. In the above instance, my boss was a highly analytical thinker himself, and could probably relate personally on some level with my need to share logically organized thoughts in a written form. It also helps, I think, that an office environment already lends itself to the use of memos and emails and other forms of written communication that act as precursors to in-person communication. But as the world grows ever more digital, there is likely a way to apply at least part of this strategy in any kind of workplace.
THE DREADED SMALL TALK Why Is It Important?
We all know it. Most of us hate it. And yet we do it. Why? There are, in fact, many reasons that small talk is an important part of human communication:
- 1. It establishes common ground. People use small talk to gauge, on a safe, superficial level, where the other person is at emotionally and mentally. Most of the time, you will find that the person you are interacting with is close enough to your wavelength that you can move fairly quickly onto more substantive topics. It is essential, however, if you want to have a productive conversation, to take a minute or several to establish this common ground. If someone was just at a funeral, or had a big fight with their spouse, their mind might be elsewhere. Without some innocent small talk to clear the air or reset that person’s mind toward the matter at hand, they might spend your entire conversation being mentally distracted or emotionally distant. They likely won’t share with you exactly what did happen that morning, but by reading body language and tone of voice as you talk about the weather or ask about their weekend, you can gauge whether they are energetic or drained, engaged or preoccupied, motivated or unmotivated, and alter the remainder of your interaction in order to match or account for the other person’s emotional and mental state. Or just come back later!
- 2. It gives you a chance to “warm up.” Most people resist jumping from one state to another too quickly, or from one topic to another without transition. Someone just coming out of a meeting that was about an entirely different subject than your meeting is going to be, or someone you run into on the street or in the office pantry, is likely to benefit from a minute or two of “warming up” to your presence and your topic of conversation. Mentally, they are transitioning from a previous state into a new one. In the back of their mind they may be wrapping up thoughts from their previous interaction, even on a subconscious level, while they engage in surface-level chitchat. You can think of it like taking a minute to clear off a section of your desk in order to work more efficiently, or filing away notes from one meeting before going to the next one.
- 3. It builds implicit emotional connection. One of the reasons that I always hated small talk was my perception that nobody asking me lightly how I was that day or what I did that weekend, really and truly wanted to know. I always felt forced to give a static, superficial answer, no matter how I was feeling or what I had done. What I failed to recognize was that it mattered very little what I actually said; more important was the way I said it. If I said my weekend was great, but sighed and shrugged my shoulders while I said it, the other person would intuit that maybe it hadn’t been so great and that I didn’t feel much like sharing beyond that in the moment, and they might give me a few more minutes of light talk to clear the air a bit more before moving gently into the topic at hand. On the contrary, if I said my weekend was great, with enthusiasm and volume in my voice, leaning forward in my chair and making eye contact, the other person might feel free to ask for more details about what I did that was so great, so they could share in my success and reciprocate my enthusiasm. I have never experienced the emotional connection that a neurotypical brain gains from superficial interaction like this. But I recognized the value in making the other person feel emotionally recognized, validated, and included. By engaging someone in small talk before diving into the meat of your conversation, you are essentially letting that person know that you care about their well-being (even if you don’t have time to hear their life story right now), and that if ever there was something major bothering them or something crazy going on in their life, you would be understanding and accommodating.
How to Use Small Talk Effectively
If you think of small talk as one of many tools at your disposal for interacting productively with the world, it should become much less of a burdensome mystery. You won’t need to use small talk in every situation, and you needn’t let it go on too long or take you past your comfort zone. Below are some of the more concrete things I have learned about small talk that might be helpful as you learn your own strategies for success.
In What Situations?
You needn’t use small talk in every situation. There are certain settings, certain types of people, and certain circumstances in which small talk can be useful, and there are those where it’s unnecessary. In general, I have found small talk to be very useful in the following situations:
- Work (meetings, passing in the hallway, getting food in the shared pantry, eating lunch in a shared cafeteria space)
- Work-related social events (holiday parties, happy hours, etc.)
- Public transportation (bus, train, etc.)
- Public waiting areas (doctors’ offices, Department of Motor Vehicles, etc.)
- Other public institutions (grocery stores, restaurants, local playgrounds, post office, etc.)
- School functions (school plays/shows, field trips, graduations/assemblies, etc.)
- House parties (gathering at a friend’s home—or your own—with other people of varying familiarity)
Types of People
- Strangers (people you have never met before who engage you in a public setting)
- Acquaintances (other parents from your kid’s school, a friend of a friend, etc.)
- Colleagues (until perhaps you have built enough of a relationship with a colleague to consider them a friend)
- Distant relatives (cousins you see every few years or folks you only interact with at family reunions, etc.)
- Upon first seeing or speaking with an acquaintance or distant relative again after time apart
- When trying to determine the purpose or intention behind a stranger’s interaction (do they need directions, do they just need someone to talk to, do they in fact have ill intent, are they just being friendly, did something about you or what you were doing bring up an intense interest or need to connect, etc.)
- When trying to establish a baseline emotional connection with a service provider from whom you need a particular service (chatting with the waiter to build emotional reciprocity and cache that you may need to use later when your toddler makes an inconceivable mess with his ketchup—my husband is much better at this one than I ever will be)
And, in general, I have found that small talk is usually not as necessary with the following:
- A close family member’s or friend’s home (without the presence of any unfamiliar people)
Types of People
- Close family (family members you live with or have known most of your life, etc.)
- Close friends
- Friends of close friends with whom you have become familiar
- Friends you have known for a long time, regardless of “closeness”
- People you share other common ground with and have known in the context of that common ground for a long time. The best example I have of this is the few fellow parents from my son’s school with whom I have interacted on many occasions throughout the course of a school year, and with whom I have had many in-depth conversations about various topics. I would not necessarily consider them to be “friends” yet, but we have become friendly enough, and we have enough common ground in our children’s experiences that we can often skip the small talk portion at the beginning of an interaction and jump right into kid- or school-related topics.
- Children—whether your own or someone else’s—rarely require small talk, as they are still learning the “social graces” themselves, and tend to favor more direct conversation as they take in new details about the world around them.
- Interacting with close family members while on vacation or visiting. This will often require a different kind of small talk in the beginning as you first settle into your visit, more like catching up on the lives you have lived away from each other for the past year, or however long it has been, and tends to be much easier to tackle spontaneously because there is more room for you to talk about whatever you wish in this context.
- At a gathering of close friends, like a hobby meet-up group (book club, wine club, etc.) or a night out together (drinks, movie, etc.)
- Interacting directly with children, your own or others, wherever that might take place: at home, at a park, at school, etc.
For the most part, the above bullets lay out a basic structure: Small talk is most useful when interacting with people who are less familiar to you, and becomes less useful as you get to know a person more deeply. Your brain (and that person’s) will have built enough of a pathway and foundation of emotional connection that the small talk becomes unnecessary.
Creating a Quick-Reference Mental “File” for People Important to You
That said, one of the reasons that the specific tool of small talk may not be needed when you are interacting with someone you have built emotional common ground with already is that you will be expected to notice, more easily than you would when interacting with a stranger, how that person is feeling. In neurotypical relationships (friends, colleagues, partners), people who know each other fairly well are expected to be able to gauge the main underlying emotions of the other person without need of a superficial small talk warm-up.
In my experience with an ASD brain, however, it can be hard to parse out the unspoken emotional landscape of another person while I am also actively engaged in conversation (as opposed to just lightly returning surface-level small talk). While using small talk still takes more conscious effort for me than most people, it does allow me the mental space to actively read body language and tone of voice, cues I may miss if more of my brain space is taken up by the actual content of a substantive conversation. It was for this reason, and also because of my inability to naturally adapt different skills to different contexts (something I will get to in more detail later), that up through my midtwenties, I would continue the use of small talk far longer into the cultivation of a relationship than a neurotypical person would have. Often, people told me I came across as too formal, or people would appear confused or thrown off by my asking seemingly inane questions upon a third or fourth meeting—trying to make small talk when it was no longer necessary.
Now I have learned how to use a form of “small talk 2.0,” where I still give myself a chance to read and react to a familiar person emotionally, without appearing to be stuck in an overly formal or superficial mode. Instead of engaging a friend or acquaintance about something superficial like the weather when I first see them again after some time apart, I keep a mental file of specific things that interest that person or that are happening in that person’s life, so I can engage them about something more substantive to their life, while retaining enough brainpower to read and interpret body language and vocal cues. I might ask one of my husband’s friends about a movie I know they just saw, or I might engage a fellow parent about an event that I know is coming up at our kids’ school. This gives me the minute or so that I need to actively read their tone of voice and nonverbal cues to determine, in general, if they are in an emotionally positive, negative, or neutral place, if they are in a hurry to get somewhere, or if they are feeling friendly or preoccupied. And then I am more prepared to react and respond to them appropriately as our conversation might shift into deeper waters.
It can be very helpful to spend a little bit of your own free time creating “quick-reference mental files” for the people in your life who you are closest to in order to facilitate this ability to use “small talk 2.0” as a tool for giving yourself time to read the other person’s emotional cues at the beginning of your next interaction. When I learn something new about a person I have known for a while—like their sibling has chronic asthma, or they are going on a trip to another country next month, or they have a specific hobby or extracurricular they engage in like kayaking or volunteering at their church—I take a moment to consciously file this information away for future use. The next time I see them, I am then empowered to ask how their trip went, how their sibling is doing, or whether they’ve been kayaking recently, or even just what they like most about kayaking, as a form of more engaged small talk that can lead quickly into other subjects of interest for us both. This also has the obvious benefit of making people feel known and remembered, ensuring they will think of you fondly in the future.
There is no need to catalog and mentally file every single thing you learn about every person you meet—don’t go down that rabbit hole. Just choose a few things about a person that perhaps also hold a certain level of interest for you, or perhaps that you truly don’t understand (why there are so many people who love to cook is still a mystery to me), so that you can remember them more easily and fall into conversation when you meet again.
Because small talk is a tool people use to warm up or clear the air or establish common ground, it need not go on forever.
In general, a few minutes of small talk is all you need before you can actively shift the conversation to the next level. Sometimes, especially if I am interacting with a colleague at work whom I know well, or someone who has a similarly productivity-focused mindset, I can get away with only about sixty seconds of back-and-forth small talk before diving into the forward motion. Other times, regardless of how well I might know a person, one or both of us may need up to five minutes to really clear our minds and set an emotionally level playing field. Any more than five minutes, however, and I start to get antsy.
If you find yourself in a situation where the small talk seems to be going on for ages, you may have slipped past the use of small talk as a tool and entered into idle conversation that may or may not be productive for you. The other person might just need to get some things off their chest, or be starving for interaction after being alone all day, or might be genuinely interested in hearing more about your life than you are particularly interested or inclined to share. It is not considered impolite, in general, to gently extricate yourself from these situations or move the conversation into the realm of productivity.
There are times when people will engage in small talk just in passing, as a way to build emotional reciprocity with another person, rather than as a tool for warming up to more substantive conversation.
After engaging for a few minutes in this type of casual conversation, here are some specific strategies I have found most useful in removing myself, politely, from passing small talk that has gone on for too long:
If at work:
- Apologize and say you have to run to a meeting, or that you are late for your next call.
- If you don’t in fact have a meeting to get to right at that moment, this is still a perfectly acceptable white lie to tell—even if it’s not specifically a meeting you are getting to, you undoubtedly have enough work to do that the intention of “getting back to work” trumps exactly how you say you are doing it.
- Use a softener as you leave, like “talk more later” or “good luck,” or something short and polite that acknowledges the context the other person just shared with you, but makes it clear that these are your last words for now.
- AVOID saying anything more directly along the lines of “I have to get back to work,” even if that is the truth, because this type of language—unless you know someone well enough that you can spin it as a joke by making it seem like a small inconvenience—inevitably carries with it an implication (intentional or not) that the other person is (a) purposely keeping you from your work, and (b) not getting back to their own work, both of which are not generally helpful or socially acceptable implications to make in the workplace, even if true.
If in a social setting:
- Meeting someone on the street and engaging in small talk as you pass.
- Again, apologize and say that you are running late for something. You might even be truthful here, letting the person know that you are in fact running late picking up your kid from school, or running late to an appointment, or running late to get to the grocery store to pick up what you need for dinner that night, even if you aren’t exactly running “late” yet. If you are not in fact running late for anything but just want to get out of the conversation, avoid making up a specific excuse beyond “Sorry, I’m running late, but we’ll talk soon!” Usually, if you do this while you start to walk away, the other person will understand and not badger you.
- Meeting someone in a store or park or other public place where you are “stuck” for a while (not simply walking by on your way to somewhere else).
- It is often acceptable to turn the need to exit small talk into something that appears as a courtesy to the other person, such as “Well, I’ll let you get back to your shopping.” An NT person, reading between the lines, will know that you are done talking and ready to move on with your own shopping, and recognize that you politely acknowledged their needs rather than making it only about your own. You can use this in a variety of settings, such as at the playground when you run into another parent from your kid’s school: “Well, I’ll let you get back to your kid.” This way, you don’t have to try to run out of the store or park in order to get away, you can just move on to the next aisle or go engage more fully with your own kid for a few minutes.
- Meeting someone while on public transit.
- This is perhaps the trickiest of casual social settings in which to gracefully exit small talk. It’s highly inconvenient to make up the excuse that “This is my stop,” when it really isn’t, and get off the train or bus at the wrong stop just to get away from casual interaction with an acquaintance. (I have done this. Trust me, you really don’t need to.) Often, you might have to just grit your teeth and sit it out. What I will do, if I have the energy in these situations, is use the time as an excuse to really try to get to know the person better, and move the conversation as quickly as possible beyond the small-talk stage and into a deeper connection. I will try to find a mutually invigorating topic that we both seem to enjoy, like a particular hobby or TV show or current event. This helps me move to a place where I am more comfortable interacting—talking about something that interests me and the other person—rather than trying to come up with polite surface-level things to say for the rest of the bus ride.
- If you had been counting on your commute for some quiet alone time with your book or music or your own thoughts, this can be difficult to give up. If you can, remember to block off another time not too long afterward to give yourself a few “me” minutes back. Sometimes I will find a coffee shop or even just a bench on the sidewalk to sit by myself for a few minutes and listen to music or do a little bit of what I had intended to do with my commute time, so that I can still be rejuvenated even though my plans had to change.
There are also socially acceptable ways for moving a conversation out of the small talk phase and into the content phase. Sometimes this is in fact the most appropriate thing to do, like at the start of a meeting, when small talk is eating into the short window you have.
If at work:
- After allowing for up to five minutes of small talk, you can use nonverbal cues to indicate that you are ready to move the conversation along. These might include shifting in your chair and inhaling deeply, as if you are gently waking your body up and getting it ready to engage in a more challenging activity; picking up your pen and getting it ready to start taking notes on your notepad; or moving to the front edge of your chair and taking up more space with your arms or elbows on the table in front of you, as if to indicate you’ll be using the table to support you in the next, more taxing part of the conversation.
- After engaging in one or more nonverbal tactics, if the small talk still has not shifted into substantive conversation, you can start to employ gentle verbal cues, such as truncated responses. Instead of responding with apparent interest and asking for more details about their plans for the weekend, nod politely and say, succinctly, “Right.” Or “Cool.” Or “Uh-huh.”
- If you do this, be sure to use a FLAT monotone to avoid inadvertently communicating any overt annoyance, sarcasm, or actual disinterest.
- After employing at least one of the above subtler cues, it is acceptable to directly move the conversation into the business of the meeting by gently interrupting the flow (but don’t cut someone off in midsentence!) to say something like, “Okay, so, to be respectful of everyone’s time, let’s start talking about X” or “All right, should we go ahead and get started?”
- These kinds of direct shifts are best said slowly, with a second or two pause between words, with obvious room for the other person/people in the room to register that a shift is being made and to allow enough space for someone to object, if they really want to.
- If you do this at more than one meeting, you may gain a reputation, as I have, for being someone who likes to “get down to business”—but this is not necessarily a bad thing, and may in fact gain you some reprieve in having to engage in longer small-talk phases in the future. Win-win!
Subjects to Keep in Your Back Pocket
It can be extremely helpful, especially when in a setting where the need for small talk can come up at any random unpredictable time, to keep a few key, relevant, interesting small-talk subjects “in your back pocket,” to pull out on short notice.
This is different from the “quick-reference mental files” you might maintain for specific people who are closer to you. These back-pocket small-talk subjects are your own personal file to pull out when you need to engage in small talk with someone who is less familiar. These are topics that interest you, to some degree, and that are also socially acceptable as topics for light, superficial conversation.
Some good options include:
Sports. If you are an avid sports fan or follow one or a few particular sports or teams closely.
Weekend Plans. If you happen to have some specific plans coming up, like a movie you are planning to see, or a local carnival you are taking your kids to, keep them in mind to bring up as a positive “I’m doing something fun this weekend, how about you?” kind of small talk option.
- This also works in short-term past tense: If you went somewhere cool or did something noteworthy last weekend, you can use that as a topic for small talk that engages the other person in what they did last weekend or what they are planning to do this coming weekend. But don’t reach back too far—this works best if it’s just one weekend prior, not something cool you did last month or last year.
Kids. There was a time, perhaps, when (especially as a woman), actively bringing up kids or family life in the workplace was not the best idea. And I am sure, unfortunately, that there are still work situations where this remains the case. For the most part, however, in the majority of working environments today, what your kid/s have been doing recently, or a funny, quick, recent story about them, can be a very safe, engaging, surface-level topic for small talk, especially with coworkers who are also parents.
Movies / TV Shows / Books. If you don’t watch any TV or haven’t seen a recent movie in years (or you read the same books over and over again… Harry Potter, anyone?), then this is not the best casual subject matter for you. But if you have seen a movie or read a book that has come out in the last year, or watched a currently running TV show, you can easily create a minute or so of small talk by asking the other person if they’ve seen/read it, and commiserating together over what you each thought of it. Even if they haven’t seen the show/movie or read the book, you can still recount a particularly funny or engaging moment from the content that you think the other person might like. Be careful, though, not to go into too much detail, and to keep your brief retelling to no more than sixty seconds—you’re just offering a glimpse of content, not recounting the entire plot line.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, and the “why” of small talk, I want to share some of the fundamental aspects of two-way conversation flow that I have found hugely helpful in facilitating in-person, real-time communication with a largely neurotypical world. These tactics are relevant in both small talk and in “longer” talk—any kind of verbal interaction with another person.
Remember the example I shared in an earlier section of Larry and I walking down the street, and me failing to recognize opportunities for casual interaction in order to build implicit emotional connection? One of the issues that arises from not realizing this use of communication, nor therefore having much practice in using it, is that I never learned, the way neurotypical people do, the best way to simply “make conversation.” I can talk effusively about subjects of shared interest—Harry Potter, international peace development efforts, or multicultural communication. But even then I struggle to find a natural balance in conversation that creates a “flow” between me and the other person/people, rather than one or the other of us doing all the talking. And I find it even harder to strike the right balance about more surface-level, banal topics.
“Making a Sandwich”
One way you can approach establishing and maintaining effective conversational flow is by thinking of it as if you are “making a sandwich” together with the other person, in a verbal sense. Another phrase used to describe this strategy is “give-and-take.”
Daniel Wendler first introduced me to this concept in his book Level Up Your Social Life
. At the beginning of the conversation, perhaps the person you are interacting with (metaphorically) supplies the first slice of bread. To reciprocate, you then spread on the mayonnaise. But that’s it. Leave it at the mayonnaise. That gives the other person room to then put on a piece of cheese. Then you put on a piece of ham. They put on a piece of lettuce, and so forth (imagine you are both wearing latex gloves, if this helps you accept the metaphor). Each of you is adding a short, substantive, useful thought, observation, question, idea, or piece of information to the “sandwich”—the conversation.2
Making a sandwich together wouldn’t work if you just stood and watched the other person making the whole sandwich—that’s not making it together, that’s just you being present while the other person does all the work. And vice versa—if you start making the sandwich your own way, and don’t allow room for the other person to add in their lettuce and meat in between yours, you are no longer flowing together. A conversation can feel very one-sided if one person is doing all the talking, and the other person is just standing there.
One key strategy is to find things that you feel are genuinely worth contributing to what you might consider an otherwise mundane or unnecessary conversation. Remember, it’s not actually unnecessary—it’s producing feel-good chemicals in the brain of the person you are interacting with, and if you go along, it will do the same in your brain after a while. If you genuinely can’t think of something you would like to add, ask a question to solicit more information from the other person. Make sure your question is relevant, not too probing, and not something that you already know about the person. It’s okay to take a little time selecting the right slice of ham to add to the sandwich. You are trying to make a quality sandwich, not just throw something together.
Another key is remembering that you are making the sandwich together—you don’t need to start piling on all the meat and cheese and lettuce in order to fill the space, going into tremendous detail. Restrict yourself to one piece at a time, letting the other person add their own piece after yours. This helps you keep to a relatively normal “flow” or pace of conversation, which automatically facilitates two-way interaction.
Here is an example from my work life of when I consciously used this strategy to comfortably make conversation with a colleague:
I was standing at the sink in the office pantry, rinsing the cherries I had planned to eat along with a Babybel Cheese for an afternoon snack.
It was a Monday, so I already knew that a good topic for casual office conversation was what I or the other person did over the past weekend. I’d already thought through a few light, fun things that I might share from my weekend, if needed.
Lo and behold, in walked a colleague, looking to make his 2:30 p.m. cup of coffee on the shared Keurig machine.
“Hi, Sarah,” he said brightly.
“Hi, Craig,” I replied, turning slightly from my position at the sink in order to make brief, acknowledging eye contact. He returned the smile and then busied himself looking for the flavor of coffee he wanted to make.
“Have a good weekend?” he asked as he searched.
I was ready for the question, and knew that if he hadn’t asked it within the next twenty seconds, I would have prompted him the same way, to promote a comfortable atmosphere and avoid him thinking I was standoffish or feeling awkward about the silence. Silence doesn’t bother me, but I know it bothers a lot of other people.
“Yeah, it was nice,” I started to respond, deliberately pausing for two seconds to make it appear as if I were just coming up with my response, rather than having thought it out previously. “We took my son to the Central Park Zoo! Our first time there.” I purposely stopped there, although I had more details prepared in case Craig showed signs of wanting to move the conversation further down that path by asking questions.
“Oh, excellent,” Craig responded, appropriately pleased at the idea of a child having fun at a zoo. “How old is your son?” he asked.
“He’s three,” I said, smiling. I knew Craig was now forming a mental picture of a three-year-old jumping around at the zoo. Again I stopped, because he only asked about my son’s age and nothing else, though depending on his next response, I might offer other information.
“Oh, great age for the zoo,” Craig said, fitting his chosen coffee pod into the Keurig and placing his mug underneath. “We took my daughter there a lot when she was younger. She used to love the monkeys.” He smiled to himself in nostalgia, and I made a mental note to remember that Craig had a daughter, a new piece of information about him.
“How old is your daughter now?” I asked, naturally gravitating toward the balance of asking him the same question he asked me and seeing by the smile on his face that he enjoyed talking about his daughter.
He grinned as his coffee spluttered to a finish. “Oh, she’s in college now—nearly nineteen. It goes by fast!”
“Yes, it does!” I agreed enthusiastically, recognizing a common platitude that people with older children use when talking to people with younger children.
I started to panic a little bit, not sure where to take the conversation from there, and wondered whether I should ask him about his weekend, but thinking that, at this point, it probably would prolong this conversation more than necessary. Luckily, Craig now had his coffee and I’d finished washing my cherries, and so we’d reached a natural ending.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” Craig said, referring to my still-young son and mock toasting me with his freshly made cup of coffee as he moved toward the pantry door.
“For sure,” I agreed. Then, recognizing that he was leaving, I added, “Have a good one!” I have cultivated this phrase for automatic use, because it does not imply a specific time of day (a.k.a. “Have a good day” or “Have a good afternoon”), so I can use it whenever and not have to add in an extra process step of remembering what time of day it is so that my social platitude matches. “Have a good one” can be used any day, at any time.
“You too,” he replied, and then he was gone.
You can see in the above exchange how the “one piece of the sandwich at a time” pace is helpful for maintaining appropriate conversation flow. I still talked less than Craig did, just by my nature, and that is okay. I was still an active participant in a two-way exchange that remained light, flowing, and relevant. I gained new information about a colleague and succeeded in avoiding a relatively silent or one-sided interaction that would have left Craig feeling awkward. Instead, he walked away (I hope, anyway) feeling like he’d had a perfectly normal, load-lightening conversation with an acquaintance, a nice mental break from work, now with a fresh cup of coffee to help him refocus, and I walked away feeling like I had successfully navigated a casual, “unstructured” conversation.
Listening and Asking
Once the “making a sandwich” or “give-and-take” flow of casual conversation becomes a familiar tool, it can be helpful to start augmenting this structural framework with other key strategies for making conversation. One of these key deepening strategies is actively listening, and asking relevant questions to stimulate further, deeper conversation.
You can use this strategy when a conversation has moved past the initial small-talk stage and is naturally going on for longer than a few minutes. I generally don’t go this far with casual work conversations because I don’t like to spend more than a few minutes in casual conversation with most colleagues, especially within a work setting.
Instead, I end up using this strategy more with friends and acquaintances outside of the office—parents of other children in my son’s school, my husband’s friends, or local acquaintances from bars and other frequented establishments.
Had the above example of a conversation in the office with Craig happened instead with an acquaintance outside of work, say at the playground with another parent, we may not have had the easy natural ending of finishing up our respective tasks in the pantry. We might have found a similar natural ending in one or the other of our kids needing us, but we also might have needed to keep the conversation going past that panic moment I had in the above example with Craig. In that moment, as it became clear that the small-talk portion of our interaction was coming to a close, if I had wanted to continue the interaction, I would have transitioned to a listening-and-asking strategy, maintaining the framework of “making a sandwich” to keep the flow going.
For example, I’m standing off to the side at the playground, watching my son run around with the other kids, climbing on the playground equipment.
It’s the weekend, so I know there’s a good chance we will run into a familiar family, either with kids who go to my son’s school, or simply whom we have seen multiple times at the park before, since we all live in the same neighborhood. I’ve already thought through a few light, fun things that my son did this week and last weekend, to share as potential topics during conversation. Unlike in a weekday office setting, talking about what you did the previous weekend during the current weekend is acceptable conversation outside of the workplace, where the people you are interacting with are in a “weekend” frame of mind to begin with.
Lo and behold, a familiar face approaches—the father of one of my son’s classmates from school.
“Hi, Sarah,” he says brightly.
“Hi, Jeremy,” I reply, matching his brightness, and reciprocating with brief, smiling eye contact.
“How’s your son?” he asks as he takes up a position standing next to me and turns his body toward our kids on the playground. This body language indicates to me, now that I have learned how to read it, that he is intending to engage in surface-level conversation, while we both keep our eyes on the kids, rather than engage more deeply. If he wanted to talk on a less superficial level about something specific, he would not have turned his body to the side but remained facing me directly.
I’m ready for the question, and know that if Jeremy hadn’t asked me about my kid within the first twenty seconds of coming over, I would have asked him about his kid instead, to promote a comfortable, chatty atmosphere.
“He’s great,” I start to respond, deliberately pausing for two seconds to make it appear as if I am just now coming up with my response, rather than having thought it out previously. “We took him to the Central Park Zoo last weekend! Our first time there.” I purposely stop there, although I have more details prepared in case Jeremy shows signs of wanting to move the conversation further down that path by asking questions.
“Oh, excellent,” Jeremy responds. “Jessie loves the zoo, especially the monkeys. Does your son have a favorite?”
Why yes, he does, Jeremy, and I thought you might ask, so I already know that I’m going to say, “Yeah! He loves the bears. I think it kind of blows his mind to actually see how big they are in real life.” Mentally, I make a note that I could ask more about why Jessie likes the monkeys, if I need a conversation deepener.
“Yeah, it’s great for them to be able to see the animals,” Jeremy says. “Central Park has that petting zoo, too, right? Where they can actually touch and feed the goats and stuff?”
“It does.” I’m not quite sure where to go from here, as I dislike the overwhelming smells and sounds and sensations of petting zoos, and therefore didn’t spend much time taking my son there. I decide to ask the deepening question I had made note of earlier. “Jessie likes the monkeys, you said?”
“Oh yeah, the way they move and climb through the trees. She loves mimicking their sounds, you know, and sometimes it’s almost like they hear and respond to her.”
“Oh cool.” I can tell by the length of his response that this is a good topic to keep deepening. “Does she know about some of the different kinds of monkeys?”
“Yes! She knows, you know, that orangutans are the orange kind, and that gorillas are the really big ones, you know…”
“Oh, that’s great!” Mentally I had already started culling back through what I had heard from our earlier conversation, to look for more questions I could ask, knowing we could only talk about monkeys for so long, and I hit back on Jeremy’s mention of the petting zoo. I’m struck by a quirky idea that may or may not get a laugh from him, so I try it, suggesting laughter in my tone of voice to indicate that this is a kind of joke. “Wouldn’t that be fun, if there was a monkey petting zoo? Where the kids could have monkeys climbing all over them?”
Jeremy laughs obligingly. “Oh man, yeah, Jessie would love that. Wouldn’t go so great with the bears, though, for your son…”
Thankfully I recognize that as an authentically funny follow-up, and we’re both laughing genuinely now, eyes on our kids as they swing around the jungle gym.
LARRY’S TWO CENTS
Reading through Sarah’s wonderfully structured and introspective accounting, I could not help but remember how our relationship began, and more important, how it almost ended before it ever got going.
I met Sarah in Penn Station, New York City, on a cold February in 2011, while she was on a grad school trip. We were in line at a busy Starbucks, full of strangers chatting about the snow and their resulting travel frustrations. Years later, I can fully appreciate how overwhelmed and exhausted Sarah must have been listening to it. I can imagine Sarah’s inner monologue, how she would want to lecture everyone on how Vermont or Michigan handles snow, and that life will go on, so maybe everyone should just go find a good book to pass the time.
But at the moment, all I could see was that she had an old-school flip phone and obviously wished she could just get her drink. Fortunately for her, I decided to strike up a conversation about the inanity of our present company. I probably also made some comment about her museum-worthy phone.
Twenty minutes later, we were sitting at a table chatting about interests, New York, her degree in conflict transformation, totally indifferent to the hundreds of people who coveted our chairs. As our impromptu first meeting wound down, we had that wonderful moment of swapping phone numbers… and, as we did back then, Yahoo! IM handles.
Then Sarah traveled back to Vermont to finish her degree, and I stayed put.
Over the next few weeks, we continued to chat and flirt over IM as we got to know each other. I was fascinated by Sarah’s studies about how humans communicate, especially during times of conflict, and she loved that we had something tangible to talk about. Soon though, I began to crave hearing her actual voice. As we IM’d, I wasn’t sure when she was joking or wanted to emphasize a point. Sarah obliged me as best she could, and we started to talk for five or ten minutes on the phone, but the conversations seemed to stall, and I found myself talking for the majority of the time. Later in the evenings, we would wind up back on IM, where it flowed much more naturally. I didn’t think that much of it at the time—after all, she was at school all day, so maybe she was just “talked out.”
Fast-forward a couple months, including a couple in-person dates later (remember the three-hour driving distance between Vermont and New York?), when Sarah dropped a bombshell—her upcoming two-year postgraduate Peace Corps commitment.
Given that this implied a two-year break from our budding relationship, there was a lot to talk about—or at least I thought there was. Each time it came up over IM, Sarah shared basic details, but the bigger question—the “us” part—never seemed to get going. As much as I enjoyed our IMs, and though we both agreed we liked each other enough to keep in touch, I needed more (or any) emotion from Sarah. I wasn’t expecting the “L-word,” necessarily, but before I invested much more, I needed her to acknowledge some skin in the game.
I started pushing for more phone calls, but they played out the same way as before. I did most of the talking, and Sarah was quiet. It felt like she was thinking, constructing her response. Of course, now I realize that is exactly what she was doing—not because she was deliberately withholding, but because that was how her brain worked.
Especially exasperated after one of these “conversations,” I confronted Sarah about it over IM. This led to an emotional three-hour exchange that changed everything.
Sarah painstakingly broke down how it was easier for her to type responses, how it was easier to use the normal sense of delay in typed conversation to organize her thoughts, while I read and processed. I thought back to our in-person meetings, how I always seemed to drive the conversation, but Sarah was the one who invariably said a profound thing that moved it to the next level. How time would fly by when we were together in person, because it always felt like we both enjoyed the conversation.
By the end of those three hours, I had learned more about Sarah then I had in the three months prior. I did express why talking on the phone was important to me, for the sake of conveying emotions, which Sarah readily agreed to. We devised a plan to intermix phone conversations and IM conversations. Skype was not reliable enough at the time, and Sarah didn’t care much for technology, so I figured, why fight that battle?
What we didn’t know just then, but would learn soon after, is that owing to a surfeit of applicants, Sarah would be presented with a long delay before being able to start her two years of Peace Corps service. Suddenly she had to choose between moving back home to wait, or doing something crazy like moving in with this guy she met at Starbucks only four months prior.
Spoiler alert: She did the crazy thing, and the rest is history!
Our origin story speaks to the power of communication styles, and how important it is to understand where someone is coming from during any engagement. As much as the person and the topic matter, how
the information is presented may matter even more. This is a truth all communicators have learned.
Personally, I don’t have a degree in communication, but I have spent my entire professional life building technology-based solutions to help people and businesses communicate effectively. In many ways, much of my professional life is about getting rid of the small talk and making sure the things we often wrongly take for granted can be better managed using computers. Through my relationship with Sarah, I have discovered that these efficiencies can be just as valuable in interpersonal conversations as they are in programming.
In the end, we all want to be heard and understood. For Sarah, having IM as a tool—to ask a question, to seek clarification without emotion—has been profoundly important both professionally and personally. ASD or otherwise, everyone has a style, and when we try to understand what drives those preferences—and better yet, meet people halfway—amazing things can happen.