You’re at a dinner party, and you realize you haven’t said a word for the past 20 minutes. In fact, no one has, except for the person who’s currently sharing the fourth long-winded story in a row. No, it’s not shyness that’s keeping you quiet. You’re dealing with a chatterbox.
You, as a good listener, might know that you should aim to listen about 80 percent of the time, says Sharon Schweitzer, an international etiquette expert and founder of Protocol & Etiquette Worldwide. “The other 20 percent is for asking open-ended, creative questions and responding to questions,” she says.
So it’s fine—even ideal—if everyone isn’t talking equally. But if the conversation is only about one other person, you could feel like the person is talking to you opposed to talking with you. “A chatterbox is someone who has an uncanny knack for bringing every conversation back to something they’ve done without showing any interest in what the other person is talking about,” says New York-based etiquette expert “Mister Manners” Thomas Farley.
Your politeness and fear of interrupting could cause a talkative person to keep bulldozing on, without giving you the chance to ask follow-ups or share your own thoughts. “Someone who’s really a chatterbox knows better than to allow any silence, any break that could let someone recapture the spotlight,” Farley says.
To cut in without seeming rude, turn your interruption into a compliment, suggests Schweitzer. Mention you like a point that the person made, then ask to clarify by re-stating what the other said. “By saying you’re making sure you got it right, you’re letting them know they need to shorten it and make it succinct,” she says. (Don’t miss these etiquette tips for other modern annoyances, like splitting the bill.)
If interjecting isn’t working, let your body language do the talking. Smiling, nodding, and saying “oh really?” enthusiastically show that you’re engaged, encouraging the chatterbox to keep rambling. Instead, keep your responses, if any, quick and blunt, and make less eye contact, says Farley. “If they’re adept enough, they will realize they’re starting to lose you,” he says. In a group scenario, purposely make more eye contact with the others there to encourage them to speak up more.
Is the chatterbox still not getting the hint? Politely remove yourself from the conversation. When you find a brief pause, jump on the chance to lightly touch the other person’s elbow as you announce your exit. “The elbow touch is your throwing down the gauntlet down effectively,” says Farley. “It’s snapping out of the story momentarily so you can disengage.” Tell the other person that you’ve enjoyed the conversation but have to leave.
In group settings, deflect the conversation away from the conversation hog by asking someone else about a related story. Mentioning another person by name will prevent the chatterbox from butting in again, says Schweitzer. “You gave them that attention, and now you’ve moved to someone else,” she says. “Hopefully the other person gets the point.”
Thinking ahead can also keep you from wanting to pull your hair out. When making plans with an overly talkative friend, pick an activity that doesn’t require much chitchat, like going to the movies or taking a cooking class, suggests Schweitzer. And if your friend insists on sitting down for lunch or coffee, put a deadline on your time together so you have an excuse to put a stop to the blabbing, she says. No need to come up with an excuse—just mention when you arrive that you have to leave at a specific time.
If you have a Chatty Cathy at home, ask your family member if you can fold laundry or organize a junk drawer while you listen. That way, you won’t feel so anxious about all the chores ahead of you, says Schweitzer. “You don’t feel like you are wasting time,” she says. “It’s a good way to keep peace in the family.”