I’M AT THE ANNUAL SCHOOL FUNDRAISER, and everyone, it seems, is having a great time. Everyone but me. lithe problem? That mouth. For what seems like an eternity, it hasn’t stopped jabbering.
“What do you do?” I innocently asked a mother I had never met before. Half an hour later, I am drowning in a flood of words: She’s told me about her job, her hobbies, her interests, her children–and she’s still talking. At first, I pretended to be interested. I nodded. I agreed. I tried to join in. Now, with glazed eyes and frayed nerves, I’ve stopped listening altogether.
She, of course, hasn’t even noticed. She just keeps prattling on.
NO DOUBT, YOU’VE BEEN THE VICTIM OF A chatterbox or two. With an endless supply of words, she may hold you hostage on the phone or trap you in a corner at a cocktail party. And though she may be perfectly nice, she seems clueless about the difference between a monologue and a dialogue. Maybe the chatterbox you know is your cousin. Maybe she’s your next-door neighbor. Or maybe … she’s you.
“Talking too much is like having bad breath,” says Sherry Lehman, a family therapist at Kindred Sacramento. “It turns people off, but they are too scared to tell you you have it.” That said, there are no simple rules for saying how much is too much. Talk tolerance varies widely; some busy people today think any attempt at a conversation is an imposition. (One study found that doctors usually don’t allow patients to talk longer than 18 seconds before they interrupt.) Still, true blabbers always run the risk of not being taken seriously–or worse. Here, some of the most common types you’re likely to encounter(*):
THE MARATHONER Also known as the long-distance, superendurance talker. “She calls and just talks and talks,” says Teresa Hagan, 51, describing a close friend. “She may start out talking about a trip to the mall, and forty-five minutes later she hasn’t gotten past the part where she’s getting into the car. Her phone messages are so long that the tape runs out on my answering machine: She will talk to a machine!”
THE CAMP COUNSELOR Bridget Carpenter, 30, of Los Angeles, coined this term to describe herself. “A camp counselor,” says Carpenter, “always has to engage everyone and entertain them. Well, I feel that’s my role too. At a dinner party, if there’s a pause, I feel it is my duty to say something, to make the evening better–even when it’s not my party.”
THE SERIAL AUTOBIOGRAPHER “The first time I met her,” says Jane Steps, 49, retorting to the board president at the day-care center where she volunteers, “I knew everything I could ever possibly want to know about her–including the fact that her son didn’t get married until he was thirty-four and her daughter is a lesbian.” She adds that the board has yet to vote on a single issue. The reason? “She never stops talking long enough for us to take one.”
THE (SHARE MY) PAIN Cindi Cook, 34, a writer in New York City, confides that she used to jabber on to make those close to her commiserate. “One time, I was trying to tell my sister that I lost my handbag on the subway. But instead of just telling her, I began with how long I had to wait for the train, how there were no seats when I got on, and whatever else went wrong. My sister had to interrupt to say, `Cindi, please, get to the point!'”
WHY DO WOMEN, EVEN SMART, ACCOMPLISHED women, talk too much? Often it’s not for the reason we suspect–that they are blazing egotists with an over-inflated sense of themselves and no concern for our time, blood pressure, or mental health. Instead, many women talk and talk because they don’t think anyone is really listening. “If a woman doesn’t think she’s getting her point across, she’ll tend to go on and on,” explains Diane G. Sanford, Ph.D., a psychologist in Saint Louis. For example, says Sanford, in marriage counseling, men’s greatest gripe is that their partners won’t stop talking. And women’s? “That their partners don’t listen,” she says.
Other women blather on because they are nervous and uncomfortable with silence. “Men are used to silence,” says Dori Winchell, Ph.D., a psychologist in Encinitas, CA. “They have been socialized not to share their feelings. But for women, silence prevents them from knowing what someone is feeling. It means something must be wrong.” Perhaps the biggest reason women talk to excess, say experts, is that they’re insecure. “These women,” says Jane Greet, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist in New York City, “may need an audience to validate themselves. They are in constant need of the approval of others.”
Ironically, although a chatterbox’s intention may be to connect, her gabbing, more often than not, results in the exact opposite. “It backfires,” says Lehman. “What everyone wants most is to be close, to have a friendship. You can’t get that if you’re a chronic talker. The talking pushes people away.”
Even if you don’t literally chase people off, you can deprive yourself of the chance to learn from them. Kristin Thielking, 30, of Madison, WI, confesses to having “overwhelmed” dates with her nonstop chatter. “You have a lot to say” is how one man delicately put it.
Gradually, Thielking says, she’s learned to hold back: “It’s easy for me to fill in other people’s answers. But then I’m not hearing their thoughts anymore. I’m hearing mine or my interpretation. I’ve learned that if I wait out the pauses, I’m rewarded: There’s always something valuable at the end of a pause.”
A Self-Defense Plan
* Start the clock. “Say, `I only have fifteen minutes,'” advises Jane Greer, Ph.D. And stick to it. That way the person knows she doesn’t have a captive audience. Of course, this is more easily done on the phone than at a party.
* Change the subject-preferably to one your nonstop talker knows little about. “There weren’t too many subjects my mother-in-law didn’t have a lot to say about,” confides Amparo Marks, a speech pathologist in Wayland, MA. “But if I just refocused her or got the subject changed, I stood a better chance of at least getting to talk a bit too.”
* Interrupt. Forget your manners. Don’t wait for her to stop so you can begin to talk. “Some people will never stop,” says Deborah Tannen, Ph.D., author of You Just Don’t Understand. “Overlap them. Break in and just talk.”
* Fidget. Cease eye contact. Yawn. Pick up a magazine. Anything to indicate that you’re bored. Or signal for help from someone else. Shawn Carter, 39, of South Orange, NJ, gives her husband a wink if she finds herself trapped by a yakker. He does the same thing. “The wink is our shorthand way of saying, `Please rescue me.’ It works like a charm.” If all else fails, walk away.
* Tell her. There’s still one more option, which you should use only with someone you care about: Tell the talker she’s talking too much. It may hurt, but in the long run, you’ll be doing yourself–and her–a favor.