Compulsive talkers

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
March 15, 2001

Shut up!

Admit it. That’s what you’d like to say to the chatty co-worker or stranger who drags you into a conversation, then proceeds to monopolize it. Or how about the family member who doesn’t realize “How’re you doing?” is a rhetorical question.

Compulsive talkers lurk everywhere: work, church, movie theaters, concert halls, restaurants, even your friendly family reunion.

Paul Hardy won’t get sucked in by a blabbermouth again. At a previous job, Hardy always got wrangled into time-wasting conversations with a colleague he could never break away from.

“At first I thought she was just a nice, old lady,” says Hardy, 34, of Logan Square. “She would always stop by to ask how my weekend was or where my girlfriend and I were going to go on our next vacation. She somehow always managed to bring the conversation back to her, and once she got started she wouldn’t stop. I realized she only asked about how I was doing so I would ask about her.

“If she was another guy or someone closer to my own age, I would’ve been able to just brush her off. Because she was around my mother’s age, I could never be rude to her.”

Sound familiar?

Gloria Jennings, 25, empathizes. When she first moved into her suburban condo development, she went out of her way to be friendly to neighbors. Now, she can’t escape their hallway jabber and arranges her day to avoid them.

“I know there’s got to be a way to handle this so they don’t hate me and I don’t end up being resentful,” says the Naperville resident. “But I know with two particular neighbors, if I run into them in the laundry room, I will not be able to get out of there without needing to take a couple aspirin afterward. I’ve even told them I had something on the stove, and they offer to go help me make dinner.”

Chicago makeup artist Jamie Weiss, 41, works with a lot of actors, many of whom are self-centered, she says.

“It keeps them pacified to talk about themselves non-stop, so I don’t really mind,” says  Weiss. “I find that if I interject anything personal about myself, they gloss over what I said and go right back to talking about themselves.”

But workplace talkers may be the worst of the lot. Sometimes they’re your boss, but whatever their status, you feign niceness to keep peace and maintain a good image, if nothing else. You suffer through the lost minutes, undone tasks, a churning stomach and those heart palpatations you feel whenever you get a glimpse of this person.

You can’t run forever.

Before you make a game plan to handle these chatterboxes, it helps to know what you’re dealing with. First, forget about thinking of talkers in negative way, says Frank Sopper, president of Optimind, a for-profit division of Landmark College in Vermont.

“A lot of people talk a lot because that’s their cognitive processing style,” says Sopper, noting that St. Jerome became famous partially because of his ability to read silently. Until then, most people read aloud and verbalized their intentions.

“Our culture of silence in libraries and in workplaces goes back to St. Jerome, who, by the way, was ruthlessly sarcastic.”

“Verbalizers” appear annoying because they need to talk out their thoughts before they can settle on a conclusion (contradicting themselves along the way), compared with “movers” who communicate by doing something, Sopper says. Instead of saying “I love you,” a mover will smile and spend time with you. You’ll waste your time using non-verbal cues on a talker. You see, you’ve got to talk to them.

Jill Spiegel, author of Flirting for Success: The Art of Building Rapport (Goal Getters, $11.95), divides talkers into categories:        

The nervous connector: This person really desires to connect with you but is so nervous, he can’t stop himself. He talks to fill gaps and impress you with his nervous stream-of-consciousness blather. “Anyone can fix this by having self-awareness,” Spiegel says.        

The narcissistic gabber: This person thinks more about herself and her problems than engaging in a give and take with you. She could be talking in a room alone, and it would suit her just fine. “Everyone does this at some point.”        

The entertainer: Like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, these people like being verbal. While they tend to jump from one topic to the next without taking a breath, their blatherings have entertainment value. “You can go overboard with that,” Spiegel says. “Even if someone is dynamic, there always needs to be some give and take.”

The point is not all people simply like to hear the sound of their own voices, says Mark Gorkin, a psychotherapist known at The Stress Doc ( “I have one client who is a bright guy, but he didn’t get a lot of attention when he was growing up. He shut himself down as a kid. As compensation, he wants that attention now, and he overvalues how relevant his ideas are to other people.”

Then there are the “victims.” Women, especially, feel guilty about plotting to avoid compulsive talkers or being forced to rudeness in an effort to make talkers stifle themselves. If you’re a talker or value your relationship with a talker, let them know how you feel, Speigel says.

“Usually, you become aware of this by the people you’re really close to,” she says. “They say `It’s my turn. You’ve gotten to talk for 30 minutes. I didn’t get to say a word.’ People who meet you for the first time will kind of joke about it: `Hey, go ahead and take a breath. How about a decaf? They say it it in a fun, kidding way.”

They aren’t kidding.

If you have a tendency to overtalk, you can warn folks up front, says Speigel, a self-confessed entertainer/talker. She warns people that she’s “chronically perky” and to ask her to slow down if she gets ahead of everyone else.

“You can do that in a one-on-one conversation,” she says. You might say, Oh my gosh, I’m so excited to talk to you. Let me know if I’m overwhelming.

Plus, you’ve got to pay attention to more than just yourself. If a person grimaces or their eyes wander, take the hint.

It’s possible to be polite and avoid making yourself miserable.

“Maybe we can catch up in the morning on our elevator ride down,” Gorkin suggests saying. “You’ve told the person you will continue the dialogue at a later date, but you’ve also given him or her a time frame of a couple minutes.”         Can’t get a word in edgewise?

Try to Spiegel’s touch ‘n’ talk technique: “It’s always OK to touch someone on the hand,” she says. “If somebody comes up and talks at your desk for an hour, calm them down by touching their hand, and quietly say in a kind of whisper, `If I don’t get back to work, I’m going to be here late.’ That way you’ve said you’re great, but I’ve got to get back to work. They won’t feel insulted. It’s when we say things like `Could you just shut up!’ we have trouble.”

It’s worth a shot. And it sure beats moving.


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