What to do about people who are chatterboxes

October 14, 2007 | By | 3 Replies More

I recently met a person who just can’t shut up.  She chatters endlessly, which wears me out.  I have discussed her tendency to dominate conversations with other people; they have noted the same way about her.   She rarely allows other people a chance to take a turn speaking during conversations.

All of us dread this woman’s invitations to spend time with us.  Perhaps she suspects that we don’t like something about her personality, which is not true: she is truly an intelligent and kind-hearted person.  The problem is only the manner in which she presents herself through conversation.   She has issues related to a sub-field of speech therapy called “pragmatics.”   

Pragmatics refers to both non-verbal and verbal aspects of communication – volume, turn taking, eye contact, attention, asking and answering questions and understanding social boundaries during conversation.

I can’t imagine anyone else spending much time with this person.  Perhaps, someday, she might (if she hasn’t already) seek out a therapist as a result of her social isolation.   It also occurs to me, however, that she might benefit much more from seeing a speech therapist than a psychologist.  I wonder whether psychologists are even trained to identify this serious problem in the artificial confines of a therapist’s office.  It’s out in the real world where this woman seems to express every thought occurs to her, driving others away in the process. 

While she is unintentionally driving others away with her chatter, this woman seems to put her energy into ever higher gears, trying even more desperately to spread her “charm.”   It’s all very sad.  I haven’t known this person long—I don’t feel that I know her well enough to speak to her on this issue.  

Turn-taking seems like such a basic strategy for allocating limited resources (in my example, a chance to talk).  Most of us use this turn-taking strategy all the time, including in conversations.  Who would have thought that a person’s deep need be heard could override this fundamental allocation method?  How could it be that an otherwise kind-hearted person would ignore this basic rule in a conversation.  Perhaps she doesn’t appreciate that talk-time is a limited resource.  Maybe it’s thoughtlessness–she just hasn’t thought about it.  Or maybe talking to others is a “high” that overrides all other concerns, making her a talk-addict.  Perhaps she doesn’t appreciate the long-term consequences of violating the turn-taking rule.  Innocuous-seeming early moves (here, the willingness to occupy most of the conversation with one’s own voice) can have serious long-term effects.  In this way, the failure to share the conversation is like overeating:  Perhaps chatterboxes don’t see that they are assuring their own loneliness much like people who eat too much every day have a difficult time connecting that behavior the extra 80 pounds they carry around.

This woman is not the first person I’ve met who seems almost desperately lonely in ways that could best be addressed by a speech therapist.  I meet such people from time to time.  They constitute a small minority of the people I meet, less than 1%.   Here’s what’s especially frustrating, though.  Such people are usually so lonely that their desperation to connect causes them to drive away all new acquaintances.   Their problem is self-perpetuating.

Very few people would ever spend time getting to know this woman because of the high investment required to include her in one’s circle of friends.  Even if you had the patience to tolerate her conversation wrecking, your other friends and acquaintances might not.  Therefore, it might be social suicide to help out—inviting a chatterbox to your social gatherings might cost you your other friends and acquaintances.

I have no training in speech therapy.  Nor do I know whether any adult with severe problems in pragmatics can be helped.  It might be that such people would resent any changes to their way of communicating.  They might see their way of conversing as an integral and immutable part of who they are.

If only there were simple ways for us non-speech therapists to broach this topic with the people who need to hear straight talking.  It seems simple enough from the outside.  For instance, people need to take turns when they’re involved in a conversation.   After speaking for awhile, competent conversationalists pause so that others can feel part of the conversation too.  It all seems so obvious, but many people don’t get it.  It might be that they don’t know how to read the non-verbal cues that others constantly broadcast.   These cues include lack of eye-contact, fidgeting and (eventually) the making of excuses and physical leaving.  For most of us, these cues mean that we need to share the floor.  For those with severe pragmatics issues, these cues don’t take root.

Other violations of pragmatics drive people away.   For example, many people don’t understand that when you’re part of a conversation with a larger group, that it’s rude to dominate the entire conversation with a topic familiar to you and only one other participant.  How often have you seen two people in larger group dominate the conversation with stories about a school only they attended?   Or consider the conversations where one person’s technical expertise far exceeded the ability of anyone else to follow it, and where a vibrant conversation turned into a stultifying lecture.

What does it take to make a good conversationalist?  There is much advice available.  For instance, consider this site, which gives long lists of advice (I don’t agree with all of it), including the following:

Don’t talk too long without pausing for a reaction. More than a minute is usually too long. Forty seconds is ideal.

Never contradict or flatly disagree with the other person. It’s an implied insult.

Don’t be too forceful or emphatic in stating your opinions until you learn the other person’s attitude.

No quality is so conducive to pleasure in conversation as tact. The elements that make up tact are alertness, sympathy, and resourcefulness. Without tact a person, however witty, learned or sincere, is a menace to themselves and others whenever they engage in conversation.

While one fault will make a person a bad conversationalist, one virtue will not make him a good one. He must possess many qualities, some of them having to do with character, some with intellect, and some with temperament.

The ideal conversationalist is:

Interested in life
Has a sense of the dramatic
Can draw out the other person
Always in good humour
Has a sense of proportion
Doesn’t preach
Doesn’t take himself too seriously
Not argumentative
A trifle whimsical

If you find the world dull, the chances are that your companions will find you dull.

Everyone’s emotion of elation is waiting for a chance to assert itself. Give it every opportunity.

Even if you have a wholly unselfish desire to reform your listeners, it is well to realize that they won’t like it.


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Category: Communication, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Ben says:

    I have daily interactions with chatterboxes. I normally do not like to interrupt people (I am quite polite in real life), but it is a requirement if you want to have a 2-way conversation with a chatterbox. In defense of the chatterboxes, they never really complain when you interrupt them. They are so glad that somebody else has something to say – go figure! This of course does not address the problem, but it (the power of interrupting) gives you a way to steer their "chatter" into areas which you are interested.

  2. I don't think this woman needs a speech therapist, rather she would need someone point out her annoying habits that drive everybody else away and offer her an alternative set of behavioral habits. Knowing what you're doing wrong and how how to change it is most often enough to induce changes. A bit less analyzing and a bit more courage might help her more if you really think that her habit is destroying her social life.

    If I had a good day I might do it, but I admit I'm also the kind of person who on her bad days will change place in the train, because your perfume is too heavy, your music is too loud, your tic is making me nervous, your voice is shrill, you took the seat where I put my bag although there are plenty of other free places available, etc.

  3. Michelle says:

    I seem to run into these sorts of people a lot. They do tend to have entertaining personalities – but I'm getting very tired of them dominating conversations. When I do get the opportunity to speak, they cut me off or act bored! It's bloody rude and very intimidating. Yakkers – SHUT UP!

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