One of the aspects which neurodivergent people find most difficult about retaining a job is the ability to fit in with the rest of the team. Even when our co-workers know about our neurodivergence, they might still expect us to make small talk, and in fact they will really enjoy it if we do.
Small talk may be hard and seem completely pointless, but to neurotypical people it is as calming as stimming, or engaging in a special interest (SpIn) is for us. People use small talk to work out where they fit in the office (or social group) hierarchy; it makes them feel safe. What looks like meaningless chatter to us is actually really important for neurotypical people.
When to make small talk
You might be expected to make small talk during the first 10 to 15 minutes of the work day, during coffee and tea breaks, when you are in the same space as someone else (for example, by the photocopier, in the kitchen, or in a supply cupboard), or before leaving for the day. Small talk acts as a transitional, calming activity for neurotypical people as it helps them relax and switch tasks (in the same way that we might need some quiet time in between tasks).
Here are some tips on using small talk:
- Avoid asking questions about people’s age, weight, health or income. These can be sensitive areas and are not good topics for small talk.
- Unless you are sure it is a safe subject, avoid politics and religion. These can also be quite sensitive topics and the workplace is not a suitable environment in which to discuss these. People can be very offended by different political or religious views.
- The weather is always a good subject in the UK. Remarks on the temperature, amount of rain or predicted weather for the next weekend are all safe things to say.
- To make effective small talk, use the FORM protocol, we’ll look at this in more depth.
FORM small talk for when you meet your co-workers
This stands for Family and Friends, Occupation, Recreation and Motivation. The FORM protocol gives you four areas of conversation that people love to talk about, and it’s a good idea to have some answers of your own which cover the same four areas so that you can contribute to the conversation if they ask you questions. Some example questions (and which categories they cover) to ask when you meet your co-workers are:
- What do you enjoy doing with your family or friends? (F, R)
- Are you married or in a relationship? (F)
- Do you have brothers or sisters? (F)
- How long have you worked here? (O)
- What is your favourite thing about this job? (O)
- Do you play any sports? (R)
- What did you want to be when you grew up? (M)
Small talk for using with your co-workers – lunch and break times
When you know your co-workers more, you’ll need different questions to ask. Some co-workers might share your interests, so you may find it quite easy to talk to them about these. With other co-workers it will require more work, so use some of these small talk ideas for break times:
- Did you have a nice weekend? (ask on Monday, or Tuesday)
- Have you got any plans for the weekend (you can ask this on Thursdays or Fridays)
- Are you watching anything good on TV?
- Recommend a TV show, film or book that you think your co-worker will enjoy
- Make a comment about the weather
- Say what you are doing at the weekend
- Tell them about something you are looking forward to
When making small talk, try not to talk for too long and make sure the other person has a chance to speak. It’s really tempting to talk about our special interests if people ask us questions, but as a general rule we should keep our contributions under 2 minutes (if you watch a group conversation you’ll notice that in most cases people take turns speaking and no-one speaks for more than 2 minutes unless they have really big exciting news to share).
Small talk for using with your co-workers – other times
If a colleague has been on holiday, ask them about it. People love to talk about themselves and show you their photos, so even if it seems boring, looking at their holiday photos and saying something nice about them (even about the weather, or that they look relaxed, or like they are having fun) is a good idea.
After long breaks like the Christmas holidays or Easter, people like to talk about what they did, so think of a couple of things you enjoyed that you can tell people about, and ask them what they did, and who with. People love to chat about good times they had with family and friends, so these times are good for appearing to make small talk without actually having to say very much yourself!
Colleagues returning from sick leave might not feel like talking about their illness, so it is nice to say that you hope they are feeling better, and to listen if they tell you about it. It is best not to ask any questions about their illness, or to tell them stories about people you know with a similar illness as people can find this upsetting or intrusive.
Small talk with customers
When serving customers, it is normal to make one or two small talk statements or questions. As we mentioned before, the weather is always a safe subject so you can say something about that. You might also remark on what they are buying as long as it is not of a personal or medical nature (as it is considered rude to discuss medical or intimate personal issues with strangers). A few safe things to say for retail or hospitality jobs are:
- Isn’t the weather lovely/cold/awful (amend as necessary)
- I hope you enjoy your coffee/cake/purchased item
- Those [clothes] will look great on you (only if they have bought some new clothes – don’t say this about underwear or socks)
- I like [the item they have bought] too, it’s tasty/comfortable/easy to use (amend as appropriate)
If you are approached by a customer for help, you should deal with their query before making any small talk as they will think it’s rude if you seem to ignore their question.
Small talk might be one of the most difficult aspects of employment for autistic and neurodivergent people, but now we know why neurotypical people find it so important. Armed with this knowledge and these conversational tips you’ll be able to cope with this social expectation more easily. These tips are also useful for small talk in other life situations – practice makes perfect!