Do you like small talk?

Imagine only ever having small talk with other people, never getting the opportunity to have more personal conversations with those you have an established relationship with. For some of you who are less relaxed talking to friends and family on the phone, you may have experienced having limited diaglogue with people across the past two years- as we moved in ... Read More The post Do you like small talk? appeared first on The Mutty Professor.

Do you like small talk?

Imagine only ever having small talk with other people, never getting the opportunity to have more personal conversations with those you have an established relationship with.
For some of you who are less relaxed talking to friends and family on the phone, you may have experienced having limited diaglogue with people across the past two years- as we moved in and out of Covid restrictions.

Subconsciously (or for some, perhaps very consciously) when we interact with less familiar people we start to assess their body language and the interaction:

– Do they like me?
– Do I like them?
– How do our personalities fit together?

There is a natural social heirarchy that social species immediatly start to navigate.
What underpins every social interaction is the need to feel and stay safe. Being safe is how we survive! We need to know as quickly as possible, is this individual safe to be around?
This assessment isn’t a result of paranoia, but is a simple survival instinct all living beings have. The intensity we feel this will depend on many factors in addition to the other individual’s behaviour, including, our internal state that day (how we feel emotionally and physically), our inherited traits and our learning history (which form our personality).

This social navigation and assessment can become incredibly tiring, more so for some than others. I am a person who is comfortable in my own space and I can start to get very tired in prolonged social situations (such as a weekend away with friends). I will often need to retreat and recharge for a bit, even though my friends make me feel safe. I am best socialising in smaller doses with people familiar to me because I get very fatigued by the process of creating new relationships, perhaps because I have to interact with so many people for my job.

Of course, sometimes, these things are effortless. When you just ‘click’ with someone. But often work needs to be done and it takes time to feel safe.

Now, us humans are (or should be) quite capable of running proportionate risk assessments depending on the context.

If you have walked into a shop under your own control and initiated a conversation with the staff member, who has also chosen to be there that day and expects customer requests, one would hope that neither of you feel particularly threatened by eachother, assuming both of you are being polite. If one was rude, then that may be a different experience based on each person’s threshold for feeling threatened.

If you are trundling along, deep in your own throughts, and someone suddenly says “excuse me?”, many of us will have a momentary rush of adrenalin, even if small. This unexpected and uninvited interaction can catch us off guard and our natural survival response (the activation of the sympathetic nervous system- the fight or flight response) kicks in, without us even trying or being aware of it.
If the person asks “do you know where the nearest cash machine is?” most of us are able to quickly recover and give directions in a relatively relaxed fashion. If the person starts to have a random conversation with us, we may remain on guard and cautious depending on our learning history, their body language and what they are saying. What do they want? What’s their motivation to approach me?

Am I safe?

If we delve into context further, let’s think about the differences we may feel if we were approached on a busy shopping street or when walking alone (or even with a group of friends) in a more remote location.

– Those with no previous negative experiences with people may cope better.
– Some with low confidence and/or social anxiety may find the situation very stressful and experience residue stress for some time after.
– If someone is highly stressed, even if from an unrelated experience (such as work) they may startle more strongly when approached by an unfamiliar person.
– If someone is feeling in pain or unwell, they may be less willing to chat to someone unfamliar, because they already feel vulnerable (not safe). Many of us will stay at home if we aren’t well and choose to withdraw from social situations until we feel a bit better.
If you are not well or hurting, you are less able to flee or fight when faced with danger. Whilst we can try and have some level of control over this feeling, we have to remember that many of these processes are automated (beyond our control).
– If someone has a history of trauma, then their perception of a perceived threat can be far more quick to activate and their response may be far more extreme (and some may well internalise this).

Let’s now all consider our dogs and how they are expected to navigate the world. A social species with a decreased ability to rationalise than us humans, their ability to regulate emotional responses (positively or negatively) is greatly influenced by their development stages and learning history.
If we have a healthy, pain free dog with no known history of physical or emotional trauma, who has been protected by their care giver to instil an overall feeling of safety in a broad range of contexts – they can likely cope far better than one with a different learning history or health status.

BUT! We need to take into consideration their individual personalities (albeit partially shaped by their experiences). Are they like me and able to socialise well in small doses? Or are they like my partner, who can have a quality conversation with twenty unfamiliar people in a row?

A dog who is in pain, feeling under the weather, just had a stressful day (trip to the vets, groomers, visitors round etc) may not want small talk and may react disproportionately to a situation if they do not immediately feel safe (such as poor social etiquette or tension from the other dog).
A dog who has negative experiences or perceptions of other dogs may really struggle with small talk, and may benefit from developing a social circle of compatible friends (at their pace) and develop the feeling of social safety in a more predictable scenario.

It is not ‘normal’ for a social species to fleet around enaging in constant small talk after small talk, day in and day out. Generally, a social species will focus their interactions within a social group. Even if an individual is highly social and exciteable, it’s not overly sustainable to be so intensely excited numerous times a day, seven days a week across the whole year. Even the most talkative and social person will probably take time to recharge so not to burn out.

Yes, some individuals appear to want to interact with EVERYONE! But, does that individual want to interact with them? How will they communicate they don’t want to interact and what will be learned if they use more overt behaviours to request space? If an exciteable person meets a quiet person and doesn’t leave them alone, how might that person ask to be left alone, and what if they aren’t heard the first time?

The more unfamiliar interactions our dogs engage in, the higher the risk of a negative experience, which if repeated may deepen the overall feeling of NOT feeling safe.

My dogs do meet some unfamiliar dogs and people, but not on every walk and not with every person/dog that comes along. They have lots of people and dogs they know, who they love bumping into on their walks or meeting for walks. Regulating interactions can lead to an increase in overall quality of interactions.

I think many owners do not recognise the momentary stress that is experienced during frequently repeated interactions with unfamiliar dogs (and people) and how counter-productive this can be in creating the social dog they want. Many expect dogs to tolerate meeting countless dogs and people on every walk.

– Recognise when your dog is not at optimum (physically or emotionally stressed) and give them quiet time. Some days, we are better at small talk than others.
– Observe what your dog’s ‘social profile’ is. How do they really feel about small talk? How do they feel about having dog friends that they know well?
– Recognise social preferences change with age. Individuals may be highly social when young, and then become selectively social when older. Think about kids, put most youngsters together and many will talk and play, whereas, us adults can be far more choosy and value our space more.
– Learn how to create space on walks to give your dog more time to themselves, especially following some small talk, by curving around other dogs or waiting while they pass by.
– Learn how to read whether another dog is welcoming of an intercation and whether the interaction is beneficial for both dogs.
– Give your dog walks where they don’t have to interact with other dogs or people (take them somewhere quiet).
– Manage your expectations. Dogs do not have to enjoy the company of every dog or person and we can avoid escalation and incidents by not expecting them to, and responding to our dog’s behaviour that day and the situation in front of us.
– Create a circle of compatible dog friends and meet for walks. Your dog does not have to sniff and play with a dog to be friends with them. Simply cruising together at a distance they can stay relaxed and hanging out is enough for some dogs.

You can learn more about dog interactions from my two webinars on Body Language and Play which are a mere £12.00 each.

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