Understanding A Thanksgiving Nightmare: The Non-Stop Talker

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What can you do when your dinner partner can't stop chattering?
What can you do when your dinner partner can't stop chattering?

By Jessica Alpert

At a beautiful Thanksgiving a few years ago, I was dazzled by the elegant table, the softly falling snow, the lively chatter.  It was all so ideal that I barely noticed who I sat next to — until it was too late.  The older woman, a total stranger we’ll call Beatrice, asked me my name.

That was the last time I uttered a word.

Within fifteen minutes, she had covered her childhood, a painful adolescence, a draining marriage (her husband was only a few seats away), ungrateful children, a dazzling career and a cancer diagnosis.  I smiled and nodded — attempting concern and compassion.

But beneath the veil, I was completely desperate.

Half an hour later, my annoyance had waned and my interest in this peculiar situation had grown.  Could there be a diagnosis for excessive talking? And more immediately, what should I do? What could I do?

It’s Just Their Personality

When I describe Beatrice to Dr. Jason Elias, Director of Psychological Services and Clinical Research at the Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Institute at McLean Hospital in Belmont, he notes that excessive talking could be the result of numerous issues: “Anything across the spectrum — simply personality type or something severe like mania. There are also people who are worriers.  Talking and talking and talking is a way to cope.  It’s not functional and doesn’t usually result in an action plan but it feels productive in the moment.”

Half-way through the conversation — or let’s be honest, the monologue — I eventually decided my dinner companion was a nervous wreck.  She didn’t know me and she had to fill in any possible silence.  Dr. Alice Flaherty, a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an Associate Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, agreed. “Sounds to me like a classic case of social anxiety. But there’s really only way to figure out — try interrupting.”

Flaherty explained that those with social anxiety will likely be able to step away from the excessive talking once interrupted but those who are manic probably won’t be able to rein it in. “They won’t be able to respond and redirect the conversation, they’ll remain in their little world.”

Focused vs. Fleeting

Dinner companion Beatrice covered a lot of terrain in thirty minutes. I could have written her biography.  But some excessive talkers are narrowly focused on one idea.  According to Dr. Flaherty those who are tuned into one piece of information aren’t manic. “People with Aspergers’s tend to be stuck on a singular topic — like fan belts. Every little thing about fan belts.”

Especially when it comes to people with autism and Asperger’s, some social cues need to be taught.  “We take these things for granted,” says Dr. Jason Elias of McLean. “But some people need help understanding social cues. What does it mean when someone makes less eye contact, when they turn their body away, when they look at their watch.  We have to help people decode the information.”

Elias also teaches the value of silence.  “In therapy with people who have social anxiety, I practice ending at an awkward pause and just sitting there.  I try to help people just sit with it.”

Viscosity or “Stickiness”

Beatrice bombarded me with facts about major moments in her life but she also told me her butcher didn’t know how to cut pastrami and her dry cleaner ruined her favorite sweater.  Dr. Flaherty calls this “viscosity — a stickiness where people think every single detail is crucial and they can’t tell the important from the unimportant.  It’s not manic, it’s an inability to tell things apart.”

Those with viscosity can also be shut-ins: They don’t have the opportunity to speak with people on a daily basis so they feel the need to vomit every detail as soon as they have someone’s attention.

Both Flaherty and Elias say these situations happen to them quite frequently in clinical and non-clinical settings. Elias relies on body language and phrases infused with empathy, like “whoa, I’m even feeling overwhelmed by this," or “let's take a breath and talk about something more pleasant for you."

When working with patients, Flaherty is gently upfront, recently responding to a manic patient with “let me just stop and redirect our conversation.”  But sometimes, Flaherty admits, there’s no other option than a fake escape.  “Doctors can page themselves out of patient’s rooms.  Maybe you can call yourself on your cell phone?”

For more tips and guidance, I turned to Daniel Menaker, author of “A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation.” Here are his top three tips for managing an excessive talker, maintaining a level of social decorum, and not losing your cool.

1. Embrace the fact that it’s a meal.  Or, just interrupt
Seize on those mouthfuls as the "edgewises" you are looking for.  Or non-verbally interrupt.  Spill a little water, excuse yourself to use the facilities or propose a seat-switching ploy.  If you’re really trapped, use a full-front interruption. Simply “Let me interrupt you here,” or “My Turn!”

2. Abandon ship
Fifteen minutes or, God help us, half an hour is a good limit for tolerating a bad conversation.  If it’s cocktails, keep your glass nearly empty and excuse yourself for a refill.  Or see someone else at the party you “simply must” talk to — even if that person doesn’t really exist.

3. “Educate” an Excessive Talker?

When someone is clearly monopolizing the conversation, try these:  "Give me a chance to say something, please." Or, better yet, and a very skillful move that I've seen good conversationalists employ, "Do you want to know what I think about that?" or "Would you like to hear my version of the same experience?" In other words, ask a question that will leave your interlocutor no choice, really, but to keep quiet.

This program aired on November 23, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Health Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for Bostonomix.