[Note: As with every post on this blog, I can only speak for myself. Some Autistics are extroverts! I am not and this definitely contributes to my social limitations.]
I can become extremely fatigued when I have to engage in small talk. This fatigue is considerably lessened when I know the person I’m talking to; there’s just less to decode! But if it’s a stranger, I find it exhausting and often extremely pointless. To put it bluntly, I sometimes feel like my time and energy are being wasted.
It’s not necessarily that I don’t want to connect with people. It’s not that I don’t see that person as worthy of my time. It’s that it’s very tiring for me to converse. If there is overwhelming sensory input around, it’s doubly so. Giving some of my precious energy to someone I don’t know and quite frankly will likely never meet again is very frustrating for me. I think that a lot of people probably like idle chatting. But when I’m really tired I’d rather stick to a friendly nod and possibly a few polite words. A stranger asking me how I am or what I’m doing or telling me about their grandkids or ranting about job stress? It’s just too much and might mean I can’t complete a task later on.
And yet, perhaps because it’s what society has programmed me to do, I wind up plastering on a smile and engaging in small talking more often than I’d like. My husband and I went into a store to buy a new wiper blade. There was a solitary employee behind the counter who was clearly bored and looking more-than-a-little lonely. He helped us and then he made a quip about a sports team playing that night. Now, I care very, very little for sports of any kind. But I struck up a brief conversation with him as he rung us up.
On our way home, my husband (who is even more introverted than I am) said, “You’re really good at pretending to be extroverted. You make it look effortless.” I was shocked and thought about it. “Actually, I’m really exhausted now,” I admitted. “I’m happy it seemed effortless, but that’s almost disturbing, isn’t it? I’ve gotten so good at faking it for other people.”
If I have the energy, I am willing to (and sometimes even interested in!) small talk with people whom I know I will build some sort of relationship with. If the chatting seems like it will lead to a relationship (professional, personal, or service-oriented) which will be reciprocal, I tend to put more effort into talking. I’m trying to get better at not engaging and forcing myself to converse with people that I don’t want to. This might come off as cold or even calculated, but it’s a survival technique to exist in a neurotypical world.
I only recently realized just how very difficult and uncomfortable prolonged eye contact can be for me, especially if I am tired or overwhelmed. If the person is unfamiliar to me, an authority figure, or just intimidating, this doubles the discomfort. I don’t mind occasionally making eye contact with people that I know and feel comfortable with. I very rarely have any trouble looking in my husband’s eyes, for example.
Eye contact seems somehow inherently personal to me; it’s a private look into someone. It sometimes feels like if I look someone in the eyes for too long they will see right past the walls and into who I truly am. It can be incredible unnerving to feel like someone is scanning my mask, analyzing me, and searching for cracks in my facade of social competence. It can feel really invasive and creepy.
When I do make eye contact, it’s just another thing I am hyper-aware of: Don’t look away. They’ll think you’re dishonest or insincere. Is this enough eye contact? Ok, they looked away. I can rest for a while. What facial expression is that? Why did they move like that? Am I making too much eye contact? Not enough? UGH, I can’t concentrate!!
I’ve found that that inner dialogue and monitoring can be so distracting that I can focus on a conversation more clearly by not looking at a person. When I do this, however, I’m still plagued with thoughts like: Is it weird to them that I’m staring out the window? Do they think I’m not engaged? Have they noticed I’m not looking at them? More times than I can count, someone I’ve been speaking to has looked over their shoulder to see what I’m looking at.
Damned if I do, damned if I don’t, I guess!