The point of neurotypical “small talk”

speech bubbles filled with "blah-blah-blah"
This is what it seems like to me, most of the time

I think I’ve figured out what the deal with neurotypical “small talk” is all about. See Mom and Dad? My cultural anthropology training has come in handy!

In my 4+ decades of actively studying neurotypical / allistic folks, I’ve long puzzled about why people engage in small talk. Who cares about soap operas (on television and in real life)? What difference does it make, if your windshield has pollen all over it? Niceties about this-n-that around the coffee maker… how aggravating! How time-consuming, without any perceivable benefit for me. And sitting through extended accounts of weekend activities just drains my energy – energy I could be using to do something productive. Of course, I smile through it all and do a fantastic job of feigning interest, but it’s not my first choice.

At all.

And yet, despite its very clear miniscule ROI, despite its fruitless frittering away of precious, limited time, when essentially nothing useful is said — at all… small talk prevails. Why?

Why?!

I finally figured it out, over the past few years, in part thanks to the Porges’ “Polyvagal Theory”, as well as my own personal researching and “field” observations of allistic people in action.

Here’s the thing — the neurotypical way of life is intensely anxiety-producing. The world they’ve designed and built centers around myriad anxiety-producing activities, such as setting unrealistic goals and objectives which no normal person can ever achieve. It seems they have a fondness for “pseudo-Darwinian” culling of the herd, and forcing everyone to constantly strive for impossible goals… so that less capable individuals (i.e., less favorable mating partners whose proliferating DNA could weaken the rest of the population) don’t get to occupy positions of power and influence (and possibly get more mating partners). Never mind that  Darwin pointed out that adaptation and cooperation are what ensures survival of the species — neurotypical / allistic folks seem to ascribe to a dominance paradigm that excludes anyone who’s not a stellar example of a copulatory partner.

So, playing in their field, according to their rules, is necessarily going to tax and test you — to see who’s the fittest and who will most likely survive… a Zombie apocalypse? getting stranded on a desert island? fabricated teamwork scenarios for a weekly television series? And also to get rid of those who “aren’t up to the test”.

What’s more, the allistic world is heavily weighted towards a GO-GO-GO mentality. Adrenaline rushes. High energy. WooHoo-ness in the extreme. That’s going to take a toll on your nervous system, right there, because you can’t keep burning all your fuel in constant fight-flight-fun mode and never recharge. But the NT world seems centered around depleting every possible resource you have… then hopping everyone up on artificial stimulants, just to “keep up”.

Keep up with what? Oh, never mind.

Anyway, with all the adrenaline addiction and stress and strain placed on the human system, you’ve got a shit-ton of frazzled, anxious, nervous people walking around on the verge of a panic attack. After all, they might not be “up to the test” and get kicked off the island. And they don’t want that.

So, that’s where small talk comes in. It’s not designed to convey any particular information. It’s not about information at all. It’s about:

  1. Testing the relative danger of your surroundings to see if you’re being threatened, 
  2. Making sure others know that you’re not weak, but you’re also not too strong, and
  3. Soothing the autonomic nervous system with stimulation of the vagus nerve apparatus.

To whit:

Testing the relative danger of your surroundings to see if you’re being threatened by chatting about some lame subject, allows you to gauge the relative “stability” of people around you. It lets you see if they’re feeling good or aggressive or angry or tired or frustrated or some other way that could impact you later. Exchanging a mindless, “Hey, how ya doin’?” with no expectation of a reply other than, “Good, thanks – yourself?” serves a very valuable purpose. You can detect the general mood and stability of a person by how they respond to you, and you can either go shields-up or take the offensive, or beat a hasty retreat, based on the mood you detect in the other person. Small talk, in this case, is about sending out “feelers” to see what the person approaching you is likely to do / say / feel / respond with.

Making sure others know that you’re not weak, but you’re also not too strong is crucial. Because you have to show that you’re a capable and well-integrated part of the environment you’re in. You don’t want to come across as a sappy little milksop who’s just going to bitch and moan about your life, but you also don’t want to present like a hyper-dominant goon who’s difficult to interact with (and work with). You don’t want to brag and posture, because that can put people off. But you also don’t want to look submissive and easily bullied. It’s all about establishing that you’re dominant in your own life, but that you won’t encroach on others’ quadrants. What’s more, you want to show your humanity — struggles with unruly children over the weekend, hassles with house repairs, negotiations with contractors and other handyman types. Small talk is a way of cementing your public persona in the midst of others who are looking for how best to interact with you.

Soothing the autonomic nervous system with stimulation of the vagus nerve apparatus is probably the biggest piece of it, though. In the midst of all our anxiety and nervousness, we have a way to calm ourselves down and stimulate the other side of our autonomic nervous system that helps us rest, catch a break, and digest that big meal we’ve just eaten. It’s the vagus nerve — or nerves, depending who you talk to — and that longest nerve in the body travels from the brain, down the center of the body, and into the gut, where it spreads out in all directions. It goes directly past the esophagus and vocal chords, and when we talk or sing, it gest stimulated — and kicks in a process that soothes our frazzled nerves. It’s one of the things that makes singing or humming soothing to people. And in my observation, it’s what turns my extremely nervous friends and family into chatterboxes when they’re freaked out.

So, small talk actually does serve a purpose in the dominance-driven, anxiety-producing pecking order of the neurotypical / allistic world. In a way, it’s like allistic stimming. Yeah – that’s it, exactly. But unlike autistic stimming, they insist that everyone else has to join them.

I just wish they’d leave me out of it, and let me live my life in peace without needing to take part in this game of theirs.

Because it is their game. Those are their stims.

Not mine.

And wish to God I weren’t expected to play along.

9 thoughts on “The point of neurotypical “small talk”

  1. This field was intentionally left blank

    This is an incredible post!! I’m stunned (in a good way) and totally intellectually stimulated. That’s not very common. You make amazing points and I completely agree…with all of it! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: So, why do I feel like I’m years behind? – Under Your Radar

  3. Pingback: Ableism, secrecy, and “the lost art of interpersonal skills” | Ryan Boren

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