Asperger’s Syndrome at Work: Why Small Talk Matters

by Barbara Bissonnette

If you are like many people with Asperger’s Syndrome, you categorize small talk as a nonsensical NT (neurotypical) ritual where people waste time talking about stupid subjects that no one really cares about.

However, small talk is actually a critical workplace skill. It is the first step in establishing those all-important relationships with your colleagues. Most neurotypicals (who make up the majority of the workforce) place a high value on relationships. So much so that a good relationship with one’s supervisor and liking one’s co-workers are consistently rated as major factors for job satisfaction.

Sharing a few friendly comments with fellow employees you see in the lunch room or in the elevator sends the message that you consider yourself to be part of the group. Small talk with your work mates is the starting point for building camaraderie and trust.

You do not need to actually like someone in order act friendly with them at work. Sometimes small actions go a long way toward establishing yourself as likeable. For example:

-Greet co-workers you see or interact with in the morning by saying “Good morning” or asking “Hi, how are you?”
-Smile when you greet people or pass them in the hallway. If necessary, practice so that it becomes natural. A person who doesn’t smile is often perceived as angry or aloof.
-Join your colleagues for lunch on a regular basis.

How to Make Small Talk

Small talk is the discussion of general, neutral topics for short periods of time (usually no more than 5 minutes). Neutral topics are things like the weather, traffic, sports, a national news item, plans for the weekend, etc. Topics to avoid are those that polarize people (politics, religion, race), make them feel uncomfortable (sexual topics), or personal observations (weight, clothing, hair style, mannerisms). Negative comments about other employees or the company should also be avoided.

If you do not follow sports teams or popular programs on television, you can still find subjects for small talk. Many local news stations have Web sites that provide brief summaries of top stories. This is a quick way to stay informed about what is happening in your community.

The point of small talk is making connections with others. To do this, you must keep a discussion going for at least two or three turns. If you reply to a question or comment with a one-word answer or by saying “I don’t know,” it won’t go any farther.

Let’s say you are in the break room and someone asks whether you saw a particular program or sports event. You answer, “No.” Ooops! The conversation is over. Instead ask a question to express your interest in the other person, such as, “I haven’t seen that program, what is it about?” or “I don’t follow baseball. Do you play?”

Here is another example that illustrates how small talk can be the bridge for establishing good relationships with your co-workers. Someone asks, “Did you get caught in that traffic jam on Route 66?” Instead of saying “no,” you say, “No, I live in Smithtown so I don’t take the highway to get here.” The other person responds, “I used to drive through Smithtown when I worked at ACME Widgetworks.” You reply, “I worked at ACME six years ago in the R&D group.” Your new acquaintance says, “I was in R&D, too. We should get together for lunch this week.”

This kind of scenario is not uncommon and can be the start of productive, long-term business relationships. Even though it may feel uncomfortable for you at first, look at small talk as an important business skill to practice.

Excerpted from the Asperger’s Syndrome Workplace Survival Guide: A Neurotypical’s Secrets for Success, © 2010 Barbara Bissonnette, Forward Motion Coaching.

Related Articles:

Complete List of All Articles on Autism Spectrum Directory

People on the Autism Spectrum Have to Learn Information That Neurotypical People Already Understand Instinctively

How to Overcome Worrying and Anxiety

How to Understand Body Language

Keeping a Clean Slate (a good reputation)

The Unwritten Rules of Life

iPad, iPod Touch and iPhone Apps for Non Verbal Communication (like body language)

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