What’s The Deal With People Who Are Bad At Small Talk?

I’m socially awkward and bad at small talk. Thankfully, I have been such for long enough that it no longer particularly bothers me or impacts my personal or professional life. But having recently been in certain situations where I was reminded of this fact about myself, I found myself trying to answer the question which is this post’s title. I found this process illuminating as to the various ways we try to conceptualize behaviour deemed in some way non-standard, and although I didn’t reach any conclusion, I want to present here the options I considered, as well as why I didn’t find any completely satisfying.

I wanted to use an image of Levin from Anna Karenina here, a notable socially awkward character from literature, but the only portrayal of him I found looks nothing like he looks in my head, and anyway you wouldn’t know who it was, so here’s Sheldon.

Let me explain what I mean. A friend of mine, discussing a mutual socially awkward friend of ours, said that when talking to them about work stuff (in this case analytic philosophy) they were completely fine, but when the topic turned, say, to their personal life, they were ‘like a rabbit in the headlights’.

This, I think, is a pretty accurate description of what it feels like to me when I’m unexpectedly called upon to make small talk. I feel panicky, I get hot, I don’t know what to say. I find myself looking at the small talkee in the eye, because I know that’s what one does, but then looking away, because just looking at some randomer in the eye without saying something is weird.

Even among non-strangers it’s not much better. If I go to a dinner party with someone close to me attended by others not so close to me, I will tend to sit in silence. A lot of this can perhaps be attributed to the fact that I find the conversations boring (perhaps), but even if the topic is interesting it’s seldom that good flowing conversations result. Often the kindly hosts will turn to me, making an effort to include me, and I will fluster something out that leads conversationally nowhere.

I find this very puzzling. I don’t want to be a source of awkwardness in social situations — what I would most like is to blend in, make the chitchat, not draw attention to myself. I’m generally helpful and cooperative — if the same people hosting the dinner party asked me to help them carry a heavy fridge down the stairs I would do so gladly. Why do I fail to cooperate in the activity of being at a dinner party? I genuinely don’t know, but here are some options.

Hypothesis 1: It’s a phobia

As it happens, two of my earliest memories are of being awkward in social situations: of saying something, and being met with amused lack of understanding, and feeling myself get panicky and heat up. One possibility, then, is that it’s a phobia. This is a simple explanation and makes sense in terms of my history.

A problem with this theory is that — admittedly I’m no expert — apparently one way to cure phobias is via exposure. And I have other things about which I was mildly phobic that were cured this way (related to the topic of this post, I used to dislike eating in public, but got over that by doing so a bunch). But I’ve been exposed to many such small talk situations without this putative phobia being cured. So I’m not convinced by this hypothesis.

Hypothesis 2: It’s a biological or medical condition

The first thought is that something from my history explained it: the second is that something from my biology does. There are several possibilities that might have occurred to you, depending on how versed you are in such matters. It might be a question of some familiar neuroatypicality — say some sort of autism, which is often marked by non-typical social behaviour. Or it could be a personality disorder — browsing the DSM one will come across avoidant personality disorder. Or it could be a mental illness to be treated with drugs, like social anxiety disorder.

Maybe. One concern is that this doesn’t really shed much light on what actually is the deal with being bad at small talk — it just gives a label to it. A criticism made of the personality disorder taxonomy of the DSM is precisely this — it just groups together some traits with explaining anything. And similarly, as far as I’m aware, the treatment for social anxiety disorder are things like SSRIs. Maybe it is just a question of poor serotonin reuptake, but I don’t find that particularly satisfying as an answer to my lived experience. Another problem with the social anxiety disorder view is that I don’t, at least now, feel particularly bothered by sitting in silence at a dinner party — it’s kind of awkward, but it doesn’t really cause me much if any mental suffering. As to the autism view — I’m very far from an expert, but my experience with people diagnosed as autistic is that they are typically OK with small talk.

Before going on, let me introduce a speculative twist on this view that fits well with what it feels like to me. In small talk situations, I have the sense of being hyperaware of small facial gestures, gestures of uncertainty or awkwardness, or again comfort and ease, on the part of my interlocutor. I tend to think that when I notice a microgesture of uncertainty or awkwardness, then given my own uncertainty and awkwardness, I tend to panic. I’m thus somewhat tempted by the thought that social awkwardness is hypersensitivity. I would be curious if this were others’ experience, or if there were writing on it (I’m aware that hypersensitivity is a trait associated with the autism spectrum).

Hypothesis 3: It’s a deficiency in a certain learnable skill

I’m not particularly good at swimming, and at many other things. Could it be that making small talk is simply a skill I have never mastered?

Personally, I kind of like the thought of this one: if it’s like swimming, then it’s something that I could improve at. But it’s puzzling: why have I not improved at it, if I could? Surely it’s something I would want to do. The reason I haven’t improved swimming is because I prefer running and rowing machines. I don’t have a reason for not having improved at small talk, given the personal and professional benefits that would attend such improvement. But maybe the explanation for this is that:

Hypothesis 4: It’s a matter of taste

A final thought is just this: small talk is boring, I’m too high minded for it, and so I purposefully choose not to participate. On this view, social awkwardness is not a bug, but a feature: it’s indicative of someone who is concerned with more important things.

I like the sound of this one, of course. But I think it just doesn’t make sense, for reasons I gave above: I’m both a cooperative and a shy person. I try to make things go smoothly where possible and I don’t like attention. Even if I think small talk is boring (which I do) I would still participate in it if I could. So I don’t think this answer is right, at least for me.

In sum, I don’t know what to think. But I think it’s interesting that I don’t. I genuinely don’t know if it’s hardwired into my brain chemistry, the result of a phobia, an unlearned skill, or a matter of taste. That such a fundamental feature of my and many other people’s personalities should fall through the cracks of our understanding like this is an interesting fact about human nature.



Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books (bitly.com/cfnextract). Academic philosophy at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/

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