WASHINGTON, April 14, 2013 – There’s lots of advice out there about how to introduce yourself to other people at business functions, how to mingle at events when you know hardly anyone there, and how to converse with dinner companions you’ve only just met. With just a little effort on your part, it’s possible to draw out shy people, find connections with strangers (or enjoy the contrasts), or understand an unfamiliar accent.
But what happens when you meet someone at an event who’s a complete, total bore? Not just crashingly dull, but an individual who’s relentlessly talkative, bragging about his career (studded with accomplishments), the places he’s been (all exotic or glamorous), the people he knows (all important, ranked, and/or titled)?
All of this occurred at a recent awards banquet before the gentleman introduced himself to this writer. Actually, although he was careful to ensure I knew he was a retired Navy captain, the gentleman never even bothered to tell me his name. And so, let’s…
Call him Captain Cockalorum
At the banquet, the Captain and I were assigned to the same table. Within five minutes, it became perfectly clear that the rest of us at the table had a genuine blowhard on our hands. The Captain was Very Important. As in Washington Important. He made that very clear to everyone within earshot.
His nonstop promotional speech never allowed anyone to ask him about who he was or his personal details. The time slots his carefully honed speech patterns allotted for listener responses permitted phrases no longer than “Oh really?”, “You don’t say,” and “Uh-huh.”
I nibbled on my salad in silence, interrupting the Captain only to request he pass the butter. By then he’d turned to harangue a gentleman on his left, carrying on his nonstop monologue even when the event’s scheduled speakers began to speak, reminding me of the occasional opera going husband who feels compelled to describe the action onstage at a conversational level even as the opera is being performed. Irritated, I was forced to ask him to be a little quieter in order to hear what the presenters and awardees had to say.
One’s first impulse in a situation like this is to react rudely, reflecting irritation. Before the speakers had begun, I’d managed to stifle that impulse, listen to him, and actually slip in a couple of brief questions. Even so, annoyance gradually took over. Captain C was didactic, condescending, overweening, and in some strange way, apparently trying to impress me. The polite impulse might have been to simply let him go on, but it was beginning to be difficult to conceal my boredom.
Thankfully, I was called to another table. Upon my return, it appeared that Captain C had already departed, his salad half-eaten and a crumpled up napkin perched in it. While I had left temporarily, he had left permanently.
Fight or flight. Apparently, we both chose flight.
Most of us tend to run away or slip away from braggarts, boasters, blowhards, and big mouths. It’s no wonder they never change. Rather than risk appearing rude or confrontational, we escape these windy babblers in whatever manner we can, along with the feelings they ignite within us. Then they wonder what’s wrong with us when we disappear.
Questions for habitual braggarts
Since then, I’ve decided there’s a better approach when it comes to dealing with this social problem. Rather than running away from people like Captain Cockalorum, it’s likely a far more proactive approach to deal them on one’s own terms, with no rudeness added. We’ll still talk about the monologist’s favorite subject, of course, or there’ll be no conversation at all. The new goal, however, is be to scramble their thought patterns by tangling them up with questions they’ve never heard before:
“I forgot. Were we introduced? I don’t seem to know your name. Do you know mine?”
“That was pretty remarkable. What would you say are your top three personality traits?”
“Ten years ago? What skills have you acquired recently?
“That was quite a success. You know, some people say we learn the most from our mistakes. What lessons have you learned from yours?”
“What bores you?”
“How are you making a difference in other people’s lives?
“If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?”
Plan B: Stun Them into Silence
If we can’t disrupt thought patterns, we might be able to effect a mid-course correction and go after the offending individual’s speech patterns. For this, you (and I) may need a SpeechJammer.
Invented by Japanese researchers Kazutaka Kurihara and Koji Tsukada, this handy, dandy device recently won an Ig Nobel award. It very simply disrupts a person’s speech by playing it back at him with a very slight delay. (Tech details here.)
Here’s a Japanese video describing the prototype device:
Problem is, at least as of this writing, this device hasn’t been commercialized to our knowledge. But, maybe better yet, there are Speech Jammer apps available for portable devices, although your mileage for a given app may vary according to freelance reviewers. The technology is described in the following video (which, BTW, tends to download a bit slowly).
SpeechJammer or no, our bottom line is this: why run away from the Captain Cockalorums of the world when, with a little effort, we can knock their speech and thought patterns around a little bit while attempting to improve their skills in the art of conversation? If not for ourselves, why not do it for the sake of their hapless future victims?
Frances Ponick’s book, Only Angels Can Wing It: How to Prepare a Eulogy Quickly and Present It Compassionately, is available in paperback from the author and is now available at Amazon.com. She coaches written and verbal communications and is the writer’s block expert at AllExperts. Feel free to ask questions there, or connect with Frances at Twitter, Facebook, and/or LinkedIn.
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