May 3, 2009

You talkin' to me?

I’m a Hand-talker. I use my hands to show how big, small, near, far, close, happy or sad something is. If the story I’m telling is really exciting my hands will be flying. Ask for directions and I will point to where you should go (I may mention a street name or two, but you’ll get my drift by my animated pointing). I’m neither Italian nor French, nor do I know sign language – I just use my hands when I talk.

I saw a woman on the bus the other morning chatting on her cell phone with someone.  Her free hand was gesticulating and her seat mate was cowering. In such close quarters the fear of getting hit by a Hand talker is real. Now I won’t go into the social etiquette of waving your hands and talking at top volume on a cell phone on a crowded bus (nor an ipod cranked so loud that everyone can hear you’re a fan of Barry Manilow – how truly embarrassing for you) but this woman did get me thinking about the types of verbal interactions we are exposed to on a daily basis.

I won’t even attempt to compete with Seinfeld on the whole Close-talker problem. Suffice it to say in our North American culture there is a prescribed amount of personal space that, if we enter into we will be dubbed a Close-talker. Now unless you have a secret of such scale (and nastiness) that you have to get as close to my ear as possible -- and we are best friends, then please, if you see me backing away from you -- stop. I’m not backing up because you don’t have that freshly laundered smell (though this may also be true). I’m backing up because the sense of discomfort I get with each step you take is only exacerbated by the fact that I can count your nose hairs and identify the bit of food stuck in your front tooth as pimento. I once worked with a woman who, having just finished eating an egg salad sandwich,  backed me up against a wall while she prattled on mere inches from my face. Which brings me to the next type of talker – the Sprayer.

I think we’ve all had the embarrassment of spraying when we talk. Perhaps we’ve just sneezed or had a drink of water and there is a little excess moisture in our mouth. We see the spray go out but there is nothing we can do other than apologize profusely and reach out to wipe our offending spittle off our companion. It’s not pleasant, but we have a little chuckle over it and carry on. I’m not talking about that kind of Sprayer. I’m talking about the person who repeatedly sends projectiles in all directions, most of which land on our arm or face. And the Sprayer isn’t embarrassed. Oh no. In fact, they are oblivious to the fact that there is now a little speckle of egg salad sandwich on our face, and we, not wanting to offend, are unobtrusively trying to wipe it away. They keep right on talking and spraying and we keep right on wiping and smiling and nodding. I’ve noticed that Sprayers tend be old uncles that appear at weddings and funerals every few years. But they are so genuinely happy to see me, what’s the big deal about a little egg on my face?

Touchy-talkers can be divided into two categories; the Stroker and the Arm-puncher. Strokers are usually sweet and kind (white-haired little old ladies who gazes up at us with their rheumy eyes and gently lay their spotted hands on our arms) and touching is nothing more than a habit of affection. Even when the Stroker becomes a Picker by removing lint from our coat, unless we have a real aversion to being touched, it is usually done with good intent. On the other hand, the Arm-puncher is a bully disguised as a gifted raconteur. “Wait till you hear this great story about how great and funny I was (slug). Oh-ho-ho listen to me (slug)”. I bruise easily and to sit through a conversation with someone who guffaws in my ear while punching me is not a pleasant way to spend an evening. Or an elevator ride. I have learned to face my bully and tell them to stop punching me. This is usually followed by such utter incomprehension, that the Arm-puncher just punches me again.

Quiet-talkers are complicated. Are they shy? Do they have laryngitis?  Are they passive-aggressive? They say something. We can’t hear them so we ask them to repeat themselves. They repeat at the same volume. We still can’t hear them. Moving a little closer, we ask them to repeat. They repeat and again we can’t understand what they are saying. Two things will happen next. They will get annoyed with us, and they will think we’re Close-talkers (they’ll tell everyone – but don’t worry, no one will hear them). Quiet-talkers are more frustrating than Loud-talkers. Loud-talkers know they are loud (being told you are physically unable to whisper is usually the first clue) and most times try to use their voices for good (careers in the theatre, early warning systems). Quiet-talkers miss the point that having a conversation involves two or more people. Unless you are a …

… Self-talker. We all talk to ourselves; it’s doing it in public that makes people uncomfortable. Before we all had cell phones, Self-talkers were obvious. Though we never quite knew whether they were some sort of Steven Hawking genius, figuring out theorems regarding singularities in the framework of general relativity (?) or receiving messages from the mothership, we definitely knew they weren’t talking to us. Cell phones now abound and Self-talkers aren’t as evident. The old man shuffling down the street, jabbering away, seems crazy at first. But as we hurry past we notice a Bluetooth headset in his ear. Everyone is plugged in and wireless which makes it difficult to isolate the Self-talkers. It becomes clearer in an office environment though. Place ten people in cubicles (Cube-de-Ville as my friend Stephanie calls it) and listen as the science project unfolds (this is when I think there might be a mothership and we humans are just an amusing experiment).

The person on the other side of the divider says something.  We say "pardon?"  They say "oh sorry, just talking to myself".  We all go back to work.  This happens again and again and again. Occasionally they actually are talking to us, so it's the whole Pavlov  thing.  Every now and then we are rewarded with a treat, so we keep ringing the damned bell.

Regardless of the type of talker we bump into (or are) we keep talking in the hope that someone will hear us.  If we think waving our hands around, standing really close, whispering or talking incessantly will get our point across, it probably won't.  I think the only way to be really heard is to find someone actually willing to listen.  And that's a whole other story.

"Everybody's talking at me.
I don't hear a word they're saying,
Only the echoes of my mind."

Harry Nillson
Midnight Cowboy


drollgirl said...

bahhaha!! ok, i am guilty of a few of these things: hand talker, quiet talker, self talker. ahah ha haha!!! i had to take a speech class in college (HORRORS) and the stupid teacher video tapped us while we gave speeches. my hands were EVERYWHERE. she told me i looked like a bird trying to take flight. oy.

Lianne said...

OMG that would be one of the most uncomfortable things to have to watch -- right up there with having to listen to a recording of your own voice. I'm also a loud talker (guilty of not being able to whisper). At least you'll always know where to find me -- hahaha. Love your blog btw and glad to have found you through Dan.