Small Talk

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I’m reading a book right now about how to get better at small talk. I forget the title of the book. I must not be very good at reading closely or maybe I missed something in the instructions. I never do read the instructions they just screw up my thought process. Anyways, as I read the introduction of this book I was skeptical because I answered “no” to every single question posed to me. She asks questions about going out and doing things. That’s not what I’m about. I’m not involved in any clubs, I don’t go to industry functions, and I’m not great with icebreakers or anything. This isn’t even the depressing part of the whole thing. The most depressing part is that her advice is to do things that I fundamentally cannot do. Cannot do as in I have tried in almost every way I know how and my mind simply cannot do it. Her advice is this: make eye contact, smile, find an approachable person, offer your name and use theirs. That’s all you need to do I guess. The problem is that I have a real problem making eye contact as many people with Asperger’s do.

It’s difficult for me to do these things and most people seriously wonder why. It causes a great deal of stress to have to explain it to most people. Many people insist that it’s “all in my head.” That last one makes me want to explode. The reason that many people don’t seek help for psychological issues is that they’re worried about precisely that: that it’s all in their head. Truth is that it almost never is though. People don’t become hypochondriacs about psychological issues and what’s more is that we need to have a larger discussion about psychiatric issues if we’re ever going to live in a society where people like me are accepted. I’m not even the worst kind of person you can encounter. People with full blown autism will never live a normal life. They can barely function and oftentimes find themselves the subject of social ridicule. That’s terrible because it’s the social aspect that affects people who have ASDs.

But I digress. So, I’m supposed to follow four simple rules: make eye contact, smile, find an approachable person, offer your name and use theirs. I find it difficult to smile because rarely am I around anyone that would make me want to smile. I don’t know what an approachable person looks like because I’m terrible at picking up verbal cues and to make matters worse I’m really bad with names. My mother insisted that I simply wasn’t trying hard enough. Like this was something that could be overcome with might or something. That’s not it at all. I have to really concentrate to make eye contact with someone. If I can manage to make eye contact with someone it’s very difficult to keep the thought in my head because I am now focusing on holding their gaze. If I’m able to somehow able to keep that eye contact I encounter another problem that my father thinks I should have overcome when I was about three: I mumble. He hates the fact that I mumble. You should see us at restaurants, every time he insists that I speak up or look at the waiter when they’re talking to me or worse: look them in the eyes.

It’s not their fault that my parents point these kinds of things out to me. Its how society has trained people of their generation to act and that training is starting to rub off on younger generations too. I’m the last person who should be arguing for a more social culture, but in the age of smart phones, that’s precisely the position I find myself in. This book makes a really good point that we’re so disconnected from one another that we don’t even know how to approach someone anymore. I struggle with this all the time. I can’t sustain basic conversations. A guy said hi to me in the hall and I just kind of stared. He asked me a bunch of questions and patted me on the back. I have no idea where I’ve seen this guy before but I was super self-conscious heading into my next class. I used to get mad at people like that. I don’t want to be approached. I don’t want to talk to you. But, then I realized that that’s simply not true. I do like talking to people. I genuinely do and my guess is that everyone has a person or (hopefully) people that they enjoy talking to.

As is the case in most of my work I will relate all of this to a story about my grandfather. He did, in his own not so subtle way, raise me to live a certain life and I have to say that I should be proud of this life. As long as we are doing what we want to be doing with our lives we should be happy. Anyways, when I was growing up in a small suburb outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin there was a day of the week and sometimes it changed because Grandpa was getting older, when I would call Grandpa on the phone. We’d talk for a few hours and it was a routine. I looked forward to it because Grandpa was the only person outside my immediate family that I could really converse with. He just knew how to communicate with me. There was something else though that made me really treasure Grandpa: he made me a priority. This is what people who are highly skilled in the art of conversation do: they make you a priority. I have never seen a better retail politician than Bill Clinton. I still look back on that 1992 town hall debate and watch how he connected with people and simply stare in awe. He is a man who knows how to make people a priority. It’s difficult for us to do this because we all lead stressful lives and we’re told that because this is so prevalent that it is okay. I do not think it is okay.

I think we need to do something not to return to the past when we actually talked on the phone or anything. I think anytime someone talks about returning to the past they are only saying that because they are still living in the past. I don’t want to live in the past, heck I barely want to acknowledge that many things in my life actually happened. I do acknowledge them because I have fundamentally changed as a person because of what has happened to me. I would not be so passionate about the psychological issues that I face on a day-to-day basis if I hadn’t lived through them for the last thirty years. Some people think you wake up with these kinds of issues and that’s simply not the case. Symptoms can be aggravated over time. New disorders can appear after traumatic events, but we do not wake up in the morning with new psychological ailments.

The problems we face are very real. Many people get angry after having a bad day. I feel sad, I get a migraine headache; I lay down with some sort of chilled object on my head and watch Netflix. That’s my happy place if you will. I’m happy consuming mass entertainment and living for the next day because I’ve gotten to a point with my Depression where I try not to let it define me. When I go to bed at night I really do believe that the next day is going to be better and that is a real accomplishment. In the same vein, I think we need to find a way to communicate with the world that doesn’t involve an iPhone. I say that as a lover of iPhones, but we need to find a way to interact so that we can better understand one another because let me tell you something: we are never going to understand those phones.

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