I’d like to talk some more about talking.
A lot of you related to my last blog post, “An Open Letter to People Who Talk Too Much.” Not all in a good way, though.
“You are a pretentious bitch,” one message started.
This correspondent perceived the blog post as an attack, and she accused me of name-calling, which, in my defense, I did not do. I only described my experience of a one-sided conversation. I spoke my truth of it, and it was, admittedly, harsh. I will cop to insensitivity. I hurt this woman’s feelings, and others’ as well. I did point out in my post that talking too much is an anxiety response, so I should have known it would hit some people sideways. I apologize to everyone wounded by my tone.
If you recognized yourself on the other side of my experience, maybe you would rather you didn’t. Maybe you suspect your loquaciousness is a social liability. Maybe you know that my blog post was something your friends and family might say to you if they didn’t love you so much. And maybe you wish you could be different.
Is it possible your mouth runs away with you because you’re awkward?
Maybe you’ve never thought of it that way. But psychologist Ty Tashiro says that in talking to people about his engaging new book, Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome. (William Morrow, $26.99), he’s been surprised by how many people willingly adopt the label.
Using stories from his own awkward life, case studies, and research, Tashiro describes the specific condition of chronic awkwardness, and he makes a case for biological underpinnings to it.
We all have awkward moments of course. But awkwardness is a way of life for some people, “Awkward people have more awkward moments than the average person,” Tashiro says. “They see the world in a different kind of way.”
Walking into a room full of people, “A non-awkward person might feel some apprehension and anxiety, but that doesn’t interfere with their ability to understand the situation. They tend to be able to ID the most powerful person in the room intuitively. They will also be able to pick up on the general vibe of the room, the emotional tone.”
Awkward people tend to see the world in a more tightly focused spotlight that “Gets a little stuck, a little off center,” says Tashiro. Social cues are beyond their notice unless they train themselves to pay attention. Tashiro describes how his parents drilled him in “life skills” for all manner of interactions, from ordering fast food to attending parties, and Awkward is full of strategies for becoming more fluent in social cues.
(Though you might glean some similarities, Tashiro differentiates between awkwardness and autism/Asperger's, and he says that there is a correlation between awkwardness and introversion, but it's not a perfect correlation.)
Awkward people, because of they are tightly focus and often oblivious to cues, are at risk for overtalking. Tashiro breaks overtalkers into three types. First, the narcissists. “They like the attention, they like talking about themselves,” he says. “There’s not much you can do with the narcissist. For me, at least, that’s not my kind of person. I just hit eject on that.”
An awkward extrovert might be an “overengager,” Tashiro says. “That comes with a package of behaviors a lot of time. They can be space invaders—they get nearer than eighteen inches away, their nonverbals are really exaggerated, and they’ll sometimes talk loud and for too long.”
You can tell the difference between the narcissist and the awkward extrovert by their subject matter. “If you listen to what awkward people are talking about, it’s not self-aggrandizing. It’s just what they’re interested in. What they don’t know is that it’s not nearly as interesting to other people.”
With this kind of well-intentioned overtalker, “It might sound a little silly, but I find it effective to use some mindfulness techniques,” Tashiro says. “Breathing and the mental state of, ‘Well, this what we’ve got,’ takes the emotional edge off the situation.” (That works for me—until all the suppressed frustration comes spilling out in a blog post.)
Trying to discreetly signal to an awkward person that you’re ready to move on might not work. Many awkward people find emotions particularly difficult to understand, Tashiro says, and they avoid eye contact for fear of being overwhelmed by all the emotion conveyed by people’s eyes. But avoiding eye contact also means missing stop-talking cues, such as wandering attention.
Awkward people often overtalk because they get so singularly focused on a subject that they don’t realize they’ve lost their audience. Or they might keep going because as long as they are talking, they have control. “If you just keep talking, it takes a lot of complexity out of the social interaction,” Tashiro says.
Tashiro counsels awkward overtalkers to pay attention to the balance of the conversation. “If you’re really passionate about math, good for you. Allude to that, talk about that, maybe for just a minute or two. But the first step, for anybody, is that you want to think about what the other person is interested in. Your interests come second. It doesn’t mean your interests are less important or you’re less valuable. But if a conversation is 60 percent them talking and 40 percent you talking, they’ll leave that interaction thinking you’re the coolest person of all time.”
When Tashiro catches himself overtalking, “I’ll give myself some time to put on the brakes. Realistically, it’s hard to stop yourself if you find yourself going like that. I’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, just give me 30 more seconds and then I want to talk about you.’ This allows you to finish your thought. I think socially awkward people are a little more agitated about incompleted things than the average person.”
And, he says, “As we shift to talking about the other person, I have it in the forefront of my mind to ask follow-up questions about whatever they say—like ‘How was that for you?’ ‘How do you see that going?’ All those good therapist questions.”
And—listen up, long-suffering listeners—Tashiro says that awkward overtalkers aren’t necessarily awkward about being awkward. Sometimes you can just tell them, kindly but directly, that it’s your turn to talk.
“Most awkward people are self-aware about being awkward,” Tashiro says. “They don’t want to be awkward and they don’t want to inconvenience people. Awkward people who are overtalkers are remarkably receptive to straightforward feedback that you get it, and that you’d like to move on to a different part of the topic.”
In fact, “One of the things that awkward people sometimes struggle with is being blunt," Tashiro says. "I like to call it matter-of-fact. It’s interesting watching awkward people talk to awkward people. There’s this bluntness to it.”
And so awkward people are often okay if you have to stop their stream of words. They might even be grateful for the intervention.
“As someone who is not always great about picking up in social cues, if I’m in someone’s way, I actually want to know that so I can move,” Tashiro says.
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