It was my intention this week to write a nice little piece about the autumnal splendor of the Delaware shore, and the blustery approach of the winter calm. Those plans changed, however, after I joined family and friends for Thanksgiving dinner. Throughout the festivities, I couldn’t help but notice certain friends or relatives who talked excessively. I don’t mean just the excited goings-on and light conversation typical of parties and get-togethers. I mean the kind of chatter that makes you want to jump up and shout: ‘Help! He’s talking and he can’t shut up!’
We all know somebody who can’t stop blathering on during movies, TV shows, concerts, etc. We’ve all been exposed to the relative, or the friend of a friend, who dominates the conversation to the point where everyone starts to politely withdraw in disgust.
It’s funny (remember ‘Cliff’ from the old TV show Cheers?); it’s annoying, and a little pathetic. But compulsive talking can be a serious problem for certain people (not to mention those around them).
‘Compulsive’ refers to a particular behavior a person seemingly cannot help. Somebody who chatters compulsively is often aware of his or her excessive or inappropriate talking—but still feels compelled to keep it up anyway. The most common and basic cause of any compulsive behavior is anxiety. A person engages in compulsive behavior not because he particularly wants to, but because he’s so anxious that he has to do something to get his mind off that anxiety. Until the compulsive talker comes to grips with whatever he or she doesn’t want to think about, the talking will continue.
The root of this anxiety varies from individual to individual. But it often stems from deep-seated emotions of insecurity and inadequacy. Simply put, some people just don’t feel good about themselves. Despite the arrogance they appear to project by hogging the floor, in reality they feel like they don’t measure up to other people. There are basically two ways (both of them unhealthy) they can respond to these feelings. One is to withdraw in shyness and exaggerated humility. (Most surely the subject of a future column.) The other way is to try and demonstrate—to others AND to themselves—that they do, in fact, measure up.
So the need to prove oneself fuels this compulsive behavior. ‘What’s that you say? You have a new car? Let me tell you everything I know about cars’.’ Or: ‘You liked the game yesterday? Well, that was nothing! I’ll tell you about the game back in ’78’.’ Or, ‘So, it’s your birthday! I’ll never forget my birthday two years ago’.’ There’s an annoying, yet rather sad urgency to the person who tries to prove himself in this way. He feels like he hasn’t gained your acceptance, so he’s trying to get it by showing you all that he knows. If you ‘listen’ between the lines, he ends up doing the exact opposite by showing you the depth of his insecurity.
I once had a neighbor who was a severely compulsive talker. (I am not making this up.) She would quite literally yammer on and on and on, injecting into her running commentary things like, ‘I know I’m talking too much—I truly can’t help it—It really makes me feel like a crazy person—but I truly can’t help it’.’ She spoke in 15, 20 and even 30-minute sentences. It was bizarre, yet interesting, that in the midst of monopolizing the sound waves in the room, she could recognize her out-of-control, compulsive urge even as she engaged in it.
For her, the compulsive talking was an emotional ‘filibuster’ to contain her unease about whatever made her feel anxious. A filibuster is a conscious tactic for extending legislative debate in order to delay or prevent a vote. It consists of meaningless prattle, often completely unrelated to the proposed bill. A psychological filibuster is a subconscious attempt to keep from facing the insecurity one feels deep inside. In counseling, a number of insecure people have confided to me over the years: ‘I talk so I don’t have to feel bad about myself.’ Or: ‘I talk to avoid what I don’t want to talk about’I talk to avoid feeling what I don’t want to feel.’
For the compulsive talker, silence and reflection are simply unacceptable. A pause in conversation is an emotional abyss into which they simply cannot help but throw themselves. Just as loud music or traffic noise can distract us from the task at hand, incessant chatter acts as a distraction from whatever thoughts might surface during a silent moment. Obsessive talkers need to fill the quiet with auditory distraction, and the resulting avalanche of small talk can be excruciating to those unfortunate enough to be within earshot.
None of this is meant to belittle or insult our babbling friend(s). We don’t have the power to instantly change people, or to make them discover the roots of their behaviors if they’re not motivated to do so. But perhaps a bit of insight might help reduce the captive listener’s annoyance by reminding us that, beneath the veneer of ‘knowing it all,’ they actually feel like they don’t know all that much.