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Using small talk, chat, conversation and discussion to help children and adults become better communicators: with a helping hand from D.H. Lawrence and Britta and Shirley from Community

Date posted: Friday 12th July 2013

Britta and Shirley: big talk + small talk= zero communication

Britta and Shirley: big talk + small talk= zero communication

Sometimes I can sit in a room full of people and feel as if I am the loneliest person in the world. Actually that’s a load of melodramatic tosh: I live in France and am surrounded by French people who speak no English. As my French is rudimentary, I have to stick to very basic subjects, or sit quietly and listen in to the conversations going on around me. I have to work hard to be included: by leaning forward to listen in, make eye contact with the person talking, and smile or frown (if I can get the gist of what is being said).

However I sometimes long to be able to talk about subjects that are important to me; like the latest episode of Community. I want to share with my neighbours why this cult US comedy series set in, Greendale Community College, is so funny. It’s partly the characters, including Abed, the teenager with Asperger’s who seems to know more about human behaviour and communication than the so called ‘normal’ members of his study group. But my favourite is Britta, the ex-anarchist international campaigner, foot model and waitress. She desperately wants to ‘connect’ with other women, but doesn’t know how. Jeff Winger, the cool and aloof heartthrob ex-lawyer, gives her some advice: “Women love to group, so spend time in the ladies’ room making small talk while fixing your makeup.”

Britta heads off to the bathroom and meets self-confessed gossip addict Shirley. Shirley starts to tell Britta about her latest makeup party she plans to host with her mom. This gives Britta the heads up to launch into a tirade against international cosmetics companies who are denuding the rainforests and exploiting the women of remote tribes in the Matto Grosso. Shirley switches on the hand dryer and leaves, while Britta keeps on talking. It’s comedy brilliance with a social message (at least that’s how I justify watching it). Britta is not able to make a connection with her peers because she is always engaging in big talk, without being able to have fun chatting about small subjects.

(Big talk + big talk) + duffle coats = lots of discussion

(Big talk + big talk) + duffle coats = lots of discussion

This reminds me of myself when I left my all-boys’ school and started attending a local college to do my A Levels. I was very keen to connect with girls, but was a bit lacking in experience. Just before I left school, I spent a weekend with my brother, who was at university. I looked around at what the cool guys were doing. Many of them wore duffle coats, and had paperbacks sticking out of their pockets. These were carefully turned round so that you could read the author and title. I guessed the idea was that a chick would notice that you were reading Carlos Castaneda, or Hermann Hesse, or even Thomas Mann, and start talking to you about your cool choice of literature.

As soon as I left school I bought a duffle coat and copies of Lord of the Rings and War and Peace. I was going to attract some really literate chicks and spend hours talking about my favourite authors. Bad mistake: duffle coat pockets are designed only to take paperbacks of 200 pages or less.

So each day I tried a different book from my mum’s bookshelves: Death in Venice… Death in the Cathedral… Death of a Salesman… even Death on the Nile. Nothing. Not even a condescending look. What was going on?

A girl in our English Literature class was extremely quiet. Actually she was completely silent. Every morning, on my way to college, she would get on my train, and if we were sitting opposite each other (which I always tried to engineer) she would avoid eye contact with me. If our eyes did chance to meet, then she would blush and pointedly look away. I must admit, I found her silence quite fascinating. Why didn’t she speak? When she did talk, what would it be about? Would she give me her phone number? We were sitting opposite each other one day on our way back from college, when there was a big jolt, and the train came to a sudden halt. It was in the days before in-train announcements, so no one knew how long we would be stuck waiting. After 10 minutes of embarrassed silence, Penny (for that was the silent angel’s name) suddenly spoke: “You must be a very fast reader.”

I was a bit stunned. I went red and avoided eye contact. “You see, every day you have a different paperback in your pocket. Finally you have chosen one that I like. Do you like Women in Love? Do you think Lawrence is making a statement about war and inherent masculine aggression in the scene where the two men wrestle in front of the roaring log fire? And do you agree that Lawrence uses the character of Rupert Birkin to expound his ideas, including on gender?” I had to admit, because Penny clearly had me sussed and was enjoying teasing me, that I had only read the blurb on the back of the book, and by the time we reached the station I had confessed that I was no match for Penny on the literary front and was only using the books as a ‘babe magnet’. My game was up, but the genie was also out of her bottle. Not only did I get her phone number, but she asked me to go with her to see the Ken Russell film of Women in Love. Which was a bit of an eye-opener, I can tell you.

I got to know Penny quite well. A lot of people thought that, like Britta, she was aloof and stuck-up. But I think that she was just very very shy, and not able to engage people in small talk and chat. She much preferred to have discussions on topics about which she had some in-depth knowledge. Then she could ask questionsgive answersexpand ideas and make connections with other like-minded people. Unfortunately, try as I might, I could not get excited about the life and works of David Herbert Lawrence, and Penny felt equally cold about Tolstoy and Tolkien. She went on to gain a chair at a red brick university, while I am sitting on a chair in France writing a blog about her.

Where is this all leading? Well I think that many children, teenagers and adults who are very quiet, and unhappy about being so, need support to understand the different types of verbal interaction that we humans sometimes engage in. And the adults and peers who want to help them need to be clear too. Here are some definitions:

I often think of conversation as being like dancing: some people do it naturally without thinking, while others can do well with experience. Some, who develop quite significant anxiety, will need a lot of coaching and will develop their confidence if shown the right steps by a sympathetic partner: preferably one who is more interested in dancing with you than the small injuries that you inflict as you tread on her toes.

It’s very important for adults to know about the different types of interaction that are possible, and to be able to work out, when you are getting to know someone, what mode you are in, and what is appropriate. At a bus stop in Northern Ireland, for example, it is very likely that a stranger will say to you, “How are you?” That’s the local way of saying hello, and possibly an invitation to engage in small talk. I wish I had known this when a man covered in tattoos on a railway platform made eye contact with me and felt inclined to ask me how I was doing. I explained that I was feeling a bit bloated because I had been eating far too much bread recently, and I had just drunk some fizzy water which was making me feel a bit gassy. Fair play to him, he could tell I was out of my depth, as his next question was, “I take it you’re from England?” He’d met my type before, and he kindly steered me towards small talk about the weather. As we sat opposite each other on the train, we struck up a conversation about children, and I was able to give him some guidance about his wee boy of three who had just developed a stammer.

We will probably all know adults who are on either end of the interaction spectrum: those who only talk when they feel that they have something to say, and feel most comfortable when they are giving you a lecture, as compared to people who constantly engage in small talk, with lengthy bits of chat thrown in. I have met children who are judged to be extremely quiet, who are able to talk to an adult at length about a subject they know a lot about. It’s just that their specialist subject may not be part of the curriculum, or they might be worried that you might not be interested.

Britta and Penny were most comfortable with discussion, but it may have been helpful to support them to identify other types of communication, and to encourage them when they have a go at small talk and chat. Likewise with children who feel very uncomfortable about talking in groups: we can find out what their specialist subjects are, and find ways of including these in talk. So if a boy or girl from a farming family, for example, has a fascination with farm vehicles, we can find books on the subject and share these with them, and plan to include other children in the conversation/discussion and play. It can be helpful for teenagers who are finding it difficult to relate to their peers to learn about the value of small talk, chat and conversation.

Some people never make it down to the level of small talk and chat, but I live in hope that my French improves enough so that I can get to the lofty height of conversation!

For more information about supporting quiet children and those with selective mutism, visit

Supporting Quiet Children: exciting ideas and activities to help ‘reluctant talkers’ become ‘confident talkers’ by Maggie Johnson & Michael Jones, is available from or from Amazon.

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10 responses to “Using small talk, chat, conversation and discussion to help children and adults become better communicators: with a helping hand from D.H. Lawrence and Britta and Shirley from Community”

  1. Lovely piece Michael. I will have you know that yours is the only internet webloggery that I ever respond to.

    My area of interest is autism and one of the most commonly shared autistic characteristics (and remember when you’ve met one person with autism…you’ve met one person with autism) is the difficulty /inability to read facial expression.Which is the bit of social interaction that arguably comes before you’ve gauged whether you’ve been signalled to discuss your bloatedness or not.

    Ros Blackburn, a well-known speaker on (her) autism) describes having to ” do social” as like having hot needles poked in her eyes…..She doesn’t like it much.

    So shy children and adults may be just that, shy. But they may be people who have extreme difficulty actually processing non verbal social building blocks and avoid social interaction for that reason.
    Banter is always a word that rings alarm bells for me: I think I probaly engage in it;to a range of known and unknown (usually) men. I tend to hear myself not being myself. It might be Russell Kane who does some standup material where he deconstructs banter and acutely observes men who self-consciously “enjoy a bit”…of banter, as using the concept of banter or “bant” as a smokescreen for boorishness (at best) or offense (at worst).
    Re duffle coats and paperbacks. At Sussex Uni in 1975 it was a strategic album under the arm. ironically “Solid Air” by John Martyn was generally and unspokenly (remember we are talking young men here)agreed to mark you out as a sensitive non predatory type of chap. Ironic due to John Martyn’s penchant for (alleged) drink fuelled domestic violence. The advantage with an album is that there was no risk of being rumbled as a faux speed reader.

    My wife and I will be in France soon and we have developed a team approach to social interaction; playing to our strengths.I usually start the ball rolling as I have a good accent and am less shy. When I inevitably get stuck my wife backs me up with the grammar and vocabulary which she A) has more of and B) can martial more readily as she is not in the anxious frontline social zone.
    It all goes to pot when we move into Northern Spain, where not many people speak English and quite a lot prefer Basque to Spanish.It all goes very non verbal then and the social engagement that it engenders has it’s own lovely flavour.
    Happy Hols

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Tim
      You have hit the nail on the head here, in so many ways.
      I agree with you about the non verbal communication coming first. Sioban Boyce has written extensively about this, and her work has influenced me a lot. Recently I have been thinking that confusion about non verbal communication, particularly reading people’s faces, could be at the heart of difficulties like selective mutism.
      My colleague Amy Eleftheriades has been working with teenagers with ASD and also with confusion about social skills and language.
      I was going to do a post about album covers, and amazingly I was going to use Solid Air as an example, as it was my favourite album from when I discovered it in 74 to when I got fed up with John Martyn being drunk all the time at his gigs.
      You have inspired me to write something in that vein.
      The issue if social skills and belonging to a group is massive for all teenagers, but can also provide the possibility of exclusion for those who are not able to fit in, or who don’t want to fit in with the norms of the group(as marked out by clothes, music tastes, language, etc.) Nothing has changed since we were teenagers, except the styles.
      I will look at this and post an article that I wrote a few years ago on this subject in relation to teenagers with high sensitivity.
      Your double act with your wife sounds very effective, and is my experience every day!!
      Thanks for your inspiration!

      • Yes, difficulty reading social signals could be a significant factor in selective mutism – for children who have difficulty reading social signals. Equally, many children who work through their selective mutism (SM) go on to become excellent communicators – in both verbal and non-verbal modes, and I’m not sure it could be a factor for them? Indeed they will categorically tell you – ‘I knew exactly what I wanted to say and the right time to say it, but I couldn’t get the words out or get in quick enough’. I’ve always seen SM as having a lot in common with stammering in this respect. Indeed, if difficulty reading social cues was the primary reason for silence, it would rule out a diagnosis of SM, but I completely agree that children can struggle with social cues AND suffer from SM.

        I love your breakdown of different styles of verbal interaction Michael, that will be so useful! OK to include it in the second edition of the Selective Mutism Resource Manual and reference you?!

        • Michael Jones says:

          Hi Maggie
          Thank you for your very insightful and incisive comment, which has cleared my thinking about this. What you write makes total sense. Yes, we do have to be very quick to join in conversations; especially with more than one person, which will be the experience of all children in early years settings and school. If can take a lot of practice to get it right.
          I’m glad you like my definitions. Of course you can use them, but they come from my step-daughter Dani, who helped clarify the difference between chat, conversation and discussion. She is an expert at all of these things!
          Great to hear from you!

  2. Laura Henry says:

    Hi Michael

    This is a great blog!

    Have you come across Susan Cain’s book: Quiet: The Power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking?

    In addition, I wrote a blog linked to your blog:

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Laura
      Thank you for your kind comment and for sharing your great blog too!
      Yes, I know the Susan Cain book very well, and was delighted to see that it was a bestseller in Waterstones and WH Smith. One of my posts early this year was about Susan Cain’s ideas about being an introvert.
      Best wishes

  3. Judith Twani says:

    Hi Michael, another thought provoking reflection. I sometimes despair with my own obsession with talking about Early Years and going really quiet when anyone talks about anything else!!!
    I just love this celebration of different types of talk – thank you once again for highlighting the importance of tuning into the unique child.

    • Michael Jones says:

      Thank you Judith
      Hopefully everyone will grow up with special interests that are important to them; especially if they can use them to earn a living and connect with other people.It’s when they take over your life and you feel compelled to talk about these interests other people that it becomes a social problem. That’s the fine line between a special interest and an obsession.
      Luckily we share a fascination for children’s learning!
      Best wishes

  4. I agree Carol. In my experience of children with significant language delay or processing difficulties I have long regarded play/interaction with peers rather than the enormous amount of adults that constellation around these children as a significant developmental step along the road.It’s often really hard and the small signs of it happening are difficult to spot and even harder to facilitate because you(as one of those adults) tend to be there in the act of facilitating. It’s a skill to be able to back off,let go or do less rather than doesn’t look good when observed often as it doesn’t look like one of those Dfe example videos where what I call “over teaching” tends to be popular.
    Interestingly spell check tried to write Dfe as DDR does it know something we don’t?

    • Michael Jones says:

      Hi Tim and Carol
      I think you are onto something here. The ability to talk to other children/your peers as you get older, is vital for social development and happiness. How can we encourage that early on?

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