Talking too much

Posted 03.14.13

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | At a recent evening get-together, with people talking on all sides, several conversations at once, I had a startling revelation, to wit, that most people don't know what they are talking about.

Sorry, I mean all people. Nobody knows what they're talking about. Me, you, anyone who speaks. I don't mean the common reaction of rolling one's eyes at too many theories, ideas, and the wild claims of dinner table talk after a few wine bottles have been emptied.

I mean people discussing all sorts of things, from daily schedules to cosmological reflections, from law cases to recipes, from declarations of love to cursing the evil Syrian regime or praising one's favourite musicians -- nobody knows what they're talking about. Really talking about.

This is not radical news. Psychologists long ago noticed that people often speak at cross purposes to themselves and say things they are not entirely aware they are saying. Freud brought this to our attention in a most dramatic way. Everything from Freudian slips of the tongue to transference of one's inner anxieties and complexes into the subject of conversation. If a therapist must use our dreams to understand what we are really saying, how could we ourselves know?

Think of how many misunderstandings or disagreements result from asking "Are you really saying that?" or "Do you mean to say you thinkā€¦?".

If we cannot be sure that we are actually speaking the words we intend to speak, how can we believe that we actually know what we are talking about?

What I noticed over that lamb roast dinner were guests talking in several conversations at once, responding verbally to all sorts of clues and reactions elicited from those around the speakers. As always, while we were speaking, we were also thinking of much more than what was coming out of our mouths.

We try to find things to say in agreement, maybe, even when we did not we agree entirely. We speak and wonder at the same time; we think, guess, predict, infer, and plan ahead -- all at the same time we're talking. We speak and watch our listeners' eyebrows, pupils, and body language. We modify our message or our tone in response to all those clues, without missing a stride in our conversation.

Yet, if we are speaking, describing a thought or an idea, while at the same time observing and responding to our listeners' raised eyebrows -- how in blazes can we be sure of what we really said? How can we know what we are actually saying? You'd think we'd be more careful.

And that's one of our very human paradoxes: by having the right to speak our minds, we assume we have a right to be heard. Yet there are no such rights. Having the ability to open our mouths and utter thoughts, all with the best of intentions, has nothing to do with the truths of the world.


Copyright © 2013 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.13