Peer Support 2022: Small Talk

Peer Support


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Peer Support 

Feb 2022

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What is Small Talk?

Anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski described small talk as a “Phatic Function”.

It does not exist to share information but to establish and maintain social relationships, and the means of communication.

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The Function

Small talk is a way for people to check if someone is “safe” to talk to, meaning they:

• Share similar values

• Share similar goals

• Are someone they can get on with

• Can evaluate their background

Because: it risks offence to outright ask these things (implied judgment).

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People (esp. NTs) have levels of intimacy which they admit others to. Doing this means being more vulnerable to the other so has to be managed by testing at boundaries. 

Superficial Level(Small Talk, no risk)

Intimate Level(Important Information)

very intimate Level(Trusted Information)

EGO Level(Inner Self)

Image Shows Diagram of four boundaries of intimacy between two people, with an overlap between the outermost boundary of each person.

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Culturally Specific

These boundaries vary across culture according to factors such as “Face Saving”, “Hierarchy” and convention.

In Scandinavia Small Talk is considered a waste of time and rude, in (some parts) of China once you’ve crossed the threshold of formality much more personal topics are immediately open for discussion.

Image Shows two examples of a diagram of a person with four boundaries around them where the distance between boundaries is different for each person.

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How Do We Do This?

By picking uncontroversial topics that are easy to agree with, or questions that can be answered without revealing anything very personal. Hence comments about the weather.

It’s easy and (relatively) risk-free to commiserate over an obvious defeat of a football team, but risky to voice personal opinions over whether the manger or Centre-forward was to blame.

Faking it has risks too. 

(Please note that IT Crowd creator Graham Linehan has made transphobic statements that Autistic Nottingham condemns)

Image Shows two scenes from the UK TV show “The It Crowd” where the Autistic-Coded character “Moss” first imitates vernacular small talk about football and then is miserable because he is obliged to attend a football match he does not enjoy. 

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Strategies + Examples…

Obvious shared experiences.(“How was your journey”, as everyone has to journey to a shared venue)

A compliment about something around you. (”lovely scenery…”, notice their T-shirt of a band you also listen to)

Can apologise if you have to “skip to business”.

Negative people will bond by talking down about something (”The speaker was a terrible bore, wasn’t he?”).

People who don’t want to interact will contradict what you say and not reciprocate comments.

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…Strategies + Examples

Many NTs see conversations as opportunities to assert or maintain status. Don’t get drawn into perceived oneupmanship by sharing overly specific knowledge as they will see it as competition/showing off.

If you are drawn to share an opinion, try to personalise it so it doesn’t come off as stating it as fact (”You know, I was thinking about this the other day…”, not me vs you, just me). 

If in doubt stick to a script (Q:”How are you today?” A:“All the better for seeing you! [Big smile so as not to be taken too seriously] And yourself?” [Raise both eyebrows slightly to indicate interest])

People who don’t want to interact will contradict what you say and not reciprocate comments.

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Being Sincere

Recognising small talk for what it is helps us be sincere about it (you can actually care about how someone is doing).

Also, being Autistic can make us direct and this is refreshing and a relief to some people (especially each other), as we get to the “good stuff” quickly, without artifice.

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Small talk varied by context, what was small talk for one age/gender group or setting would not work in another so it was important to know the appropriate topics.

Small talk depends on Rank and Seniority, the more senior someone is the less likely they are to want small talk.

Some of us found that learning small talk scripts was a part of masking, and that we felt trapped by them or stuck after the script ran out.

Some of us avoided small talk altogether and relied on confidence and honesty instead.

Small talk is a way to mitigate vulnerability, but if you are truly confident and secure in yourself you don’t need it.

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