“Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.” ~ Plato
I’m not saying my mother is a fool, but when I call her on the phone (I still do occasionally; she’s into Facebook and texting these days), more often than not she answers and launches into a monologue—though I was the one who called her and presumably had a reason. Until I was in my late thirties, I hardly recognized her doing it—because I did the same thing. I dominated conversations everywhere I went, whether I had something to say or not.
Dear friends and strangers, this is my confession: My name is Suzannah, and I am a serial monologist—a babbler, big mouth, blabbermouth, blatherer, blowhard, cackler, chatterbox, gabber, gasbag, jabberjaw, jaw-flapper, prattler, and windbag; I am a motormouth.
I will always be a motormouth monologist, but every day I work to be a polite conversationalist instead, confronting my inner blowhard and telling her to simmer down and listen for a change.
Let me be clear: I am not a monologist in the manner of the late, great Spaulding Gray, whose storytelling style sparked “The Moth,” a non-profit based in New York dedicated to the art of storytelling. And I’m not a monologist in the manner of the great Mike Daisey, who plants himself behind a desk without changing positions and for two hours captivates an audience of hundreds or thousands. I wish I were that kind of monologist. But no. I practice the second Merriam-Webster entry for monologue : “A long speech made by one person that prevents anyone else from talking.”
I’m not the only one who was brought up in a family of motormouths. You know who you are. Your aunts, uncles, and grandparents were gasbags, too. Children learn what they live— patterns of inane speech, the lack of common courtesy, and disregard for the sanity of others included.
When looking for “motormouth” online, I came across this: “Brock is such a fucking motor mouth, my fucking ears are hurting.” Though we find it invasive and irritating when we encounter prattling in our own families, some of us—like me—don’t understand that we’re inflicting worse agony on friends, acquaintances, and strangers.
Why am I a motormouth anyway? Not that I’m looking for an excuse.
Maybe it’s partly because I wasn’t taught to say, “I’m well, thank you for asking, and how are you?” I got the economy version: “Say, ‘Fine, thank you.’” So that’s what I said. But it wasn’t enough, was it?
Asking others questions about themselves—and listening to their answers—is the single most important mechanism that drives conversation. (I finally figured that out myself in the midst of my fourth decade, after a lifetime of floundering in ignorance.)
Eighty percent of you know that truism and have practiced it since kindergarten. I hope you don’t take it for granted. Not having known or practiced it made my life less than it might have been, not to say how not knowing diminished the quality of my life and the lives of countless others who’ve had to listen to me.
For years, Thanksgiving was spent with my stepfather’s family. I considered them a backwoods, but they did know how to ask questions. I’d arrive at noon for a one p.m. buffet and launch into my monologue, continuing all day and into the evening, only to fill the silence that I didn’t know what to do with. Asking them questions didn’t occur to me. I’m sure they saw my jawflapping as a sign of egotism, but the opposite was true. I was self-conscious for many reasons, and silence made me more anxious. I felt somehow responsible for it. Not knowing how to spark a dialogue with others, I rambled on. And on and on. And on.
Years later, I learned they never liked me. (Well vice-versa, dumbasses. And by the way, you could have said “Ever notice you never ask us any questions?” But I’d still be calling you “dumbasses” today., because you were too ignorant to call me on it.) I believe their disdain for me stemmed from my motormouth monologuing. What else could it be? I always floss.
At some point, however, I became proud of who I was becoming, an educated person (mother of four by age 26 who had never gone to high school), which made a lot of people discount me), but whom others recognized as being more than a breeder, especially because of my academic college scholarships. My motormouthing became a different animal, ego-driven, and I was as oblivious as ever to the effect I was having on others. I was unaware of what I was missing out on by not exploring their lives and of how they perceived me as a self-centered person, which by this time had come true.
When I began practicing corporate law at a large firm (after those long, country-time Thanksgivings, after my going to college and then law school as a mother of four), everyone I worked with had polite conversational skills. I learned a lot from the men in the mail room. They’d been taught to ask “And how are you?” and more. I followed suit and put my training wheels on. I fell down sometimes but, like now, looked for new ways to be polite and personable.
I began learning in earnest how to stop motormouthing when I’d have phone conversations with my SO while we were dating long distance. I’d pick up the phone and start monologuing and he’d gently school me about conversation. When we were together, he’d occasionally say, “You’re not talking to me; you’re thinking out loud.” What a concept.
Being crippled when it comes to conversation because you haven’t been taught how to have a conversation can be fixed easily enough, but when your conversational woes are due to introversion or social anxieties, the road to recovery is trickier. The crucial factor, of course, is having ready questions to ask, though you might start with a core few:
- Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?
- Where did you meet your spouse?
- How do you know our hosts?
- What is your typical day like? (Ask this if you don’t want to ask what a person does for a living, or if they tell you and you don’t know what the job entails. This can get interesting. Or not. But it can.)
- People love to talk about their children, so ask about theirs should they mention children. (This question has been used by others in conversation with me more times than I care to admit; it’s also a way to spot a motormouth monologist who hasn’t gotten revved up yet.)
- Do NOT ask “Do you have children?” or “Are you married?” Or worse yet, “When are you going to have children?” or “Why aren’t you married?” TRUST. ME. DO. NOT.
- Or you can give a person a compliment instead of asking a question. We should be complimenting one another more anyway. And laughing. We should be laughing more. Especially at ourselves.
A couple I adore who are among the most fascinating people I know ask their guests questions such as: “What deceased singer do you wish you’d seen in concert,” or “What’s the worst invention of the last hundred years,” or “At your ideal dinner party, who’s around the table—living or dead?” Talk about stimulating conversation! And this husband, shall we say, thinks a lot of himself, which proves that conversation doesn’t have to revolve around ego.
In his book, A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation, Daniel Menaker gives a few tips about how to have a good conversation, but his book is more of an exhortation to participate in actual conversations in this digital age. Menaker argues (I think correctly) that we are fast becoming a society who deals with one another at arm’s length, so to speak, just the distance from ourselves to our smartphones and keyboards. Menaker says in an interview with Ari Shapiro on Weekend Edition,
In conversation, if we’re attentive, we can find out what sort of impression and what sort of impact we’re having on others and learn about ourselves.
That turns self-centered motormouthing on its head! By focusing on the other and shutting up about ourselves, we learn about ourselves?! That’s the polar opposite of motormouthing.
Another polar opposite is silence.
Silence is golden. But what does that mean?
When I worked as an arbitration administrator, my kind manager gave me advice one day—probably because I was blathering. As the neutral party, we weren’t to share information with one side that the other didn’t get. Some negotiation skills were involved as well. My boss told me “Silence is power.” He was trying to keep me from sabotaging a case, probably, and I hope it worked. By being quiet, the other party became the uncomfortable one who felt they had to fill the silence, spilling information that might not have been gained otherwise. It’s a good strategy for gaining power, because like silence, knowledge is power. If I’d applied that principle to my life and said less about everything to everyone, I’d have been better off. I already knew the proverb about the fool who held his tongue being perceived as wise.
I apply both to my life now, which helps me not only keep my motormouthing under control but also to keep secrets—something I could not do before. Loose lips, baby. The worst! (Talk about other things that can make people dislike you.)
Why can’t I write something that is shorter than 2,000 words? Is it possible that I’m a motorwriter, too? That bears some consideration. Is there a strategy for that other than editing?
Perhaps I’m foisting too much of myself on you, dear friends and strangers, but I’m not finished yet. I have a couple more points to make. Stick with me?
Recently at a car show, I left my SO to go to the ladies’ room. On my way across the lawn, two women smiled at me. One said she liked my shirt. I told her where I got it. That lead to a conversation about the shop where I got it, the places where those two and I had been earlier that day, what my SO bought for my birthday (it was my birthday), how long I’d been engaged, how long one of them had been engaged, our rings, and details about our engagements that we hadn’t told to anyone else until that moment. That candid, intimate conversation among strangers bonded us. I almost asked for their emails. Then I realized that this kind of anomalous thing happens sometimes. (It especially happens to women in restrooms, which is its own subject and which usually involves the taking of adult beverages beforehand.) I bet it’s happened to you; You’ve told strangers things you haven’t told your friends or family, haven’t you?
Menaker wrote about this, too, and talks about it in his interview with Shapiro:
I have… amateur sociological theories about the structures of conversations, especially with people we don’t know well or don’t know at all. We sit down and talk for the first time and there seem to be various stages, and one of them is indeed something I called risk.
Usually, it happens when you’ve made a connection with someone on non-risky matters and you feel confident and comfortable with them. Then you may take a risk of admitting a weakness or discussing a hope, or a wish, or an ambition to tell something about yourself and you’re sort of testing the waters. It doesn’t have to be sensational or tabloid. It doesn’t have to be a confession of a crime.
So that’s what we’re ultimately looking for in conversation, even with a stranger? To become comfortable enough with the other person that we can open the door to the inner rooms of ourselves? Not to merely motormouth and say nothing of importance, but to have a meaningful back-and-forth that builds trust so we can reveal ourselves? That does sound more fulfilling than motormouthing. Motormouths eventually run out of gas, then they’re left empty. And alone.
I have a satisfying life with my SO, and had I not learned to stifle my inner blowhard, I’d be able to understand my mother’s astonishment by how I “handle” it. With him, I am regularly in social situations with people whose accomplishments and renown far exceed what most people achieve. It’s worlds away from being in a paneled living room with faded curtains and the smell of deep-fried turkey hanging in the air—and then again it isn’t.
“How do I handle it? I talk with them like I talk with anyone else. People are just people, Mom.”
And we are. The test in being able to socialize with people in what we might call “higher circles” is whether one can socialize around the Thanksgiving coffee table with their extended family. (Why did God create in-laws? How else would you meet people like that?!)
So take heart, my fellow motormouth a! If we can succeed with a ccardboard Chinet plate and a red Solo cup in front of us—or eventually learn to—we can take on the world.
I did edit and get this below 2,000 words. There is hope for me yet.