Help, I can't stop talking!

I talk, I talk, I talk ... I think I'm out of control.

Published October 25, 2006 10:45AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I talk too much! I have simply become unable to converse properly with people. I dominate conversations. I relate everything back to me, me, me. I inundate people with information, advice, opinion. I go into a zone in which I am unable to read the signs that people would like to escape from me. I think I'm starting to come across as a crazy person, which I don't think is 100 percent accurate (maybe 95 percent?).

I recently read a book about the art of conversation and I fell into every single "Don't." It was painful. I am deeply ashamed and disturbed. I have been fighting this for some time, but I only seem to get worse.

My dearest friends seem to think it's OK. They tell me that I am "interesting" and a great source of "useful information," even "amusing." But they are my friends and if they couldn't tolerate me, they wouldn't be friends. My husband agrees that I am completely overboard, but I lay some of the blame on him. He is not much of a talker, and because of the isolating nature of his work, he relies on me to provide him with news about current events, literature and family life. I'm in the habit of just blathering away when he's around.

I can be silent, even though it is somewhat difficult. But what I cannot seem to find is a middle ground. Once I open my mouth, it's all over.

Advise me.

Chatty Cathy

Dear Chatty Cathy,

Here is my suggestion for you. Tell a story. A story has a beginning and an end.

Start with a simple story. You went to the grocery store to get some soup. Anything having to do with the trip you can say. Anything else, you can't say. If you felt frustrated getting into your car you can say that. If the color of the car has always bothered you, you can say that. If you have an opinion about the 1970s American rock group the Eagles, you can't say that, unless "Hotel California" is playing in the store. Otherwise, the Eagles are not part of your soup. In that way your narrative is like a dish: Only certain things go into it. Things that do not go into it will spoil it. It is bounded by the things that go into it. In this way we are making boundaries around your talking.

So you get into your car and you start up your car and you drive to the store and go in the store and choose soup. You put soup into a basket or you carry soup in your hands. You take soup to the counter. You pay for soup. Soup is bagged.

Things might happen on the way that are part of the story. You may run into someone you know. That might be part of the story. You may find they're out of the soup you want. That can go in the story. You may notice while you are in the store that you don't like the way the store is laid out. That can go in. Keep moving it forward. Get out of the store. Get in your car. Get it started. Get back home. Get in your kitchen. End of story.

It was a simple story. It started with the heroic world in order and then a stranger came. The stranger's name was hunger. You confronted hunger, understood hunger, met hunger head-on. Then you went on a journey searching for a solution. You knew what the solution was. The solution was soup. But it was not certain you would find the solution immediately. There were tests and trials. There were things to be overcome. There was the music on the store stereo -- let's say an instrumental version of "Hotel California" meant to distract you, enrage you, derange your senses and drive you out of the store without soup. But you got soup anyway. And you have returned. You are back in your world and you have soup. You are in your kitchen. That is the end of the story.

Except: Do you have a can opener? Where is it? Is it working? But that would be a second story.

So I suggest you try this. Try telling simple narratives from beginning to end. At first it may be quite difficult. Keep at it. You will be awakening a little-used part of your brain. It will get stronger as you use it.

This is of course easier said than done. But if you always ask yourself: Am I telling a story? Is anything happening in my story? Where does my story end? then maybe you can get a handle on your compulsive talking.

That is my solution and I should stop now.

But if you care to continue, I will offer certain random items, with your indulgence, as a kind of addendum:

Here is something that actually might be useful, from a business consultant.

And this is an interesting account of a research project designed to identify the characteristics of compulsive talkers. I especially like this account of what happened when they called the people up to get them to participate in the study:

"It was clear that these persons were indeed compulsive talkers. At every point in their interactions they generated a stream of nonstop verbalizations. In the initial telephone calls, the 'talkers' were reluctant to hang up. The researcher that called them did not want to offend them by saying 'Goodbye, now,' and some of the calls lasted 30 minutes or more. When respondents finished filling out the questionnaire booklet, they were reluctant to leave the site. They continued talking out into the hall and down the stairs. While the sample may not have been randomly drawn, their behavior showed that they fit the definition of 'compulsive' very well."

You might find it interesting to locate yourself on the "Talkaholic Scale."

And finally, here is Indian novelist and journalist Khushwant Singh on the subject of compulsive talkers: "Retired soldiers have a high place on my list, the topmost being the late General Nathu Singh. Everyone in my family: parents, brothers, sisters-in-law loved him. But once he got going, we had to take turns to listen to him."

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