how I talk

I have a problem.  It’s the way I talk.  I speak in full sentences.  I speak in long sentences, sometimes, not at the moment, but in some cases, I do go, like, on and on.  I go for complete thoughts.  I sometimes throw in parenthetical passages.  (I do this by lowering my voice slightly.)  I will "indent" my talk when starting "new paragraphs"  in speech.  (I do this by tilting my chin and raising my eyebrows to let you know I am moving onto something new.)

It’s a very real problem.  The only one with any real patience for it is Molly, my cat, for whom everything I say is "blah, blah, blah," in any case, (in the immortal words of Gary Larson).

My wife, Pam, finds this a challenge.  For most purposes, she prefers an Italian American model of speech, where speech is made to overlap. I like to think of this as the "baton" model of talk, where the new speaker runs up beside the person currently speaking so that the conversational lead can be transferred at speed.  For Pam, overlapping speech is a good thing.  It gives talk brio and animation. 

I prefer to take turns.  You speak.  I listen.  I speak.  You listen. Otherwise, it feels like we are trapped in one of those play areas at McDonalds, with things flying in all directions.  I am trying to listen to what you say ever so carefully.  That’s my job.  If you have several topics going at once, my head feels like one of those play areas at McDonalds, with things flying in all directions.  Look out!

I have to change, I know that.  The world is speeding up.  My style of talk slows things down.  All of us are obliged to increase our baud rate, and I have noticed that a lot of people at MIT tend to speak really fast.  At least, they don’t stutter.  This is an Oxford affectation meant to show the sheer velocity of the thought behind the speech.  I just had a conversation with David Edery (first of the Sloan school, now at Microsoft).  I swear I clocked him at speeds in excess of 200 w.p.m.  What’s weird is that every word was perfectly formed.  A miracle of speech production!  Subject to this kind of competitive pressure, I just start saying anything, the faster the better.  I don’t think he noticed.  It’s "blah, blah, blah" here too. 

I don’t think I’m plodding.  But then of course I wouldn’t.  It’s for the rest of the world to think "when is this guy going to get to the end of the sentence?"  I have a laborious style because I believe that’s what I owe you the listener.  I am obliged to think it through and serve it up not as a fragment, an idea facsimile, but to nail it down as something that has the properties of a proposition.  I am quite sure that myself has something to do with my Victorian boyhood.  Good speech is complete speech, the way we show our respect for our conversational partner. 

Ok, so this is totally wrong.  Denotative speech just isn’t as much fun as connotative speech.  It’s kind of fun carrying on several conversations at once.  Like being caught in a salad spinner. Communication works as speakers point briefly at semantic  fragments spinning around them.  You can’t really say at the end of the conversation what the conversation was about, but a good time was had by all, and it is remotely possible that you and your partner managed to canvas ideas never before thought or, and I now use this term advisedly, said. 

My favorite conversations are intellectually athletic.  Both partners talk and listen simultaneously.  After awhile there are two streams of speech that intersect over and over again. Talkers leap from their stream to the other and back again.  It’s daring stuff.  Stunt training is highly recommended.  (I sometimes use a stunt double.) 

With our favorite conversational partners, a trajectory becomes clear. We are now "on to something" and the thrill of the chase is upon us. Now we can take up positions on the far horizon to the speech event. "Yes," says the other speaker, "that’s exactly where we are going!" Or, "no, not there, but how about this?" These acts of anticipation obviate great stretches of talk, and momentum grows. 

There are two kinds of movement: "side to side," as speakers leap from one conversational stream to the other, and "well forward and back around" as they race forward and then return to the conversational moment.  Joy comes from the locational agility these conversations both require of us and confer on us.  We are all now circus performers, athletes, that is to say, who are actually paid to show off. 

Oh, but I digress.   Sorry.  Your turn.

6 thoughts on “how I talk

  1. fredrik sarnblad

    This is a truly wonderful post to which I don’t feel a ‘cerebral’, intellectual response is appropriate. Mind you, I wouldn’t be capable of that anyway.

    I couldn’t have found a more entertaining compilation of 700 words or so to go with my morning coffee. Thanks Grant!

  2. Carol Gee

    Conversation is a dance. Sometimes the conversants seem to be listening to entirely different bands. My couples in counseling used to do that.
    I am curious, Grant. I am interested in the similarities and differences between good writers and good speakers. Do you hear yourself speaking in your head as you write, or do you have a more visual writing self-impression? And do you have an audience in mind as you write or a conversant?

  3. jkh

    talking to yourself on a very early mornings walk by the sea (or in the woods or mountains) can deliver perfect cure for those suffering from the symptoms of speed talk competitiveness.

    or better: run – don’t walk – to a well stocked dvd store near you and get aleksandr sokurov’s “russkiy kovcheg” – “the russian ark”.

    highly recommended for many purposes. – cures most unwanted symptoms of contemporary culture known to man.

    repeat medication optional.

  4. Adam Richardson

    This is what drives me nuts about those human speech systems that use voice recognition instead of keypresses to navigate the menu of choices. You have to talk over them in order to get them to do anything, which always feels like interrupting, and therefore rude. Maybe I’m overly sensitive to this as I’m English, but still, it goes against my ingrained politeness. But if I waited til they finished speaking, I’ll have forgotten what to say to get the choice I wanted.

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