For many autistic people, feeling as though we can be authentic during conversations can be difficult. This may particularly be the case in the workplace, where me might not resonate as deeply with our co-workers as we do others in our lives. Our neurotypical co-workers may form relationships over things like basic greetings and the weather, but those sorts of interactions don’t necessarily come as easily to us, and they lack the profundity that many of us seek.
Phatic language, otherwise known as small talk, is essentially the use of language to establish a sense of sociability rather than to communicate ideas or information. It consists of aimless phrases such as, “how are you?”, “how’s it going?”, “what’s up?”, “have you seen the weather?”, or other mundane interactions and is used more or less to feel out a person rather than in expectation of an honest response.
While it seems that neurotypicals often use these phrases to form bonds and build rapport or to provide the appearance of being approachable or pleasant, autistic people generally don’t communicate or form bonds in the same ways as allistic people and these types of greetings can prove to be really confusing. They can create barriers between autistic and allistic communication and can be disheartening and isolating for autistic people.
Though neurotypicals seemingly use these interactions to form relationships over time, autistics are often left feeling as though we’re floundering, because they simply don’t make any sense to us. Why would people continuously ask questions if they don’t want genuine answers? Autistics tend to prefer deeper, more concentrated discussion over small talk, and we often want to communicate more straightforwardly, with non-phatic communication.
While many autistic people develop scripted replies to questions such as, “how are you?”, we’re still often left feeling panicked about our responses and it can feel as though we’re trapped in a social nightmare. Even though I typically answer that question with, “I’m fine, how are you?” I still feel a rush of uncertainties emerge in my mind. Often, my heart starts to race, I start to sweat, and I wonder if I’m getting it “right.” I want to know if the person genuinely cares how I’m doing, if I should follow up with something else, why I was met with a blank stare when I responded by asking how they were, if I need to provide more details, if I should work on different phrasing for next time, etc. Other times, I do answer honestly, but I don’t always “read the room” correctly and then feel as though I’ve said too much, or I’ve somehow missed the mark and said something inappropriate. I’m then left with similar feelings of stress and anxiety, paired with shame, guilt, and confusion.
Non-phatic communication is often belittled and stigmatized by allistic frameworks. When autistic people choose to respond authentically to phatic greetings, we can be met with various responses such as annoyance, surprise, frustration, etc. When someone asks how we’re doing and we respond honestly and then are met with tension, it can be really hurtful. It can make us feel as though we’ve done something wrong by simply answering the question and it can impede upon our future interactions with that person and with others.
Embracing neurodiversity means also embracing the ways in which neurodivergent people communicate and recognizing that there are multiple ways to respond to phatic greetings. It also means that genuinely asking how someone is doing and expecting an authentic response could go a long way in our connections with one another.
While phatic greetings or small talk have their place, authentic connection has the power to reduce the stigma, isolation, and negative self-beliefs often experienced by so many of us who are autistic. Continuously relying on these standard, phatic interactions keep us from sharing the things that are really going on in our lives, and it leads us to the falsehood that we are alone in our struggles, our interests, or our inner workings as human beings. Setting aside phatic communication may allow us to more deeply discover one another and recognize we may not be as alone in our experiences as we may have otherwise thought.