Are You a Captive Listener?

The approaching holiday season will most probably be accompanied by get-togethers with family and friends. All that can be lots of fun, but it has its limits. It’s my nature to stand back and listen to people (it’s what I do’), and I can’t help but notice how certain people talk excessively. Not just animated party banter, but the kind of chatter that makes you want to jump up and shout: ‘Help! He’s talking and he can’t shut up!’

The world is full of otherwise nice people who can’t stop blathering during movies, TV shows, concerts, or who dominate the conversation to the point where everyone starts to politely withdraw. It’s funny, annoying (remember ‘Cliff’ from the old TV show ‘Cheers’?) and a little pathetic. And it is sometimes indicative of a serious problem.

‘Compulsive’ refers to a behavior a person cannot seem to help. People who chatter compulsively are often aware of it, but feel compelled to do it anyway. The most common cause of any compulsive behavior is anxiety. A person behaves compulsively not because he wants to, but because he’s so anxious that he has to do something to get his mind off the anxiety.

Until he comes to grips with whatever he doesn’t want to think about, the yammering will continue.

The root of anxiety can be deep-seated feelings of insecurity and inadequacy, i.e., some people just don’t feel good about themselves. Despite the arrogance they appear to project, in reality they feel like they don’t measure up. They respond to this in two ways (both of them unhealthy): (1) they withdraw in shyness and exaggerated humility, and/or (2) they try to demonstrate (to others AND to themselves) that they do, in fact, measure up.

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’.’ There’s a sad urgency to this attempt to prove oneself. The subject feels like he hasn’t gained your acceptance, so he’s tries to get it by showing you all he knows — when in fact he’s showing you the depth of his insecurity.

I had a neighbor years ago who was a compulsive talker. As she yammered on and on, she would inject into her 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 can’t help it!’ She spoke in 30-minute sentences. It was sadly funny, yet interesting that she recognized her compulsive urge even as she engaged in it.

Her emotional filibuster helped to contain her unease about whatever made her feel anxious; allowing her to disregard, at least temporarily, the insecurity she felt inside. A number of insecure people have confided to me over the years that they talk so they don’t have to feel bad about themselves, or so they don’t have to face what they don’t want to talk about.

For my compulsive neighbor, silence and reflection were out of the question. A pause in conversation was an emotional abyss into which she simply could not help but throw herself.

Just as loud music can distract from the task at hand, incessant chatter distracts from whatever thoughts might dare to surface during a silent moment. Obsessive talkers need to fill the quiet with auditory distraction, and the avalanche of words 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 this little bit of insight can help reduce the captive listeners’ exasperation by reminding us that, beneath the fragile veneer of ‘knowing it all,’ they actually feel like they don’t know very much at all.