Maybe the person sits near you at work. Maybe he or she is your second cousin-in-law, your Hinge date or your seatmate on a 19-hour flight to Sydney. Most of us have met a compulsive talker: A person who dominates discussions with nonmeaningful chatter and misses, or ignores, cues that listeners are scanning for the exit.
It’s tempting to believe, when cornered by such a chatterer, that a chronic talker is a selfish egotist. Yet, it is often the opposite. Research has linked overtalking to anxiety, attention deficit disorder, being on the autism spectrum or to compulsive behavior on the lines of shopaholism or workaholism.
Studies in the 1990s found that about one in 20 people overtalks. With all the gatherings and travel plans that are often part of the holiday season, the likelihood of encountering an overtalker may be multiplied at this time of year. But you don’t have to just stand there and take it. Here are some strategies to help:
Size up your overtalker and cut in appropriately: What kind of talkaholic are you dealing with? If the person is being endlessly self-promotional, he or she may truly be a narcissist (And they’re not that rare: In the United States, the lifetime rate of narcissistic personality disorder is about 6 percent).
Alternatively, consider that your conversation partner is socially awkward. “Some socially awkward people can talk ad nauseam about topics they’re passionate about,” says Ty Tashiro, a psychologist in New York City and author of “Awkward: The Science of Why We’re Socially Awkward and Why That’s Awesome.”
“They have obsessive interests and tend not to notice social cues. The other person is leaning back, giving them all these cues but they don’t pick them up. They’re like a vehicle gaining momentum and the brakes don’t work.”
Either way, interrupt sooner than you might be comfortable with, to see if the talker yields the floor. If not, interrupt again, says Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of several books about the meaning in our speech patterns.
If you suspect the person is a narcissist, escape. If you don’t gain ground, maybe you’re dealing with a narcissist and need to cut your losses. Try “Excuse me! I see my former public speaking teacher over there!” or “I have to take a private call in two minutes!”
If you are dealing with social awkwardness, lend a helping hand. “You can say, ‘That’s really interesting, now let me see if I can summarize what you’ve said,’” Dr. Tashiro suggests. “You provide direct feedback and show you were actively listening. Then shift the focus to yourself, say ‘I had a similar experience’ or ‘Here’s what I want to talk about.’”
Don’t make assumptions: In general, Dr. Tannen suggests not leaping to immediate conclusions. “Try to see what’s creating a frustrating dynamic,” Dr. Tannen says. “Everything about how we talk is variable by culture, like how long a pause to take between turns. It could have to do with region, ethnic background or just different ideas about how to make conversation, not with pathology or bad intentions.”
She cites a couple, the man a New Yorker, the woman a Midwesterner, on a first date: He was doing all the talking and she was thinking really negatively about him, Dr. Tannen recalls. “Then he finally said, ‘Can you help me out here?’ He explained he was doing all the talking because it was what he knew how to do. He was trying to keep the conversation going. She was waiting for a question, to show his interest.” (The couple are now married.)
Use subtle cues: Sometimes, an overtalker is someone to whom you can’t give short shrift: your boss, say or a future in-law. See if you can steer the conversation differently or build in a pause (“Interesting. I need time to think about that.”) Or, work to get your message across with subliminal cues.
“Respond calmly, in a yoga teacher kind of voice and pace, deep breathe, see if you can get them to match you,” says Lynda McCroskey, a professor of communications studies at California State University Long Beach. “Lean away from the person, avoid eye contact, don’t touch them. As a last resort, check your watch or phone.”
If you must, set boundaries: If the man beside you on the cross-country bus wants to tell you his life story, but you prefer not to hear it all, take preventive action.
“Let them know upfront, you can have some talk time but then you have to get some rest or spend time reading,” says Dr. Tashiro. “Tell them you’ll have to shift focus. It might seem rude, but it’s incredibly reasonable. In my experience, it’s usually well-received.”
Know when to fold ’em: You’re not always going to be able to stop an overtalker. “Compulsive talking can be very ingrained,” notes Dr. McCroskey.
Longer term relationships can be harder to manage than brief encounters. Some years ago, Jay Overbye, 55, a real estate broker in Manhattan and my husband’s cousin, began noticing something in conversations with a new friend:
“Almost every time was a long-winded monologue,” Mr. Overbye says. “I tried politely to get in. But as soon as I started to talk, she would interrupt.”
Eventually, Mr. Overbye proposed a signal: He would tug his ear when he wanted a turn to talk. She agreed to try.
Shortly thereafter, “It was as if we’d never had the conversation,” Mr. Overbye recalls. “I realized our friendship quality was not going to be what I required. It wasn’t reciprocal, it was absolutely depleting.”
)He let the friendship go.
When You’re the Overtalker
What if you suspect you’re the person who can’t stop jabbering? Start by testing yourself on the Talkaholic scale. Dr. McCroskey, whose late father, Dr. James McCroskey, a scholar in residence in the department of communication studies at the The University of Alabama at Birmingham, helped develop the scale, admits to her own overtalking tendencies. She says her father joked that he came up with the scale because of her.
“I’ve worked on it for a long time,” Dr. McCroskey says. “People aren’t necessarily ignorant that they talk too much, but may not realize how debilitating it is to others.”
If you prove to be an overtalker, consider the following tactics:
Approach interactions mindfully: “Be aware of your own behaviors,” Dr. McCroskey advises. “Tell yourself, you enjoy talking — other people do, too. For every sentence you say, let the other person say one. Pay attention to turn-requesting cues like leaning forward or saying ‘Uh huh, uh huh,’ that mean they want to talk.’”
Replay recent conversations: Keep a log of your conversations. How much were you talking? Was it a fair give and take?
Set goals for future conversations. Counting slowly to seven after you finish a thought can help you see if the other person wants a word. Ask more questions. Remind yourself that people who ask questions of others tend to be rated as more likable.
With practice, you really can learn to talk less, says Dr. McCroskey, drawing on her own experience.
“I’ve seen a great difference in terms of my own talkaholism,” she says. “I have reined it in. You can do it. It kills me sometimes waiting for someone else to speak. But I know it’s important other people get t4o share.”