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Deconstructing Small Talk - Phatic Communication

By Ziggie

“How are you?” A pretty common phrase that can be asked of us, or we even ask it ourselves. “Some weather we’re having, right?” is another common phrase utilized in casual conversation. Maybe we even get a question about “what sign we are” referring to astrology. These are just some examples of everyday interactions we encounter but answering “How are you” honestly can ruin a conversation. Why is that? Autistic individuals can sometimes have trouble reading the room when asked questions and are too honest in their responses. This month, I would like to write and highlight small talk or phatic communication, where communication is utilized to feel out a person rather than expecting them to answer honestly. 

“Phatic communication is popularly known as small talk: the-referential use of language to share feelings or establish a mood of sociability rather than to communicate information or ideas.” – Richard Nordquist 

In layman’s terms, this means things casually mentioned in conversations—for example, greetings, thank-yous, and farewells. Most of us utilize these familiar conversation starters or enders because we observe our parents or those around us growing up and see how they engage with the public. 

However, I used to view certain aspects of small talk as fake because I didn’t understand the rapport-building of seemingly innocuous questions and greetings. If you ask a question then, you want me to be honest with you. Of course, you can, but you have to be mindful not to overshare or push the conversation recipient to answer something too personal. 

The overall premise of Phatic communication is to promote warmth and openness, to give the appearance of being pleasant and approachable. 

What can overwhelm me with small talk from time to time is that there are many micro-verbal and non-verbal clues to focus on. Those exchanges can be complicated to read someone’s intentions with their questions and give information about ourselves without losing the mask we wear. For example, I never lie about how I feel in conversations, but instead of saying, ” I feel depressed,” I say, “Today is a bit of an off day, but I’m doing my best. That’s all we can sometimes do.” The former statement simply mentioning depression can halt casual conversation because it puts so much of the burden of reading that phrase on the other party. The latter phrasing acknowledges your hardships but makes the feeling more relatable because everyone can empathize with having a tough time but pushing forward regardless. The critical component in small talk is, to be honest, while not oversharing. 

Years ago, when I worked with a therapist who specializes in ASD, I was able to practice different styles of Phatic communication so I could improve my small talk. The most important thing that I learned is that you can make mistakes in casual conversations, and it’s not the end of the world because you will get better the more you practice. Today I can carry out small talk with almost anyone, and I’m happy to have made those improvements.

What about you, Readers? How have you improved your ability to carry out small talk? Or do you find it cumbersome? I’m curious to hear your opinions! 

Until next time, Take care.