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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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ASPERGER SYNDROME AND IDLE CHATTER

The Role of Informal "Senseless" Conversation

Roger N. Meyer Copyright © 2002

All Rights Reserved

 

 

     [On a listserv for married partners in AS relationships, several spouses with AS joined discussion on the topic of idle chatter and how they handle it.  Most of them avoided it, saying that attempting to engage others made them feel even more like outsiders.  Midway in the discussion, this was my response.]

 

     Interesting this discussion on small talk:  I had trouble with it, too, until I figured out what role it plays.  And yes, I figured that out only after I realized I was autistic.  Yes, some of the chatter is boring, but not so boring that I drift away or feel insulted or an outsider.  The way I handle it is to treat what folks are saying as almost an academic exercise:  If it's weather, I push others for FACTS or for clarification of what they've just said.  But I don't do this in an officious or insistent way.  If the topic is anything else, for example something that's common but in which I have neither knowledge nor interest, I've developed scripts to disguise my disinterest with the appearance of ignorance.  Believe me, if my ignorance is real, I stay in the conversation by telling folks I don't "know" much or anything about what they are discussing.  I am responsible for telling them that, however.  They can't "guess what's on my mind."  It's my obligation to initiate this little interruption so that (1) I stay engaged; and (2) they know that I'll still hang around while they proceed with their discussion.  This is a perfectly acceptable means of remaining with the group while its members go through that topic before they start up with the next one.

 

     There's another reason I do this.  It has to do with "keeping track" of the conversation.  During the time I'm not expected to speak, I am actually studying the conversation somewhat as an outsider.  When the topic shifts, rather than being in a conversation I haven't wanted to engage in and am flustered about, I am "ready to go" with the next topic.

 

     So, the conversation flows quickly, and by the time the next topic arrives; I've had a chance to recover, they've thought nothing of my silence and non-participation because I've already gotten their informal permission not to converse on that one topic, and we move right along.

 

     Even with conversations where I have a strong interest, I can sometimes fall behind.  I know that happens, so, every now and then I act as my own traffic cop.  I don't let things "drift" beyond my ability to track the conversation.  Like a careful and considerate driver, I put on something akin to a "lane-change signal" or "tap my brakes lightly" to alert others that a bit of extra caution is needed as we continue to drive down the same conversational highway together.   I politely interrupt the flow ever so briefly by deliberately slowing down the flow of conversation so I can stay even with it.  For example, one way I have of slowing the conversation down is to ask someone's permission to restate what they just said using my own words.  Most people are more than happy to let me do that.  I've learned that with adults, you do not repeat what they've just said using their exact words.  In a sense, what I am doing is using "intelligent echolalia."  That means I am repeating what I've heard, but I'm repeating it adding my own twist to what I've heard.  You must use your own words to indicate that you've understood something.  If you are wrong with what you say, this provides others with a chance to "repair" your misunderstanding" by going at what you've just missed by either repeating their words, or using other words, or letting someone else repeat the concept for them.

 

     To summarize so far:  Because I safely repeat what someone has just said, or ask a perfectly inane, in-sync question that requires folks to pause ever so briefly but just briefly enough that my mind has caught up with them, I am saving my place in the conversation and assuring my continuing acceptance in the group.

 

     My little interventions, my scripts, lead others to believe that I have heard them AND that I'm engaged.  Actually, this is more than a game.  It's true.   What's happening is that I am doing what one of our AS listserv members says he does:  paddling as fast as I can just to appear "steady in the water."  He uses the image of a duck.  If you've ever observed a mature duck swimming, you'd notice that their little webbed feet are "scrambling all over the place" right underneath the surface of the water."  It's really a rather ugly performance, but no one would guess it because they leave such an undisturbed wake behind them.  All that hard work makes them look graceful.  With much practice, I've learned that most folks can't see my mental feet shuffling and swirling around, but I can.  No one has to know that.  It's my little secret.  So, handling things this way, especially in conversations with strangers, allows me to reciprocate with the content of their chatter without really getting that involved.  I'm actually doing what most other members of that conversational group are doing:  "I'm keeping up appearances."  The difference is that I'm very aware of how much more work this little exercise actually involves for me.  The crude lesson is:  Asking or commenting on FACTS keeps the interaction short and manageable.  How I do that makes all the difference in the world.

 

     One other "little thing."  If I'm in conversation with another person who is AS, and I really want to keep the conversation going, I have to adopt a different approach.  Remember how we both could go "on and on" with our favorite topics?  I still do, you know, but knowing that gives me a way out of the other person's monologue.  I also encourage the other person to use the same tactic with me, because of course I will launch into a monologue given any chance.  Let's say the other person's "favorite topic" is sports.  I'm not interested in sports and would much rather go on to something else.  When I am in "mixed company" I have to be careful not to offend others with how I handle another Aspie.  I have to size up that particular situation, exercise some judgment using a mental calculus just for that situation, and then proceed.  When I say I don't know much about something being discussed in a light manner, especially when the conversation is really flowing fast, no one except the sports fanatic Aspie will stop everything to "fill me in; to bring me up to their speed."  If the other AS person starts to wax "professorish," I can usually cut them off rather abruptly.  Being subtle doesn't work.  I know that.  So does the other person.  So, in Aspie-to-Aspie conversations, we both should know that we have a need to be direct in our exchanges with one another, but not similarly direct with persons not on the autistic spectrum.  In a mixed group, I will usually interrupt what I know is the beginning of the other person's monologue with a "personal explanation."  I tell them--and the whole group--that I have trouble going on and on, so I might have to be a bit abrupt by cutting them off because I know that sometimes "I can't help myself from going on and on."  What I've actually done in that mixed group is provided everyone with an "Aspie teaching moment."  I'm usually expressing in a very direct way what others may be feeling but are too polite or too subtle for the other Aspie to understand.  And you know what?  This approach usually works!

 

Getting back to the situation where I'm the only AS person in a conversational group:

 

     There is this unstated rule that if light social conversation doesn't interest a participant that they won't be put aside or ostracized for that reason alone.  When I've seen that happen--if the person is reject, ignored, or actually ejected from a conversational group--it's usually because they've done something that is patently offensive or rude.  It's not just one isolated behavior.  It may be "the final straw" in a succession of unsuccessful efforts to communicate with one or more group members.  They may not realize what they've just done, but it's normal for others not to stop and have to explain the group's behavior.  It just happens, and it usually happens rather swiftly especially if there have been earlier gestures and other non-verbal cues indicating group members' growing impatience with the Aspie who "doesn't get it."  Everyone in that conversation circle realizes that folks who don't know much about sports are hopeless cases but not so hopeless that their ignorance warrants their being excluded from the next topic.

 

     When I ask for clarification or elucidation of a detail--whether I request permission to restate something, or ask someone to repeat something--it is perceived by others as being "polite," and this politeness is mostly genuine.  Those of us on the autistic spectrum who are terribly self-conscious about doing something like this are afraid of making a mistake.  But, if you practice enough, intervening in this way becomes more natural, more second-nature.  Eventually, you don't even think about it and you plunge in whenever you need to.  Of course, if you are doing it a lot, you have to maybe swim over to the side of the pool and rest a minute.  Knowing how to do that little exercise--catching your breath--also takes finesse, but it can be learned, and it can be done.  Same rules:  Do it often enough, be aware of when and why you need to do it, and it becomes easier to do it because you've checked things out before hand and found out that your pulling out of the conversation is "OK" with others.  Just for a moment...but a moment long enough for you to mentally catch your breath and recover your bearing.

 

     So, I'm playing a game, but I'm also playing with the game.  I've understood the rules of informal chatter, but I've plugged my understanding of just how I process things differently or how slowly I process certain things to the point where other folks aren't aware that what I am doing is applying my cognitive overlay--a very deliberate and calculated one--on top of what everyone else is doing.  In this sense, what I am doing just "passes right over their heads."  In most informal conversational settings, many things are missed, byt lots of folks, but they don't make a big thing about it.  That's because one of the other unstated rules about informal chitchat is that you don't make a fuss about what, in reality, isn't important.  As for myself, I'm not playing with the game to confuse people...my questions and involvement have the opposite, integrative effect.  What I'm really doing is buying time to catch up and remain included in the chemistry of the get-together.  That's my primary objective.  I want to remain connected more than I want to actually participate with genuine interest in the CONTENT of what people are saying.  I like the feeling of connection and acceptance, and because I like this feeling, what I do to stay connected is really worth the cost to me.  No one else has to know about how hard I'm working or what the cost is to me.  That's my secret.   The emotional satisfaction of being accepted by others is far more important to me than satisfying an intellectual need to be right or to understand every little thing that's going on.  I've learned that there is a difference between being accepted socially and always needing to be right.  I get far more mileage from being accepted than I do out of pushing a point with my little factoids and my being "the little professor grown up."

 

     Just buying myself enough time because of my interest in being accepted and enjoying that feeling means that I am more self-conscious about what I am doing.  But there's a difference between self-consciousness and the kind of hypervigilance or sense of very stiff "social distance" I observe with many other adults who are AS.  They just haven't learned the tricks.  Also, they aren't as old, so the lessons of repeated experiences, the results of successful "experiments" haven't been learned yet.

 

     Incidentally, sociology and linguistics and anthropology have a huge body of literature that addresses just these kinds of issues.  There is a sub-set of this literature that addresses cultural integration, research that studies what happens as people from different cultures become acculturated to new surroundings.  Observations of social scientists about how strangers become integrated in a new culture track my own experience.

 

     Strangers in a new culture generally want to be accepted, not just tolerated.

 

     Even if they have no interest in becoming totally integrated, they have to learn the dance of appearances.  If they don't, they get into big trouble.

 

     Always.

 

     They discover very quickly that they can't insist on things going their way, as they did in the culture they've just left.  "When in Rome, do as the Romans" has more meaning than just being a cliche.  Remember, at one point in history--a period of its decline by the way--Rome had circuses and lions. Guess who; the lions ate for lunch?  That's right.  Strangers.  People from different cultures.  As a species, we humans really haven't gotten much more advanced than that, except now we don't have the lions.  The effect on strangers of not be accepted, of not understanding the tricks of becoming acculturated are just as devastating.

 

     Point taken?

     And yes, I'm using the metaphor of Anthropologist on Mars.  It seems to work.  If you read what Temple Grandin writes, if you really get into the reasons and her explanations, if you listen "between her lines" you realize that she is doing the same thing.

 

     She, like me, has gotten soft and sloppy in her old age...something that comes with the territory of just aging.  So, it's easier for us old folks not to beat ourselves up about not keeping up because we know the game, and we know that rather than being attracted to "fast lane racing," it is culturally acceptable for us to hang around with older fogeys who can be forgiven for not keeping up with the rapid chatter and change of pace of the banter of young people.  Knowing what we've gone through to get to where we are, I personally don't think that most older AS folks particularly relish the idea of wanting to do our lives all over again.

 

     Here's another observation:  As older autistic folks, we don't get as easily upset at the level of formality in these chitchat sessions or even the fact that some of them change topics and speed rapidly past us while others are closer to our actual pace of processing things.  As we get older, many of us kind of figure that out.  Others of us don't, and it takes someone else to carefully and methodically point these differences out to us, someone else to help us perceive "what is going on out there." 

 

     I think of the process of having others "point things out" as akin to having trainers help us learn how to be good pilots.  Pilots go through a pre-flight check-off list for each type of plane they fly before they even clamber aboard and enter the cockpit.

 

     The metaphor of the pre-flight checklist is actually a pretty good one.  Knowing that flying is always riskier than walking, but knowing that that's how you make your living, you take extra, ritualized steps to make sure you don't overlook things or make mistakes that put others' lives, as well as your own, at risk.  Incidentally, if you don't do the checklist, you aren't considered a professional.

 

     You remain an amateur, leaving way too much to chance.

 

     I see our problem with small talk as a manifestation of our processing delays.  Please note that if other people "knew of all our difficulties with our reactions"--like the dangerously slow reaction time of a pilot who has had a stroke and hasn't recovered, or someone impaired by alcohol or drugs--they would stay clear of us.  They wouldn't let us fly.  But these kinds of aversions apply mainly to life and death situations.  They don't apply to things like "casual conversation."  In drivers' instruction, an instructor knowing that they have a student who can't respond quickly or safely enough, the instructor will tell the student that the most likely won't be able to drive safely.  So, their failed student becomes a knowledgeable consumer of public transportation or becomes a die-hard walker or bicyclist.  If they were the only person on the road, maybe a car would be OK.  But driving, as we all know, isn't like that.  It involves--literally--constant meeting and interaction with strangers whose moves you can't always predict and whose speed is often hard to gauge.

 

 

     When we were growing up and in school we were constantly "tested" by our flight instructors of the moment and found wanting.  Not true.

 

     We internalized what they said and felt that as a result of those earlier observations, that we can't either fly or drive or whatever the function was that our bodies and our unique brain wiring resisted at that moment.  At that moment, we became victims of our all-or-nothing thinking.  We became afraid to make mistakes.  So what?  Everyone makes mistakes.

 

     But we don't know that, do we?  That's because we are autistic, because we think the whole world looks at us and sees "I am a big, stupid maker of mistakes" branded on our foreheads and stenciled on the back of our outer garments.

 

     Mistakes.  Yes.  Try as hard as we can to avoid them, we still make them.  And then we beat ourselves up all over again.  "See, just like when I was [X] years old!  Nothing's changed!"

 

     Wrong.

 

     We just have to take extra time and work a lot harder to appear as though we are handling some tasks with perfect ease, so we don't stand out.  If we're involved with something that involves our safety or that of others, we figure that if we stand out, just as bad drivers "stand out" that we will get pulled over to the side of the road by concerned traffic cops [metaphor] concerned for our condition and the safety of others.

 

     Most of us aren't Evil Kneevil daredevils.

 

     But, yes.  If we engage in high risk behaviors, it's the job of traffic cops and safety watchdogs to pull us over.  Many of us--even as adults--have trouble dealing with authority figures.  We mistake supervision for discipline.  We violate hidden boundaries all the time.  We misperceive direction for manipulation.  We refuse correction, figuring our way works for us, so why the problem?  Guess what?  Many of us cop that attitude, and then other parts of the cliche come into play:  From the boss's point of view, by being resistant to change or failing to handle supervision well, it is indeed "My way or the highway."

 

     By then we've gotten a reputation.  Even in our chosen fields many of us become bad prospects for hiring by others.

 

     With our all-or-nothing thinking, our true aversion to change, and lots of scar tissue on our rear ends for being pulled aside and hauled out of our zones of comfort to skid along the rough cement of adulthood, many of us become risk aversive, avoiding busy streets--another metaphor, of course-and prefer to "drive" at night, or by ourselves, or seel pr stay in jobs with conditions where our processing challenges and our problems with multi-tasking or dealing with sensory overload isn't as obvious, where uncorrectable mistakes don't happen as often or with such intensity, and we are able to make it.

 

     For adults it's almost impossible to avoid the world of informal chatter and conversational banter.  Most folks chatter on and move very quickly from one inane topic to the next.  It's a social ritual, and to be "successful" at it, you don't have to be so much involved with WHAT people are saying as staying up, in time, with what they are covering.  Since many of us with AS have processing delays or are slow on the uptake, just trying to keep up is what exhausts us.

 

     Many of us develop a negative reaction to the CONTENT of the small talk rather than recognizing that what we are reacting to, as autistic people, is our incapacity to keep up with the speed of shifting topics and the high speed flow of these chit-chat sessions.  Because many of us take things literally, we misread the situation by mistaking the words being spoken as more important than the context in which the words are so much loose change.  Because so many of us have genuine problems with language pragmatics, we make mistakes with word usage.  We miss alternative or hidden meanings behind the use of words.  Where things really get messy is with clichés, colloquialisms, strings of words, and culturally symbolic expressions.  For our slow processors, too much is coming at us at once to parse things out.

 

     Let's pause on this issue for a moment.   Some of us--many of us, in fact--take things literally.   It takes us a while to figure out the alternative meanings of strange things, or uses of words we aren't familiar with or comfortable in using in a rote manner.  That's because our "menus" are limited.

 

     Carrying the restaurant metaphor a bit further:  For many of us, we have limited food preferences.  Being around us is often like accompanying us as we go into a restaurant and watch us always looking at the "bargain meals" when others, especially folks with more "money" look at the part of the menu that has more expensive, unknown food items and decide to take a stab at the unknown.

 

     After all, most folks who aren't autistic go out to different restaurants for variety.  We go to the same limited numbers of places all the time because we relish the predictability and sameness of the menu every time we go.  I've seen some of us adults throw absolute temper tantrums when, literally, the menu changes and we can't find a familiar item, or the price has gone up.  We aren't reacting to the price: we are reacting to the rule we have in our heads that things should be the same and shouldn't change.  When unexpected changes happen, we get upset. 

 

     While we find comfort in the familiar, other people not on the autistic spectrum find our "interest" in that same thing boring.  That's when they start calling us unimaginative.  To them, it appears that way.  As a matter of fact, however, their primary intentions and our primary intentions couldn't be further apart.  They go out to eat as an adventure.  We go out to eat for comfort.  We take the very act of eating as "literally" only the act of eating:  Food.  Something to fill us up.  In fact, the act of eating is a complex social behavior.  Because we have a hard time "getting the social" going out to eat for us is more than just an act of hoping to find the familiar.  It is something that is very complex and booby-trapped with all kinds of unwritten, invisible social conventions that constantly scream:  "SURPRISE!"

 

     Eating is both a very private act at the same time as it is a very public behavior.  In both instances, it is loaded with rituals.  Many of us with AS have rather elaborate eating rituals and preferences which we bring into the public arena from our private kitchens or dining rooms.  One of the reasons we have difficulty at meal times with strangers is because we have become self-conscious of others' historic--not current--criticisms of our food choices, our rate of eating--usually slow and rather picky, a hang-over from our childhood eating behaviors--and also our engrained, personal expectation that our act of eating is a natural extension, without change, of our eating behavior as a child.

 

     There's a big problem with this way of thinking.  We aren't children any more, and others don't expect us to act like children.  We also learned our language as children.  We use that same language differently as adults.  In a very real sense, what we want, what we intend, and how we express our intentions and our needs is our problem, "not theirs."  Since we graduated, chronologically and legally, from the status of childhood into the status of adulthood, everything about our situation as adults has changed.  Despite the passage of years, many of us aren't prepared to meet the challenge of change and of the unknown, a condition that defines independent adult living.

 

     Let us return, finally, to our prime topic:  small talk and chitchat.

 

     It serves a lot of functions.  It is a type of a bonding or re-connection exercise for people who are in relationships.  Just think of any work setting unless you are lucky and skilled enough to be self-employed and work only with things.  Any office situation is an environment where relationships occur.  Maybe it's the culture of an office that employees don't go out and socialize very much with one another.  Some work setups are designed to sabotage natural social behavior, but in one way or another, it occurs.

 

     And where there is social behavior, there is small talk and chitchat.  Even under minimalist conditions, humans, who are social animals, develop a set of minimal rituals that allow us to work together either in the same place or on the same project, and even allow us to "eat lunch together."

 

     Conversation is as basic as food.  It also has its own nutritional value.

 

     And where there is this kind of food, there will always be chitchat.

 

 

Copyright Issues

 

This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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