She Talks a Lot, He Listens a Little

Marianne Ham was so excited when she recently visited Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan ruins in Peru, that she pulled out her cellphone on the top of the mountain and called her husband back home in Huntingdon Valley, Pa. She wanted to share the experience with him and described the stunning views.

When she was done talking, her husband, Bill, had one thing to say: “Do you have the number for the electrician?”

“It was so typical,” says Ms. Ham, a 72-year-old retired advertising media manager who has been married 35 years. “I was saying one thing and his mind was somewhere else.”

There really are just two kinds of people in the world: talkers and non-talkers. (You know which one you are.) Logically, all would be perfect if the talkers married only the non-talkers. But that’s not always the case, since many non-talkers are also non-listeners—they simply tune out the chatter. And frustration over communication styles can be heightened in this age of technology. Now that we have more ways than ever before to communicate, some people have never felt less heard.

I have a good friend who says I talk too much. He’s probably not wrong—I speak for far longer stretches of time than he can stand to listen. So he has a plan: He suggested, half jokingly, that we communicate by voicemail and text messages. “It’s shorter that way,” he explained.

I’ve got bad news for him: That’s not going to work for me. But his negotiation over how we can best communicate does raise an interesting point: Non-talkers control the conversation. When they’re done listening, the conversation is over.


Can You Hear Me Now?

How can gabbers and non-gabbers communicate better? Here are some tips:

  • Set aside a time to talk. Taylor Keeney, a pilot, and his wife plan to speak for the first 20 minutes every day when they both get home from work. ‘The rule is that the TV or radio can be on but no computers or cellphone calls for however long it takes to re-connect,’ he says.
  • If you’re the talker, slow down. Cheryl Leone, a 66-year-old management consultant from Raleigh, N.C., breaks down her conversations into more bite-size pieces, so her boyfriend of 11 years can better absorb them. ‘I tend to throw a lot of things at him, and he could still be on one and two when I hit 10,’ she says. ‘Now I try to keep my list to about three things.’
  • Ask questions. Ask for feedback. ‘Conversation isn’t a monologue,’ says Rob Dobrenski, a psychologist in New York City. ‘Remember that you are talking “with” a person, not “at” one.’
  • Let the talker talk. Remember that if you’re the non-talker, you control and manipulate the communication by constantly curtailing conversation, which can be hurtful to the other person.
  • Really listen. Being silent is not the same as active listening. Use cues, such as head nods or statements such as ‘I hear you.’ When the talker pauses, relay back what you have heard and add your thoughts.
  • Ask for a break. ‘The non-talker should feel free to say, “Let me have a quick breather, I’m running out of listening gas. Let’s come back to this in a few minutes, or at least let’s break up this conversation with a new topic,” ‘ Dr. Dobrenski says.
  • Use technology as a supplement, not a substitute. Sure, it’s a great way to check in and converse in short bursts. But remember that it might not provide enough of an emotional connection for the talker in your life.
  • Call someone else. Sometimes it’s better to find an attentive audience, rather than numb one into submission.


Consider the Macalusos, of Webster, N.Y. Susan likes to talk—a lot. Rob does not. “You could be interested in talking all night, but if I’m not interested, it’s not going to happen,” says Rob, 40, head of a telecommunications-equipment company.

At night in bed, while Ms. Macaluso happily chats away about her day, her husband often falls asleep, despite propping himself up with pillows and keeping the light on. On more than one occasion, after a cellphone call with him gets dropped, she has yammered away for an additional two or three minutes, unaware that he’s not there until he calls back on another line. And every once in awhile, she becomes so exasperated by his silence that she pretends to speak for him, in a deeper voice, just to hear some feedback.

“He doesn’t tell me to get to the point because he knows it would be a big insult,” says Ms. Macaluso, 43, a homemaker. Says her husband: “I made the mistake of telling my wife to speed up—just once. She started over and made me sit through the whole thing again.”

Do women talk more than men? Not always, of course. Some men are big gabbers, just as some women are silent types. And yet, the stereotype that women talk more than men holds pretty true.

There are environmental reasons—many men are raised not to share their feelings. But biology plays a surprisingly strong a part, as well. There is evidence that women’s and men’s brains process language differently, according to Marianne Legato, a cardiologist and founder of the Partnership for Gender-Specific Medicine at New York’s Columbia University. She says that listening to, understanding and producing speech may be easier for women because they have more nerve cells in the left half of the brain, which is used to process language, a greater degree of connectivity between the two parts of the brain and more of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the part of the brain that controls language.

Although the ability to understand and process language diminishes in both men and women as we age, it does so earlier for men (after age 35) than women (post-menopause). Women also get a boost of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone, when they speak to others, and estrogen enhances its effects. While men get this, too, testosterone blunts its effects. “This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view—men can’t defend their families if they are burdened with high levels of a hormone that compels them to make friends of all they meet,” says Dr. Legato, author of “Why Men Never Remember and Women Never Forget.” “Thus, men in their prime with high levels of testosterone are the least likely to be interested in social exchanges and bonding to others.”

Of course, we don’t need scientific studies to tell us that men and women communicate differently. Ask Taylor Keeney about his “word imbalance” theory. “Some women generally have a word quota,” says the 44-year-old pilot from Apex, N.C. “They have to say so many words to their significant other per day.”

Simply for ease of accounting, he puts that number at 1,000 words per day. Men, he says, generally are capable of hearing about 750 of these words. That is, once the woman hits 750, the man’s eyes glaze over. She then goes into “angry storage mode,” saving words for the next day. This cycle can be repeated indefinitely, with the woman storing up words until she gets a chance to say them.

“It is not pretty and can end badly for all concerned,” says Mr. Keeney. “Phrases like, ‘You never listen to me’ or ‘We never talk anymore’ are uttered. Men give the ‘I just got home and all I want to do is relax’ as a defense. Not good.”

Mr. Keeney has come up with a solution: texting. “Something as simple as a text of “DCA LUMU” (“Landed in D.C., Love You, Miss You”) or “GMB” (“Good Morning, Beautiful)” are fast but very effective at letting your partner know that you are thinking of them,” he says. “And all words count against the word quota.” His wife of three years agrees—to a point. “It has to be both quality and quantity,” says Margit Sylvester, 39, an executive assistant.

So what’s the answer? Should talkers befriend only talkers? Perhaps the best solution is to find someone who exactly complements your talking style. So, for example, if you like to talk 75% of the time, you need to find someone who is comfortable listening 75% of the time and talking only a quarter of it.

Jeff Foote says he was attracted to his partner of 17 years because he talks twice as much as he himself does. “It’s a lot less work for me,” says Mr. Foote, 53, a project manager for a San Francisco bank.

Still, he admits that he doesn’t always listen. Sometimes he has been reading and just can’t switch gears fast enough. “The conversation has already started, but I can’t keep up,” he says. “If I’m lucky, I don’t get caught.”

Sadly, he often does—because his partner gives him pop quizzes on what he has been saying. “Twenty-five percent of the time I can connect enough of the key words and guess right,” says Mr. Foote.

His partner, Cosgrove Norstadt, has seen his quizzes backfire. “I find out he has been listening the whole time, and I am embarrassed because I have been yammering on about nothing in the hopes of catching him not paying attention.” says Mr. Norstadt, 47, an actor. “So, I reinforce his decision to tune me out.”

Elizabeth Bernstein, Wall Street Journal


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