We had another wild storm last night. It woke me up at 1:00 a.m. and I didn’t go back to sleep until 3:00. This post was written during that time. It’s the sort of thoghts I have when I’m not sleeping in the middle of the night.
I remember when I had a reputation for being shy and quiet. I remember it, but in a third person kind of way. I can’t get back to it, and I can’t really remember what it felt like. For too many years now I’ve been desperately filling airspace with the sound of my own voice.
We all know people who talk too much, even if the “too much” is hard to quantify. Perhaps it’s too much of one thing – too much complaining, too much unbelievably boring detail about the minutia of life, too much self-promotion. Or perhaps it’s really and truly “too much”; just way more than one person’s share of words for a given day. Anyone who has parented a chatty preschooler knows how exhausting it is to be drowned in a sea of words.
I’m interested in what drives all the talking, including my own. I think it’s often more complicated than having a lot to say. We develop some weird coping skills – all of us, that is – and for some of us, the talking is a way of coping. We feel insignificant, so we talk to make others aware of our presence. We feel uncomfortable with others so we joke and perform to seem more at ease (although not entirely successfully). We are afraid of the real things that might rise to the surface between ourselves and others, so we produce a constant stream of small talk to keep everything painful at bay (again, not entirely successfully). We feel foolish so we talk to prove that we’re not (“Blah, blah, blah just yesterday I was reading an article on blah blah blah but I think it’s a real problem that needs to be addressed blah blah blah few people know the history behind that movement blah blah blah…). I have more than my share of experience with that one.
I’ve been with others who are trying to be the life of the party – unrelenting wisecracks and stories about themselves and little “bits” they do – and I want to say, “Why are you trying so hard? What would happen if you just relaxed and let the spotlight move off of you for a while? Are you afraid you’d just disappear – POOF! – and cease to exist?” But I have been where they are, and not in the distant past. I’ve been at social gatherings, feeling like the entertainment director – obliged to keep the conversation flowing, but largely through the venue of my own mouth.
There are, of course, people who are just naturally ebullient extroverts. I know they exist because I parent a couple of them. I’m not really writing about them. Interestingly enough, some of the most naturally extroverted people I know are also genuinely good at drawing other people into conversation, at making everyone feel included. So don’t feel criticized by this post if you are one of those people. I envy you.
What I know is that in my constant barrage of speech, driven by the anxiety of the moment, I am a terrible listener. I’m committing a number of offenses: waiting for my chance to speak next, rather than hearing what is being said; finding ways to turn others’ stories into my stories; looking to one-up in drama or poignancy or cleverness (whatever conversational currency is in use at the moment). I’m just not attentive to the people I’m with, and I often leave social settings feeling a strange hunger. It’s the result of having been with people without having been with them. I want to know and be known, but my speech becomes an obstacle to real connection. This is true even in my relationships with my children, with my husband.
I’m wondering if I could be quieter this week; If I could listen without feeling that I always need to have something to say. What would it do for the people around me? What would it do for me? What would I hear, if I could keep my mouth closed for a while?