You know when you’re talking to someone about life stuff you’re struggling with only for your conversation partner to helpfully interject with some…obvious suggestions? Don’t have a job? Get a job! Don’t have a partner? Get a partner! Don’t have happy? Get some happy!!
Even when you’re talking to a total stranger?
Now, I know people are just trying to be helpful. I know that, and I try not to get too hung up on how patronized I feel whenever someone “helpfully” suggests how easy it is. But the last time this happened, something in the conversation hit me. It stuck with me.
You know what it was? Incredibly rude.
But we don’t think of it as rude. We don’t think it’s rude to grill strangers and friends on where they are in The One Adult Life Trajectory. We don’t think it’s rude to talk about work or relationships or children with people we don’t know well. I mean, after all, this stuff is just small talk, isn’t it?
Not for everyone.
(Thanks to Michelle Buchanan @ Creative Market for the above stock photo.)
Why “small talk” can be exclusionary:
Consider that not everyone is in the same place in life. Not everyone is able to hit every Adult Milestone. Not everyone CAN.
Talking about work or finding jobs can be embarrassing and shameful for those who are struggling with employment. Talking about relationships and marriage can be awkward for those who are left out of traditional relationship structures or are uninterested in sexual or romantic partnerships. Talking about children can be difficult or upsetting for those who are infertile or childfree by choice. Talking about retirement can be frustrating for those who don’t want to retire or are completely unable to. Talking about social activities and expectations can be alienating to those who can’t participate for whatever reason.
Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t ever talk about these subjects for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. However, consider talking about these subjects less with a judgmental or disapproving perspective and more with the perspective of someone who wants to listen and learn. Let your conversation partner bring up those subjects first. And when they do, try not to interject with helpful, albeit obvious and condescending “advice.” Believe me, they’ve heard it all before. ESPECIALLY when it comes to treatment options for whatever health issue they may be having.
What I’m suggesting is that perhaps we should stop viewing these topics as casual ice-breakers. “What do you do for a living?” is a go-to question but whenever I hear it I start to panic.
Uh oh, now I’ve got to come up with an answer. I’ve got to make it look good. I’m terrible at lying and resentful that I HAVE to but if I don’t I’ll get an earload of the other person trying to “fix” me or accuse me of something. I just can’t handle this right now I can’t I have to get out of this ugh what do I say???
“…Freelancing. Odd jobs. Uhh…”
Not what you were expecting to hear, was it?
The thing about disability is that people expect it to look a certain way. People expect to see legs and hands cut off before they believe that someone may have trouble doing something. In reality, it’s a lot more subtle. For me, it was watching milestone cutoff dates pass me by. In my earlier twenties I checked just enough Adult boxes that people thought I was on my way. And then…I stopped checking them. I never did get the career (I’m still working on that). I had trouble driving and holding jobs. Children NEVER happened and my marriage eventually ended. I had a Bachelor’s degree but did nothing with it. And so on and so on. All I had was a pervasive sense of shame and disappointment in myself. Why was I like this? Why wasn’t I getting it together?
I mean…I’m so smart. That’s what everyone keeps telling me.
So I told myself it would come. I’d get the opportunity that would change my life. I’d make the connections. I’d be in the right place at the right time. My ship just hadn’t come in yet. But it would, and when it did, I’d prove everyone wrong.
An uneasy decade passed. In that time, I held jobs (barely), I took on freelancing positions that dried up without a trace, I pushed myself to face some of my fears. And yet, I still wasn’t doing it. I wasn’t making it. Why?
Was it because I was lazy? Was it because I was undisciplined, an ungrateful loaf who enjoyed gaming the system? Was it because I ENJOYED being depressed and isolated, cut off from any feeling of being valuable and useful?
Okay, so you know where I’m going with this. I saw a behavioral specialist and listed, in large part, my concerns about working and hitting adult milestones. I mean, I had always struggled in life socially, but that struggling really didn’t matter. There’s no committee for helping the lonely. No one cares if you don’t have friends as long as you’re not making a scene. That’s your problem. But not working, not driving, not having romantic relationships, not getting married, not having kids? That’s EVERYONE’S problem, apparently.
What I discovered is that an alarming number of autistic adults have issues with employment. Whether it’s invisible difficulties that add up in the workplace or social barriers to getting hired in the first place, I’m not alone in my struggles. Getting my official diagnosis took a huge chunk out of my self-loathing. Yeah, I’ve been struggling. And you know what? That’s okay.
But I still find those “ice-breaker” questions really uncomfortable.
And I’m by far not the only one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read frustrated singles and couples complain about the harassment they receive for choosing not to have children, or choosing not to have more children. Or the fear that LGBTQ+ and those who participate in alternative romantic or sexual lifestyles feel when someone wants to have a “normal” chitchat with them about their relationships. Or the irritation and pressure people feel as they reach retirement age and realize everyone thinks they’ll get to retire. Face it, the world is changing. These aren’t “easy” topics anymore.
So perhaps we can consider the way our questions affect other people. Maybe we can start asking inclusive questions that get at the heart of our shared experiences with each other without resorting to Milestone Checkups that some of us are unable (or unwilling!) to meet.
Here are some questions you can try asking the next time you meet someone you want to make small talk with:
- What do you enjoy doing?
- What’s something you really care about?
- What do you think about [mutual topic of interest]?
- What do you think about [neutral topic]?
- What are you passionate about?
After all, isn’t the point of small talk to connect with each other?