Social Skills for Neurotypicals

Steve is at a conference in Miami this week. He was promoted this winter and will be doing more of this. Putting on a tie and schmoozing with people in the industry is not his strong suit, so I gave him some pointers for conversation starters.

When you’re at a business conference, you don’t want to talk too much about work, so what do you talk about? You look for commonalities and ask for advice. For example, you can say that we want to get a spot by a lake this year, but you don’t know where to go. Where would they suggest? If they have a kid in college, you can compare stories. You store little details about the person in a mental folder – their partner’s name, the age of their kids, some story they shared about their parent’s illness — and then ask about it.  You ask questions, even if you don’t care about their answers, just to keep the conversation going.

When you’re married for a long time, each person develops their strong suits and lets the other person carry their weaknesses. Because Steve’s sense of direction is so good, he drives everywhere and I can’t get anywhere on my own anymore. And because I’m good at the chit-chat stuff, I’m the talker when we go to cocktail parties. But he’s at the conference on his own now, so he’s got to work on this skills that he never had to develop.

Ian’s last remaining autism challenge is social skills. He’s outgrown just about every other issue, but he still can’t maintain a conversation and is often inappropriate. Yesterday, when we were at the podiatrist to get new orthotics for his flat feet, he insisted on calling the doctor by his first name. He was having a little trouble with a bully the week before and he couldn’t understand why the kid was purposely saying things to annoy him.

So, Ian goes to social skills therapy on Wednesdays and will attend a social skills camp over the summer. He has an aide at school that makes sure that he’s saying the right things. Even with all this help, he has no friends and will probably struggle his whole life with interacting with other people.

And I’ve learned a ton by taking him to all this therapy over the years. One thing that I’ve learned is that a whole of neurotypical people suck at social skills, too. It’s one thing to say the wrong thing occasionally. We all do that. But lots of people struggle with more basic skills, like putting themselves in another person’s shoes to understand their motivations. Or knowing how to make another person more comfortable and relax to tell you their secrets. Lots of people don’t know how to do that.

I sometimes think about writing a book for non-autistic people about the art of chit-chat.

19 thoughts on “Social Skills for Neurotypicals

  1. but he still can’t maintain a conversation and is often inappropriate

    The trick is to be inappropriate by accident rarely, but often enough that nobody can tell for certain when you’re being inappropriate by intention.


  2. This one hits home for me. I am often surprised by how poor other adults’ conversation skills are. I was brought up to believe that it would be my social obligation as a person in adult society to be “interested and interesting” in conversation and that one should strive to engage others with thoughtful, polite questions and also with amusing anecdotes when possible. I was joking with my kids that I was going to do a YouTube series on this, but they looked appalled at the notion that their parent would be, gasp, visible to the entire world.


    1. I would appreciate a you tube video and find Laura’s advice useful, too.

      Sometimes I think that my unwillingness/inability to engage in polite chit chat is a feature not a bug. But, I don’t want to make most people feel bad and I think people who do what Christiana and Laura describe are the glue that holds community together.

      But those of us who throw fire starters into conversation can be useful sometimes, too.


  3. I was not raised to understand the importance of adult conversation skills, or really conversation skills at all. Maybe it was assumed that it was innate, given my heritage. In any event, they absolutely did not come naturally, many social interactions and events were downright terrifying well into my 20s. Someone, I overcame it. I’m not sure how. It was something I had to work at a lot from 16 to 26. Maybe it was maturity. Maybe the conscious efforts that I made to improved started paying dividends years–or even decades–after I started. It did not happen overnight. Now when I meet a 50-year old who is seriously deficient in these skills, but is otherwise apparently neurotypical, I wonder why they have not developed this skill. I have a child who, on some level, struggles with some of these issues; I try to give her advice, but she is ultimately going to have to figure things out on her own.


  4. As an introvert who used to work as a computer coder, I can see how some people can go through life not developing these skills. The overwhelming majority of people I worked with did not really understand social interactions (one of my colleagues told me if he won the lottery, he would quite his job and just develop code at home by himself – that was his dream). Those that did understand social interaction were quickly promoted up the ladder. Those that did not were happy to continue coding and hanging out with other coders. Those groups were strange, but no one cared because they were all strange. Not a bad solution as everyone was pretty happy with it.


  5. From Judith Martin (aka Miss Manners):

    Here is a list of topics that polite people do not bring into social conversation:
    Sex, religion, politics, money, illness, the food before them at the moment, which foods they customarily eat or reject and why, anything else having to do with bodily functions, occupations, including their own and inquiries into anyone else’s; the looks of anyone present, especially to note any changes, even improvements, since these people were last seen; and the possessions of anyone present, including their hosts’ house and its contents and the clothing being worn by them and their guests, even favorably.


      1. JM makes it significantly more difficult to compose a coherent thought. So, other than nearly all areas of human endeavor, we are left with the weather and sports.

        Old people are always happy to talk about illness. I’ve noticed talk about politics has been less popular recently, which is really welcome.


    1. Even if you are very quiet about it, Judith Martin won’t let you take bets at the reception as to how many months after the wedding the baby is born.


      1. You can be less discrete because the bride and groom are less likely to have inside information on the outcome.


  6. I was just in line at Starbucks while reading this post and heard a conversation I’ve been dying to record for posterity.

    Middle Aged Man in line: So-and-so wants us to have more meetings.

    Second Middle Aged Man in line: So-and-so never listens at meetings.


    1. That makes sense. Nobody who listens at meetings wants more of them and if you don’t give a shit what happens at meetings, they’re very restful.


  7. That is one of the worst things I have found about getting older, is that people want to talk about their health. I don’t want to talk about my health, I don’t want to talk about your health.

    The only consolation is that at least no one my age talks about her delivery, a topic which seemed to occupy 20 to 40 percent of social conversation at one stage of our lives.


    1. My dad (late 70s) and his group of male friends have made a rule that no more than 15 minutes total can be spent talking about health at their regular lunch gathering. (It’s almost always the first fifteen minutes, but they stick to it.)


      1. “My dad (late 70s) and his group of male friends have made a rule that no more than 15 minutes total can be spent talking about health at their regular lunch gathering. (It’s almost always the first fifteen minutes, but they stick to it.)”

        CLAP CLAP CLAP!!!


  8. Good conversational skills are an art. It’s just a delight to speak with someone who can carry a conversation.

    I wonder if we’re losing these skills because we are oh so busy and also more isolated (having things delivered rather than going to the local grocer/hardware store/pharmacy). Also not living in walking neighbourhoods where you regularly see your neighbours on the street.

    Parents are so focused on AP this and the “right” extracurricular that – after a certain amount of brains, social skills will carry you much farther than any extra knowledge. And it just makes life that much sweeter to know how to look the cashier in the eye and have a short, meaningful interaction. Or to be able to banter with other parents at the kids’ soccer game. To be in the moment with the person in front of you rather than rehashing in your head some past event or worrying about some future obligation.


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