On Interruption

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Polonius:
…since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief…

Queen Gertrude:
More matter, with less art.

(Hamlet II.ii)

I was regaling my mother with tales of my and my friends’ thwarted attempts to achieve romantic happiness. “You girls!” she exclaimed. “You girls just don’t know what you want.”

On the contrary. I’ve found that 50-odd dates (emphasis on odd) has given me a demoralizingly-large sample from which to develop a very specific image of what—or who—I want. And very importantly, of what I don’t want.

I could draw up a very exact profile of the One, which far exceeds the Triple-S test (solvent, sane, sexy). I can tell you that the One will have a dog, will not assert his masculinity by avoiding the ballet and spending every Sunday in an unwashed, “lucky” Pats jersey, and will not only tolerate “stories with characters” but will in fact be an avid reader. And according to one dream I had about 16 months ago, his name will be Rob. Moreover, Rob (because I’m only slightly superstitious that the dream is premonitory, and “Rob” is as good an operation name as “Ivan” or “Operation Romantic Bliss” or “the One”) will possess the following qualities: he will not audibly gnaw at his cuticles during poetry readings; if he sees a tap running anywhere, he’ll turn it off; his personality will never fade to such undistinguished banality that he could bring himself to call any child or dog “buddy.” And—very, very importantly—he will have watched enough Sesame Street as a child that he’ll understand the concepts of sharing and taking turns.

You can immediately start working the more salacious possibilities of the turn-taking lessons—I certainly have done, complete with fully-illustrative pantomime, over cocktails with friends. But here I’m going to focus on the non-euphemistic, specific challenge of sharing and taking turns in conversation.

This—like not living in your car, knowing how to brush your teeth—seems so pathetically basic to adult relationships that it shouldn’t need stipulating. But it does. It really, really does. Turns out, there are a LOT of men in the world who cannot. stop. talking. And they LOVE me. I have a…what? knack? destiny? for attracting men who ramble, bloviate, discourse, meander at stultifying length.

(And to the men in my past who I once admonished for not being chatty enough, I’m sorry. Please release me from whatever fairy tale curse you laid on me to teach me that silence is golden—lesson learned!).

I know this is a phenomenon that affects both sexes, but in this case, women aren’t the ones holding me captive on barstools. Nor is this is a reverse sexism thing, where I’m suggesting that the ideal man should be seen and not heard—not at all! I yearn for a companion who can converse, who has interesting things to say, observations, ideas, and stories to share. I love to talk, and enjoy witty badinage, dazzling repartee, scintillating dialogue. But you know what characterizes all of those things? TWO people taking turns saying things. If one person is doing all the talking, you don’t have conversation, you have one person who’s seemingly very contented to just keep moving air over his vocal chords, and another person who’s bored out of her mind. I’ve lost long, long hours of my life while some man has gone on, and on, and on—and just when you think he could not possibly have anything further to say—on some more…about bathroom renovations, committee assignments, monetary instruments, stereo equipment, superheroes, and, soooo ironically, the importance of honesty and communication in relationships.

I don’t know how they get like this. At some point they must pick up the idea that it’s important to talk in social situations—good job!—and having learned that much, they felt they were pretty much done: “I’ll just keep talking, and as long as the other person isn’t talking, I reckon things are all right.” What’s lacking is a sensitivity to what the other person might need or want—like for instance, responding, voicing her own thoughts, feeling like she’s with someone who cares about what she thinks. Possibly, some guys really don’t care; others might care if you could get a word in edgewise, but, not knowing how to talk and pay attention to the other person at the same time, they remain clueless.

Never mind them. Why me?? What am I doing that attracts and encourages this monologic nattering? Is it punishment for being too loquacious in my work? for occasionally boring students? for writing too many emails to my colleagues? Is my blog’s wordiness somehow causing an imbalance in the universe, some rift in the space-time continuum that can only be fixed by me being trapped on the phone for an hour while Mr. Collins talks about how important it is that two people in a relationship have a dialogue, and not a monologue?

It’s not just me. As Sophia Dembling pointed out in a blog post of her own, there are plenty of people in the world who are incessant talkers, and plenty of people like her and me, to whom they LOVE to talk. Dembling speculates that it’s an unfortunate byproduct of being introverted—we’re naturally very good listeners, and we also recoil from having to wrestle for our turn in conversation. We’re also very good at being in our own heads. She gets absorbed in musing over the ramifications of what the other person is saying; I do that too, but also, my mind is simply a place to retreat, when necessary, to avoid the onslaught of the other’s unrestrained verbiage. That is, I might seem to be listening, while actually I’m mentally composing my next blog post and deciding which cake I’ll make for an upcoming party; and I get so caught up in the success of my self-distraction that I might miss a chance to break in to the conversation when the other guy stops to breathe.

So: aren’t I clever for figuring all of this out!? But if I’ve got more awareness of what’s happening, I guess it’s up to me to try to change the situation. How, though? My more extroverted friends insist it’s easy. For example, I was telling the story recently of how I ended a relationship with someone (my Mr. Collins experience). He was determined to show how cool he was with the break up, by haranguing me for over an hour about how he wasn’t angry (but was really angry) and wasn’t trying to make me feel guilty (because he’d decided I was irrational, selfish, and bad at relationships). I was so exasperated (if also vindicated) that, at the 48-minute mark, while he was still holding forth on the phone, I was texting with A. begging her to distract me. Terrible. I’m irritated with myself for not being able to stop the conversation after a mere 10 minutes. As I was telling my extroverted friend this, and possibly ranting a little myself, I exclaimed, “Why do I end up with these ceaseless talkers? what am I doing wrong??” She laid a hand on my arm, and said, “You just interrupt them.” “How? how do I interrupt them?” And she drew my attention to her hand on my arm and said, “The way I just interrupted you.”

That easy.

“Huh,” I said.

I told another extroverted friend about this arm-touching strategy. She shook her head with disgust: “no, no, no—that requires you to touch the other person.” (She and I share a preference to avoid touching people when they’re strangers, or just people we’re trying not to date.) “No—what you do instead is just distract them. While they’re talking about whatever—monetary instruments, photocopying, football—you just burst in with something else: “New research suggests we’d all be a lot happier if there were lithium in the water supply! Look at this amazing pair of shoes in the catalog! Is that your car on fire down on the street?!?”

I can’t see myself doing either one of these moves. Interrupting requires a combination of physical and psychic energy that I’m not used to employing in a coordinated fashion. But I guess I’ll have to get over myself and just try. Once we cross the conversational threshold from “your turn” to “OMG I can’t believe 15 minutes have elapsed and I could quietly put a potted fern in my place and it wouldn’t change this so-called conversation one bit”—I’m not doing either him or me any favors by letting him continue. The natterer will never learn that he’s BORING as long as nice, polite, introverted people like me nod and make encouraging “I’m listening” noises while mentally planning a friend’s surprise party. And neither he nor I is being respectful of my time and needs when we’re both complicit in letting him do all the talking.

How about that for a profound conclusion?: I have a right to be with someone who’s really interested in what I might have to say. I will know my Rob when I meet him because he’ll say, “Hi, I’m Rob. Tell me about yourself—I want to hear all about it.”

In the meantime, as an assertion of self-respect, and to strike a blow for courtesy, I hereby resolve to start interrupting, and I’ll enjoin my readers to do the same. Give ‘em a decent interval to take their turn, and say their bit. Then, as they draw breath to keep going, stop them. Touch those arms, burst in with total non sequiturs about lentils or artificial coral reefs. Hell, just cry out: “for the love of all that’s holy, just stop talking and listen!”

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