The Secrets of Successful Smalltalk


An aspie friend of mine said recently, ?I hate it when people ask me, ?So how?s it going?? People go around asking the same question to each other over and over at parties. It?s phony and ludicrous.?

By now, it should be growing evident that ?small talk? ranks up with the world?s great misnomers. There?s nothing small about it. It is one of the most complex and important activities humans practice. They meet and scope one another?s dispositions to see what actions are possible, and this prefigures their entire interaction

Read on for the entirety of Groovy Druid’s article about small talk (maybe it should have been called Much Ado About Nodding).

Or (Much Ado About Nodding)

By GroovyDruid

An aspie friend of mine said recently, ?I hate it when people ask me, ?So how?s it going?? People go around asking the same question to each other over and over at parties. It?s phony and ludicrous.?

I empathized. I recalled that foggy, sinking feeling I had when people would fire this question at me over and over at gatherings-kind of like I was in a falling elevator. What did they want from me? I knew they weren?t really jonesing for my take on the weather or the latest on how I was doing in school. Still, they seemed to think talking about these things was so ? riveting. I didn?t share their enthusiasm, to put it mildly. Yet something important was happening, I could tell. The sleazy guys who were really good at this inane pantomime cornered all the attention from the girls and got jobs very easily, while I–a nice guy who talked about really interesting things–ended up standing in the corner talking with the ficus plant. My bitterness knew no bounds.

Too many aspies have shared some or all of this experience. They admit small talk does seem to have its power. But most aspies don?t even suspect the true nature of small talk, nor what really causes aspies their problems, nor that there are techniques for aspies to improve their experience of face-to-face encounters.

The Most Feared Animal

The roots of small talk are buried in one basic truth about Man as a species: Homo Sapiens is extremely dangerous. He is by far the most dangerous and unpredictable animal on the planet. He kills more people than any other species on earth?in fact, most others put together. Why is this relevant? Because when this lumbering biped meets others of his kind, he must determine how they are disposed toward him. Do they want to punch his ticket? Do they want to mate with him? Do they want to take his stuff? And since Homo Sapiens is so very unpredictable, he must keep on determining with great regularity the disposition of all those around him from the time he is born until the time he expires?or misjudges the disposition of another Homo Sapiens and gets his ticket punched and his stuff taken.

Homo Sapiens has become much more subtle about his hunting and gathering and ticket punching than he ever was before. And in the modern world it is judged unseemly for two polite people to circle each other snarling and waving rocks around until they establish that they do in fact still like each other. Instead, modern Man supplants this display with a complex ritual, a ritual called ?small talk.?

The ?Small?

By now, it should be growing evident that ?small talk? ranks up with the world?s great misnomers. There?s nothing small about it. It is one of the most complex and important activities humans practice. They meet and scope one another?s dispositions to see what actions are possible, and this prefigures their entire interaction. Heads of state perform small talk to determine one another?s general disposition prior to any real business. So do business leaders. So does everybody else. Nothing moves forward without human interaction, and small talk is the gatekeeper into serious interaction. People who can do small talk well literally set themselves in a class above all others.

So why aren?t aspies privy to this weighty activity?

The ?Talk?

Yes, the second half of the misnomer. When you think of talk, you probably think of words, right? Well, that?s okay. Most people do. But the truth is, words have very little to do with small talk. In 1967, Albert Mehrabian, a professor of psychology at UCLA, studied face-to-face encounters. His conclusion was that the totality of the communication that passed between two people broke down into the following categories:

55% Visual
What the listener sees. Body language, including eye movement, arms and hands, legs, face, etc.

38% Voice
What the listener hears in the voice. Cadence, inflection, tone, timbre, etc.

7% Verbal
The meaning expressed by the words of the conversation.

Now the aspie deficit becomes clear. Aspies are noted for having difficulty modulating their own voice and decoding the inflections of others. Their difficulties with body language and social cognition practically define the syndrome. Add in the aspie penchant for literalism, and Houston, we have a big-time problem: only about 10% of the communication is completely intelligible to an aspie on the receiving end of a conversation. And since an aspie isn?t able to get most of the other 90% of the communication, there is a good chance he doesn?t learn to send those non-verbal signals very well, isn?t there?

Small wonder that aspies find small talk boring. Even if we are generous and allow that most aspies have learned to pick up some visual and voice communication, they still are missing 60-75% of what?s said to them during small talk.

Results in the NT World

So what befalls an aspie whose deficits in non-verbal communication drive him away from small talk? He becomes one of the unpredictable and potentially dangerous Homo Sapiens. His emotional and psychological state can?t be monitored by the others of his kind. This makes the others very nervous. They don?t know whether an aspie wants romance, communication, whether he knows his place in the pecking order, or for that matter, which side he?s on. Pretty soon the uncertainty of dealing with an aspie becomes more stressful than many NTs can stand. Despite the aspie?s good qualities, the NTs wander politely away for small talk with other more predictable people, leaving the aspie with his ficus plant.


(Or ?I?m Gonna Ado Something About Nodding?)

Most people would be surprised at the communication percentages put forward by Dr. Mahrabian, especially that 55% is visual. The reason is that NTs transmit and receive most body language subconsciously and so are unaware of it. NTs have a complicated hardwire setup to give off and decode an astonishing array of body language that then comes to them as ?hunches? about people.

Aspies lack some or all of the social cognition circuits to decode and give off intuitive body language. However, because of research done mostly in the last 30 years, the language of the human body has been catalogued by talented experts and can be learned as a conscious activity. It takes alertness and attention to detail. Fortunately, aspies have those qualities in spades.

You have 90 Seconds?

It?s impossible to give all the relevant information for scintillating small talk here in one small article. Whole books are devoted to it. Instead, we?ll step through the first 90 seconds of meeting someone. Why? Because 90% of a person?s impression of you forms in that first 90 seconds. It will give you a few tools to practice, and I hope inspire you to pursue some of the suggested readings at the end of the article.


The best impression comes from being open when meeting someone. In body language, this translates to facing the person whom you are meeting. Don?t turn sideways. Uncross the arms and legs and keep the hands out of the pockets. Unbutton your jacket, and remove any sunglasses or hat. Nicholas Boothman, in his excellent book How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less describes the open stance as letting one?s heart shine toward the person. It?s an excellent way to think about the stance. A person facing the open stance feels comfortable and accepted, and that your heart is open to them. The open stance also gives the impression of honesty.

Eye Contact

I can?t state this strongly enough: a few seconds of eye contact is essential when meeting someone. I know it?s hard for aspies. I have trouble with it myself. But if you don?t do it, then you could tell the other person the cure for cancer, for all the good it will do you. The conversation is still toast. The person instinctively won?t trust you, and you can?t argue with what the person doesn?t even consciously know. (See my previous article The Secrets of Successful Eye Contact for tips and suggestions.) Make eye contact immediately and hold it through at least the handshake, a few seconds at minimum.

Shake and Smile

Get your hand out there. Be the first to put his or her hand forward. This is a motion of confidence and acceptance. The other person will feel relaxed and reassured. Shake hands firmly and comfortably. (Far more important for men than for women.) If you don?t, you will get blown off for weak character. And smile, exposing the top teeth, not the bottom. This is a ?social smile?. Closed lips, and you give the impression of holding back. All teeth showing, and the other person will think you are manic.

The Lean

Lean forward when you shake hands. In body language, the lean transmits readiness, in this case to talk to and establish rapport with the other person. It?s very important.


There you have it: you?ve small-talked. You might wonder, ?But what do I say?? The answer is, whatever you want. Talk about the weather, your dog, his dog, bread baking? IT DOESN?T MATTER. You?re past the first 90 seconds, and the other person already knows in his heart you are a good person because you?ve said it with your whole body. You could recite the Gettysburg Address and he would still stand there and listen and laugh, so long as you take a break every line or two so that he can throw in his two cents. (This is important: it doesn?t matter what you say, but if he doesn?t get to talk regularly, he?ll feel dominated.)

Mirroring and Rapport

The single most important thing that happens in small talk is the establishment of rapport: ?I?m like you, and we agree on lots of things. You?re one of the safe, friendly Homo Sapiens.? That is the reason you keep conversation light and uncontroversial during small talk: you establish agreement first.

But even more important than verbal agreement is body agreement. How does one achieve body agreement? Well, sometimes it just happens between people. They begin to talk, and pretty soon, they are unconsciously mimicking each other?s body positions, almost as if they are miming one another. (A hilarious thing to watch, actually. People virtually never know they are doing it.) But one can consciously take control of the mirroring right away. How? Mime the other person. Do it subtly, and they will never notice, I guarantee you. If they lean their head to one side, you do the same. If they cross their arms, you cross your arms. If they rub their nose, you wait a second and then rub your nose. Pretty soon, the other person will develop the warm, fuzzy feeling that you really get him. I?ve done it more times than I can count, and it works like a charm. This is small talk at its best!

A Note on Questions

A frequent problem aspies describe to me is that they have trouble keeping conversations going. The body language changes above will go a long way to correcting this, because the other person will feel intrigued and involved. But one particular problem that aspies have is the closed versus the open question. The verbal facet of small talk involves nothing more than questions and answers as you get to know the other person. But using closed instead of open questions is one mistake that can shut a conversation like a bear trap.

The closed question is the kind you ask to get a ?yes? or ?no? answer. Example:

?Do you come here often??
?Do you like going scuba diving naked with great white sharks in Australia in the dead of winter and then talking about it to strangers like me who nose into your business and ask annoying questions that can be blown off with a one-word answer??

You get the idea. A closed question is a conversation killer to an NT. But something I?ve noticed in myself and many other aspies is the tendency to enjoy closed questions, and unlike NTs, aspies often expand on them:

?Yes, I do enjoy naked scuba diving. In fact, did you know that in Jamaica they have an algae that glows, so if you go scuba diving naked at night you look like a floating fairy??

Open questions require a detailed response. Remember my friend at the beginning, the one who hated the line, ?So how?s it going?? Well, that?s an open question. Usually they begin with who, what, when, where, and how. The person cannot possibly answer you with a one-word reply and still be polite. Many NTs are like clams when first starting a conversation, and the jackknife to use on them is the open question:

?How often do you go scuba diving naked??
?What kinds of sharks attacked you??
?When did you lose your left leg??

I can only speculate that aspies enjoy closed questions because of their concrete nature: yes or no. And because of their own leaning, aspies seem to think that NTs will also enjoy receiving closed questions. The opposite is true. When small-talking with an NT, use only open questions or you run the risk of leaving him nowhere to take the conversation.

The Results

When one uses conscious skills of non-verbal communication to supplement verbal understanding of a conversation, small talk becomes a scientific exercise of observation and control of the forces of human fear and desire. Meeting members of the opposite sex becomes much easier. Workplace interaction grows more comfortable and understandable. The mystery of what people are doing at gatherings opens for the aspie to explore. One begins to own the capability to build what is easily the most valuable commodity in the world: rapport with other human beings.

Suggested Readings

How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less by Nicholas Boothman
Signals: How to Use Body Language for Power, Success, and Love by Allan Pease
How to Read a Person Like a Book by Gerard Nierenberg and Henry Calero

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