Thursday, October 2, 2008

More Tips for Managing Small Talk in the Office

Last week I talked about tip 1 if you want to play the small talk game: You Can Keep It Short, But Say Something. This week I’m moving on to my next tip:

2. Dealing With “How Are You?”

“How are you?” is an example of a social script that neurotypicals use all the time. Typically, it’s followed by, “Fine, thank you. And you?” That’s answered with “Fine, thanks.” Most of the time, there’s very little variation to this script, other than the slight modifications involving “great” “pretty good” “hangin’ in there” or for the particularly upbeat “fabulous!”

I think most people learn to follow this script at a young age, although it’s rarely used by kids to each other. But the question is, when do you follow the script, and when are you expected to actually answer the question?

Nonverbal cues give the answer. The problem is that the question can be either a greeting or a true request for information. As a greeting, it’s essentially the same as saying, “Hello.” The person who starts the script will often be walking toward you, and they won’t really slow much, or will even continue talking after asking the question. If you’re getting these signals that the answer is not of much interest, then it’s fine to just follow the script. If you don’t know the person other than to say thanks when they hand you the bag of groceries, the scripted answer is expected.

What are the signs that the questioner really cares about the answer? Well, he or she will often do one of these things:

  • Attempt steady eye contact.

  • State the question with more emphasis.

  • State the question more slowly.

  • Stop walking or slow down.

  • Continue to sit silently after asking.

These are just some of the cues that a real answer is expected. Circumstances make a difference too. If you’re hobbling around on new crutches, just got back from a family funeral, or just won the lottery, the questioner may know that and be asking for greater detail.

In any case, you’re probably safe keeping the initial answer fairly short and positive. If your listener interrupts, looks away or over your shoulder, or even starts to walk again, these are signs the conversation has gone on long enough. And of course, your closer friends will want longer and more honest answers.

As I read blog posts and have conversations with people on the autism spectrum, I continually hear the question, “Why don’t neurotypicals just say what they mean?” It’s true, we don’t and I think I’ll feel embarrassingly shallow next time I ask, “How are you?”