• Louise Carnachan

Conversational Misfires


Dining on the deck on a warm evening, my guest said, “I think a lot of us have lost our social skills during the pandemic.” I concur. Regaining the stamina to communicate in person is one thing, what to say (or not) is another.


I’ve noticed that some people are having trouble engaging in small talk while others don’t know when to shut up. For the latter, the flood gates are open and everything not said for sixteen months is pouring out. The natural give and take of conversation is absent and people miss non-verbal cues that it’s time to zip it.


You need to interrupt when faced with someone who has gone off and left their mouth running. If you never learned this critical life skill, here are some tips.


In a group, there are tried and true strategies. Believe it or not, the first step is to become the best listener this person has ever had! The chatter box will aim comments to you if you nod and use verbal encouragement like, “really,” “I see,” “huh, no kidding.” Once the person is talking to you, jump in with a statement or question that takes the topic in a slightly different direction. Move your eyes off your non-stop talker to look at someone else in the group to ask that person what they think. If your babbling brook starts in again, you can hold up a hand (you may briefly glance at the person, but don’t look directly into their eyes or they’ll take over again) and say, “You know, I’m really interested in hearing Millicent’s opinion.” Ta da! You’ve successfully taken the ball and thrown it to someone else.


If you’ve tried to break in without success, step it up by using the person’s name. Don’t wait for a pause in the monolog because there won’t be one. Take in enough breath that you can be slightly louder. Say their name, then talk over them for an awkward second. Divert the conversation in the manner mentioned above. “Clementine, teleportation is an interesting theory, but I think there’s something to be said for space shuttles. What do you think, Doris?” Believe me, people will silently thank you for the diversion.


In a one-on-one situation, you can plead any number of reasons to wrap it up. Using the person’s name can be helpful in breaking in. Get attention and speak over the person for a second. “Joshua, I’m sorry I really need to get back to work,” or “Sylvia, I need to run down the hall/get a coffee before my next meeting/talk to Ginger while she’s still here/etc.” If all else fails, there’s always, “Oh, my, look at the time—gotta go!”


Re-entry is going to require humor and grace. It may take a while for us to rediscover conversational rhythm. Any one of us could unwittingly babble. Or revert to our awkward teen selves with nothing to talk about. It’s okay, we’ll get there with practice.


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