I grew up in a family that talked loudly over each other. No one felt heard, and everyone subconsciously resented each other for it.
My grandmother talked at me for hours. Facts about what bus she rode, the names of streets, and how much it cost her to see a movie in the 1930s.* If my young mind wandered, she leaned forward and nudged me. There was no escape. This aggressive style of “data dump” communication was passed down through the generations, and I inherited it. (Don’t worry. This very example of data dumping relates to my point.)
As an adult, I had to learn to SHUT UP.
People call me quiet and shy. No, I just stopped subjecting everyone around me to hours of unsolicited information about myself and the things I’m interested in. I think back to when I held my friends and girlfriends hostage for hours, torturing them with my autistic fact-sharing. Just like my grandmother: “Listen to this song, watch this video, read this book,” and on and on. I rarely asked them questions (unless it was a setup for me to talk at them again) and demonstrated no interest in them as people.
Then again, maybe I’m overcompensating. Maybe I need to yell, “ME ME ME!” more often.
Now that I encourage others to talk, I’m finding out this self-centered behavior isn’t rare.
That’s because self-centered is the default, easiest, most obvious way to be. Our thoughts, opinions, and tastes are important to us. We identify with them to such a degree that we believe they ARE us. The problem is we don’t intentionally create them. They simply emerge.
As Carla Bezanson (Snarly Carly) on TikTok said: “… literally all of my thoughts are bullshit. They’re not even based on anything true. They’re just delusional little thinky-thinks. They’re […] actually not even any of my business.”†
@carlabezanson Quick reminder #fyp #foryoupage ♬ original sound – 🧁 snarly carly
This fits nicely with Buddhism (we are not our thoughts), and the idea that free will is an illusion.
Of course, other people must want to hear these “delusional little thinky-thinks.” Right? Plus, we want to be heard and to connect. We want to be psychologically visible.
So we have what we believe is a conversation: we find someone and tell them facts and memories and anecdotes. (And if they’re lucky, an actual story.) But mostly, what comes out are tangents: whatever pops up on the internal teleprompter, we say it. We like to imagine that we, ourselves, are doing the talking. But we don’t even know what we’ll say next. The teleprompter scrolls, and the mouth keeps moving. We can’t take much credit for the script. We can do our best to think quickly and plan what we say next, but all of it can be traced back to coming out of nowhere.
That’s not a conversation. We talk AT the other person instead of WITH them. Some of us use every opportunity to be clever, trying to prove our intelligence. We don’t consider the listener.
And that all feels good because, hey, it’s verbal masturbation.
If the other person is self-centered, too, they will eventually interrupt and talk about their own bullshit. They might only respond by immediately changing the subject back to THEM. “Your foot hurts today? My back hurt the other day. Here’s five minutes of information about that.”
This goes around and around, and we barely pause to listen or reflect. Instead of two people who are curious about each other, it’s more like a Dual Monologue.
Conversations aren’t a broadcast, like this blog or a TikTok video. They are meant to be an equal, cooperative experience.
So what if we learn to play a different role? We might develop the skills of interviewing, mirroring, or “being the backup band so the other person can solo.” But here’s the problem: if the other person doesn’t play by those same rules, we can get trapped in a self-reinforcing loop. Our active listening skills can encourage a self-centered talker to go on forever, casting us in the role of Permanent Listener. They might think, “Wow, they’re really interested in me. This feels good, and I can keep doing this all day.”
But for the Permanent Listener, it’s like being an unpaid therapist or a podcast host who can’t sell ads.
My rule of thumb is to notice the questions-to-statements ratio. Is the other person asking you questions in return and giving you equal stage time? Probably not, because most don’t.
We all know I’m far from being an expert, but here are some rules for having a balanced conversation.
Thank you for reading my mono-blog. How are you?
*I don’t blame my grandmother for it. She probably learned that from her parents, and they learned that from their parents, etc.
†Carla’s idea that our own thoughts are none of our business is hilarious. And true.
Extra credit: I just started reading the book Non-Violent Communication.