Surrounded by Compulsive Talkers

Full compulsive talkers

Image: Tim Sheerman-Chase, Creative Commons

By Ms. Mentor

Question (from "Delmar"): I was lucky enough, I guess, to get an adjunct teaching position at a regional university. I could complain about the quality of the students, but I know that’s just how things are. What I can’t stand is the inanity of some colleagues, particularly the compulsive talkers. Why do they keep on talking when they have nothing to say? Why do they keep on saying the same things over and over? It’s not that they’re obsessed with their academic fields. I could handle that, I think. Maybe.

No, it’s the nonstop drivel. Every time I arrive at work, "Professor George" accosts me about the day’s traffic. How long did it take for me to get to the campus? Do I think that a certain traffic light should be reset, immediately, before we have total gridlock? Or a hapless child gets run over?

Then there’s sporty "Professor Ted," with his daily: "How ‘bout them [fill-in-the-blank]?" Or he wants to know: "How’s your bracket for March Madness?" Whatever that means.

By the time I get to my cubbyhole (adjuncts don’t have offices), my head throbs. I yearn for someone to say something smart and new. I wonder if I’m in an endlessly repeating loop. Should I consider academe a home for people who like to hear themselves talk? Will I be infected?

Answer: Ms. Mentor sighs. Academia is not, of course, the only venue in which people are chronically talking without listening. These days, we are all at the mercy of over sharers, even if we turn off all our electronics. The hills are alive with the sounds of prattle.

But, but … you expect more from educated people. You want them to talk about what’s new in chemistry or rhetoric. You want new knowledge, not palaver about the weather.

Maybe, poor mortal, you crave the true and the beautiful.

You are probably doomed.

But Ms. Mentor, ever the educator, will seize the occasion to blather a bit about the academic compulsion to talk, talk, talk. Is it an occupational hazard, or a mere mental illness?

Being an academic does require the ability to talk at length. Teaching involves some kind of oral facility, and graduate-school seminars are part of the training for public speaking. An ability to think on one’s feet, and to skewer one’s classmates, is especially prized in creative-writing workshops. Diverting attention to oneself can be done crudely or deftly, but always verbosely. ("I must dissent from the common view. In my own novel, for instance, I pack in a much more substantial narrative arc, one with heft and what one might call a hovering but uncertain symphony of nuances in which, for instance, and not to put too fine a point on it …")

Obfuscation works to silence others, and so does shame, a particularly potent weapon in graduate seminars. Even simple but ponderous throat-clearing will shut down the shy and the insecure. They learn their place.

Once you’re a grad-school survivor, you may find yourself lecturing to hundreds of students crowded into a sweaty room. It can be heady, seductive, and corrupting to look out on the masses glued to your words. You are the Sage on the Stage, delivering your soliloquy to the peasants mesmerized by your brilliance. There is a temptation to think of yourself as, well, godlike. (Yes, Ms. Mentor knows that students are often fiddling with their devices and daydreaming instead of worshiping the professor. Shame on them.)

All of which makes Ms. Mentor ponder: Are college lecturers the aristocrats in the world of compulsive talking? They are paid for it, and lecturing is easier than interacting. You don’t risk unpredictable silences, digressions, or pop-culture references you don’t get. You can prepare your lectures way ahead of time and shush anyone who dares to interrupt your agenda.

Academics are, of course, notorious interrupters in private conversations. Professors are also canny about what’s safe. They know that most people aren’t willing to be lectured to about neutrons, metaphors, or politics. But everyone does talk about the weather or traffic — and no one has sworn undying fealty to a theory about traffic flow. No one will vote against your tenure if you dislike potholes.

But, Ms. Mentor, why do some academics run on and on, with so little to say? Why don’t they recognize social signals — a wave, a twitch, a glance at a wristwatch, an "I’m afraid I have to go to class now"? Why do they poke their heads in your office and say, "Got a minute?" — which turns out to gobble up your lunch hour and most of the afternoon?

Some don’t. One Valentine’s Day, a correspondent to Ms. Mentor confessed that she’d married her husband — a fellow academic — because he was the first professor she ever met who actually listened to her. The others had stood or sat about, pawing the ground, waiting for their chance to seize the stable.

Still, Ms. Mentor thinks there’s more than social obtuseness among compulsive talkers. Sometimes there’s a sense of responsibility ("I must fill up the time"). Sometimes there’s a cocktail of swirling emotions, including anxiety and grandiosity.

Online sources suggest that compulsive talking can be a sign of attention deficit disorder, or a bipolar problem. Or it may be simple narcissism ("Anything you can say, I can say better.")

But Ms. Mentor thinks the diagnosis for many academics is even simpler: It’s loneliness.

Most academics have given up things that ordinary Americans expect to have. A Ph.D. spends a decade preparing for permanent work — which may never come. Fledgling academics move to unfamiliar regions, where they’re painfully out of place. Taciturn Midwesterners are baffled by gregarious Southerners. Vegans are appalled by the traditional fall barbecue. Academic newbies are almost always away from family roots, and often away from a partner and children. Or they’ve given up finding a significant other until they get tenure — around age 40.

Many academics are also perpetually underpaid. An ordinary entertainment — a movie, a concert, a restaurant meal — may be out of reach.

Ms. Mentor urges Delmar to be (somewhat) sympathetic to all the lonely people. If their voices sound hollow, as if they’re not used to speaking one-on-one, they may live alone — and they may communicate mostly online, rarely voice to voice. If Delmar comes up with a one- or two-sentence greeting ("Amazing car pileup" and "Did you see the twenty-car wreck in California?") he’ll have satisfied Professor George. And done an act of kindness to start the day.

Ms. Mentor, no paragon of sweetness herself, recognizes that compulsive talkers can be boring and terribly time-wasting. Ms. Mentor herself was once in a summer institute that was on the verge of being swamped by a Talker — until two participants decided they would interrupt the Talker whenever a long rambling story threatened. They even doubled up sometimes, interrupting each other. The Talker had to condense.

Being polite but persistent works better than "Would you please cut to the chase?" or "Oh, shut up." Ms. Mentor compares it with training a dog. You must be firm with talkers. Throw them a biscuit. And then move on down the yard.

And now Ms. Mentor, having said what she wants to say, will be quiet.

Question: In our department, where we fight about everything, we are hopelessly divided about the pronunciation of "divisive." Does it sound like "incisive" or "dismissive"?

Answer: Yes.

Sage readers: Ms. Mentor announces that her annual column on Academic Novels is coming up. She welcomes nominations, as well as plaudits and animadversions on previous columns.

She reminds readers that she is not a snob, and that recommendations of juicy and tawdry writings, those beneath the notice of respectable readers, are welcome. Her email address is ms.mentor@chronicle.com.

As always, Ms. Mentor welcomes gossip, rants, and queries. She regrets that she can rarely answer letters personally, and never speedily, and she recommends regular perusal of The Chronicle’s forums. She cannot give legal or psychiatric advice. All communications are confidential, details are changed, and anonymity is guaranteed. Do feel free to blame everyone within the sound of your voice. You have Ms. Mentor’s permission to be garrulous.

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her most recent book is Ms. Mentor’s New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia (University of Pennsylvania Press). Her email address is Ms.Mentor@chronicle.com.

c Emily Toth.

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