Wednesday, April 1, 2009

You Don't Say!

Just talking” is an activity that I immensely enjoy, though anyone who knows anything knows that there is no such thing. Conversation, or the lack thereof, tells a great deal about the inner workings of the human mind—for better or for worse.

My daughter Amy and I have spent a considerable amount of time “just talking” about the various styles of communication—especially those that we find off-putting:

The first are the Not That So Much As… variety. You will say, “I am really concerned about how all this moisture will affect the farmers next spring,” and they will reply, “Well, it’s not that so much as the price of diesel fuel that’ll keep them out of the fields.” They are begging to differ, but wanting to appear pleasant about it.

Closely related are The One Uppers. You will tell the story about how you had to take your child in for stitches on her forehead and they will tell you about the time they nearly cut their own leg off with a chainsaw. No matter what experience you've had, they've had one more exciting, horrific, thrilling, embarrassing.

Another variation of these competitive conversationalists is the Know-it-all. Whatever you are talking about, they already know all there is to knoweven if they don’t and you know it. Unless you are feeling especially combative yourself, it is best to listen quietly and change the subject ASAP. But good luck. The next topic won’t be any better.

Then you have The Detail Police. They take classes in college for verbal accuracy and approach every mundane exchange as though you were in court and they were sworn to absolute truthfulness. They despise poetic license in storytelling and hold you to factual precision—challenging every minor discrepancy. You could be on a roll, relaying a hilarious story that involved the pizza delivery guy and Grandpa Joe’s car and they will cut in: “No, we didn’t order pepperoni pizza on Friday last January! I specifically remember it was sausage pizza (because I had to take a Tums) and it was Saturday, because they canceled church the next day when it snowed. Besides, it was in February—right before Valentine’s Day.” My response to all these corrections is: WHO CARES?!!

Next you have The Compulsive Gossips. Who will cast the first stone here and claim they have never talked about other people? Surely, you’ve heard about the woman who said, “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, sit by me!” We all like to hear “news” and much of our conversation revolves around the actions of others. But how uncomfortable to be around someone who is sarcastic and malicious and spreads rumors without getting the facts straight! But honestly? The really scary part is knowing that this person is just as content talking about you when you aren't around!

Not all talkers are overbearing and negative. Some are just as annoying by their unbridled enthusiasm. Have you ever met The Smile-Nodders? You become so distracted by their positive body language, as they push you along in your story, that you lose your train of thought. An add-on component to these friendly prodders is the Smile-Nodder-Finisher. They’re like little dogs that walk ahead of you on the road, tripping you every few steps because they think they know where you are heading. You say, “Last week I went to the Cities…” and they finish the sentence for you, looking up hopefully, nodding and smiling. “Oh, LUCKY! I wish I could go to the Cities. I’d love to go to the Mall and do some shopping.” “No,” you begin again, clearly taking a different path. “I had to have eye surgery at the U…”

A similar vocal enthusiast, one who never learned to take turns, I have dubbed The Butter-Inner. You talk and they talk at the same time—like you’re on cell phones with a delay. “Oh, sorry,” you mutter. “Go ahead.” And that’s how you spend your entire time together—tripping over each other in a poorly choreographed, and exhausting, verbal dance.

And then there are those who don’t understand the subtle nonverbal rules of engagement—The Smotherers. They lean toward you when they talk, locking you into their monologue with their eyes, blatantly violating the universally understood 24-36 inch boundary of personal space. You retreat to catch your breath (and composure), fighting panic and feelings of infringement. They advance, still talking, until they have you trapped against a wall. While you appear to be smiling on the outside, inwardly you’re writhing on the floor, frothing at the mouth, hoping they will soon get to the blasted point. These affectionate folks are best matched with Smile-Nodders (who give abundant nonverbal feedback), as they suspect you are simply not tracking with them. Smotherers are easily identifiable when they ask rhetorical questions, then demand a response: “Do you know what I mean?” You’d better tell them you do or they won’t move on or move over.

One of the most challenging styles for me is The Lazy Loafers. Talking with one of these guys is like playing catch with someone who won’t throw the ball back. You end up exhausting yourself trying to find a topic to engage them. “Nice day!” you observe. They say nothing, leaving you to fetch the ball yourself. You sprint back with it, panting, for another try: “One time, I was walking on the beach and I tripped over buried treasure!” Still nothing.

Lazy Loafers come in two flavors. Type 1 LL is palatable enough. They laugh at all the right places and appear to be enjoying your monologe, though wild horses couldn’t drag an opinion or personal vignette from their lips. If they laugh often and convincingly, I am motivated to keep talking until I am completely drained and sickened by my own lack of verbal restraint, as I attempt to provide the entertainment they so desperately seem to need. Type 2 LL is the most distasteful of all. These people exhibit no discernible sense of humor. They contribute nothing to the conversation AND they fail to find me amusing. I avoid these people and duck into hiding when I spy them in public.

If you’re a parent, you regularly engage with Juvenile Jumblers. You know there are vast variances in the number of words children speak in a day and it is your job to interpret. On one end of the spectrum are the little guys who take 45 minutes to tell you every last detail of a ten-minute cartoon and you listen until your ears bleed. At the other end—reticent teenagers who make you feel as though you’re conducting an interrogation at Guantanamo Bay: Where are you going? Nowhere. Who are you going with? No one. What do you have planned? Nothing.

I am sorry to report that I have been most of these individuals at least some of the time. My least developed conversational skill is listening. Sometimes I find that, as we say around our house, “I forgot to pay attention.” I daydream when others are talking or I concentrate on what I plan to say next. I interrupt, I force awkward segues toward subjects I prefer, I prattle about myself endlessly. I have a delightful friend who is so adept at listening and asking pertinent questions, I find we are nearly through an hour-long coffee date and I have done most of the talking—about myself! “But enough about me, let’s talk about you: What do you think of me?” Ugh.

Verbose as I am by nature, I don’t want to simply hear myself talk. How thankful I am to have found many who fall into the Soul Enrichers category! These are people with whom you have a symbiotic connection—everything seems to fire just right and in rhythm. You give and take equally. You read each other’s nonverbal cues and more is communicated than is actually spoken. You come away from this kind of exchange refreshed and understood—a better person. And you discover credos you want to imitate:

Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person.” Col. 4:6

Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers.” Eph. 4:29

The ability to communicate is a tremendous gift—a tool that can be used for infinite good—where talking becomes so much more than “just talking.”

And where we aren’t merely speaking—we actually have something to say.


  1. true, ahhhhhh, maybe i'll be a listin a bit more. ha. ha!!!

  2. i must say, through most of your post i was thinking, "crap, can i never talk to amy or dawn ever again!??" but the end of the post was redeeming enough that i suppose, yes, i can still talk with you both. heehee. interesting stuff.