When Small Talk Becomes Too Personal

05 Oct

“How is your year going?” asked an unsuspecting teacher to Trevor today. “Isn’t that a personal question, especially when followed up with, ‘how are your grades?’ I mean, this year, I have nothing to hide. I’m getting all A’s — a first since elementary school. But, that’s my information to share if I want to. I wanted to ask back, ‘How’s your waistline these days?’ But that is too personal, and I know it. Why doesn’t the teacher know it?”

I admit, that is a question I would have asked. I even admitted this to Trevor. “You are allowed to ask that question. It’s not too personal from you.” That sets things straight, right? For my fellow NTs, the situation is still fairly muddled, I would bet. Trevor’s mom said to him, “This is that area of small talk that you have a hard time with.” But Trevor disagreed.

This isn’t entirely an issue of small talk. It’s also an issue of what falls under the umbrella of privacy. When we ask another, “How are you?”, we don’t really want the truth — “I’m horrible because I had a fight with my daughter”, “I’m sick because I drank too much last night”, “Crappy, you?”. We want a cordial, antiseptic comment that shields the truth unless we want more information. (Finding out if we are truly interested in more information is a whole other skill.)

When you ask a question, an individual with ASD doesn’t always see the concern, the interest, or other socially pragmatic purpose behind it. More to the point, sometimes, the impetus behind the questions just don’t matter, as Trevor shared today.

Trevor answered the question appropriately today. But how will the teacher ever know that this question was inappropriate? Or, maybe it wasn’t?

You tell me.


Posted by on October 5, 2010 in Educating the NTs, NTs on ASD


3 responses to “When Small Talk Becomes Too Personal

  1. Tam

    October 5, 2010 at 4:32 AM

    Hmm, I think asking kids how their grades are is no more personal than asking an adult how work’s going. Seems non-intrusive to me. It’s the kind of question where the answer dictates how personal it becomes.

    If you are asked that kind of question, and don’t want to share much, you just say “eh, okay” or “eh, passing” or “could be better, I guess” and the brevity of the answer tells the asker that you don’t care to expound. If you give details, “getting all A’s this year, thanks for asking!” or “not so great, I think I’m failing mathematics” then the person knows you’re up to talking about it and has a ‘pass’ for asking more detailed questions/continuing the discussion.

    It’s about the same as the “how are you doing?” question (which, by the way, is a *stupid* question if you’re really just trying to say “hi”, that drives me nuts, so I *always* give a real answer :P)… how you are doing can be a very personal thing, especially if you’re doing horribly because a relative just died… but the question itself isn’t prying, the question leaves the door open for your answer to be as deep or as shallow as you want it to be.

    I just tried to write a paragraph showing the differences between a question like that and the “waistline” one your client pointed out and realized I couldn’t do it. Nearly all questions can be answered in a way that prevents the asker from access to personal information, so people really shouldn’t be worried about a question being too personal. (In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had the “that’s too personal” reaction to a question, hrm lol)… but in thinking about it, I think the difference has to do with emotions… and that’s why it’s so hard for us aspies/autistics to figure out what’s appropriate.

    When is “have you lost weight?” a bad question to ask? Only when the person you’re asking would be upset for having lost weight, otherwise it’s a compliment. “Is your hair dyed?!” is a compliment to a 60 year old with natural hair color who doesn’t have a single grey hair yet, it’s incredibly rude and way too personal to most anyone else, because you’re either calling them old, or pointing out they dye their hair, or both, which will most likely embarrass them.

    The trick seems to be in knowing the likelihood that the question you’re asking will cause the target to become upset, and perhaps to think you’re making a judgment of them by asking it.

    With that in mind, a kid getting bad grades would probably be offended by being asked about his grades. But does that mean the question is too prying? Probably not, because I think we generally expect that kids are going to be asked about their grades, like adults are asked about their jobs. Now, if we know someone’s unemployed then asking about their work would be rude, and if we know a kid is failing then asking about his grades would be wrong. If we don’t know, it’s a fairly safe assumption that it’s the kind of question that can be asked without immediately eliciting upset.

    I’m gonna stop now, but this ended up being a very intriguing question, and thinking it out like this may have just helped me better understand the issue. I think you nts understand all of this stuff intuitively, the rest of us are left to try to figure out the rules, which are very unclear.

    • jholverstott

      October 5, 2010 at 4:50 AM

      Tam, You enlightened me with this sentence: “The trick seems to be in knowing the likelihood that the question you’re asking will cause the target to become upset, and perhaps to think you’re making a judgment of them by asking it.” Ironically, much of what you explained, I relayed to him. What is hard is that age old cliche of everyone being different. What I just realized that is NTs treat each other like everyone is the same, especially with social rules because everyone is supposed to adhere to them and to follow them without question. But, with individuals with ASD, that same rule cannot be applied because of the struggle with intuition. I wonder if that makes sense?!

      • Tam

        October 5, 2010 at 5:21 AM

        I think that makes sense. The problem is that the rules *are* applied to us, we just don’t understand them, so we break them all the time, without meaning to, and suffer the consequences for stepping over boundaries we can’t even see. Children are given a pass on the social rules, because they’re kids. Aspies are in a similar boat, but get no pass.

        Conversations with my best friend, where I’m upset about something social, usually devolve, in the end, to me crying “but what’s the rule?! how was I supposed to know?! I can’t ever get it if there aren’t any rules!” Because every time I think I manage to nail down a social rule I end up finding out that it’s not a rule, it’s more of a suggestion, and there’s some underlying intuitive process that is supposed to teach you which way the ‘rule’ bends, and when. ARG! lol


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