Why Do We All Talk to Strangers?
Do you remember the doll Chatty Cathy? If you grew up in the early 60s, you probably had one. Second to Barbie, this pull-string talking toy was the most popular doll on the market. I had a Chatty Cathy and loved her dearly.
And like my doll, I was a regular Chatty Cathy. I talked so much as a child that my family used to pay me to keep quiet. I’d get a nickel for every fifteen minutes I’d keep still. The truth is, I didn’t collect many nickels.
I wasn’t just chatty. I was really friendly. I once invited a total stranger over to our house. When he showed up, my mother won’t let him in, of course. But he wouldn’t leave. My mother called the police and that night both my parents gave me a stern lecture about not talking to strangers.
Yet, if I wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers, my middle-aged mother was setting a bad example.
She chatted up all sorts of people. She knew the names of the cab driver’s children before we had gotten crosstown. She knew about the girl at the Bloomingdales’ makeup counter’s latest heartbreak before the lipstick purchase was in the bag. And if our plane was delayed, she knew the life story of the young soldier sitting beside us before the next flight update. It used to drive me nuts. “Mother, please!”
Even in junior high school, the start of those years of guarded teenage secrets, I could still drive my family crazy with non-stop talking. They continued the cash-for-quiet bribery scheme. However, I had wised up by then, and the going rate for quietude was much, much more than a nickel for fifteen minutes!
The Quiet Curtain Descends
In high school, there was one critical social setting where I did fall silent – that frantic three-minute break allotted to move between classes. I didn’t smile when passing kids in the hall. I didn’t say “hi.”
It wasn’t that I was suddenly shy or a snob as some suggested. No, I was vain. I had become nearsighted and couldn’t see. And I refused to wear glasses while parading down the high school catwalk – i.e. corridor between Social Studies and English, the lunchroom, and Algebra. Better to be accused of being aloof than risk being called “four eyes.”
Silence in the USSR
My childhood tendency to talk nonstop came to a full stop when I studied in the former Soviet Union. My Russian language skills weren’t strong. Barely able to speak a word, I struggled to understand what was being said and so, I spent a lot of time just listening and nodding.
By the end of my semester abroad, my vocabulary had improved, but I had also learned the pleasure of listening and observing, a pleasure that carried over when I returned home.
My mother immediately observed my new quietude, first with some relief and then with sadness. She said she missed knowing exactly what was on my previously unfiltered mind.
This new, quiet mode proved of great utility when I became a Las Vegas news reporter. I learned a lot by sitting quietly while my interview subjects rambled on.
Challenged on the Cocktail Circuit
Yet, with friends, I was still quite the chatterbox and could talk the proverbial “mile a minute.” That said, put me in a room full of strangers at a cocktail party and suddenly I became chit chat challenged. Handsome Hubby too. We always stood aside, looking on, not quite knowing how to inject ourselves into others’ animated conversation.
HH could at least talk sports. I, well, once I silenced a Las Vegas cocktail party.
“Are you watching the Super Bowl this weekend?” somebody asked.
“Oh, that’s football, right?” I said. “This weekend? Uh, no. I don’t think so.”
I tried to turn the conversation to the upcoming theatre season on Broadway, but the person just shrugged his shoulders and walked away. Silently I vowed to calendar the Super Bowl for the coming year.
When I became a mom, I officially switched into the doting listening mode, hanging on to every adorable utterance, belch, and grunt of my babes.
One of my children had horrific asthma, so many nights, too many nights, I spent sleeping at the foot of his bed, listening to his raspy breaths, making sure he was OK. Not much to chat about there.
All too quickly the years of bouncing babies passed, replaced by the dual challenges of dealing with teens struggling toward independence and aging parents struggling with increasing dependence. Those were the times when silence, determination, and some amount of tears often filled a void that conversation could not.
The Middle Ages
Now, however, in my 60s, I find myself becoming – once again – a regular Chatty Cathy. Even Handsome Hubby (HH), once a strong silent type, has also belatedly become a chatty guy.
Recently in a crowded restaurant, we wound up seated at the bar for lunch. The bartender, sullen and scowling, was complaining bitterly about his boss to one of the regulars seated next to us. As we placed our order, HH said he was sorry the guy was having a bad day. By the end of the meal, we had all traded our family histories and were downing (free) tequila shots.
Like my mother, I talk to strangers all the time. I befriend seatmates on airplanes. I get chummy with sales people helping me in department stores. And just this week, I brought a rug into a local shop for repairs and left knowing the shopkeeper’s entire family’s history in Iran and even got a promise for his wife’s recipe for fesenjan (pomegranate and walnut stew).
Yes, I have become my mother. And I like it.
I recently mentioned this urge to chat to a group of middle-aged people – complete strangers, of course. They said the same thing is happening to them. They too have become gregarious. I don’t know the psychology behind this tendency, but I suspect it just comes down to the fact that we are finally comfortable in our own skin and don’t really worry what people think of us. Why I even talk to strangers when I’m wearing my eyeglasses! Call me “four eyes.” I don’t care. Vanity is gone, replaced by friendliness – a lovely trait that children and people “of a certain age” seem to share.
Middle-aged Muddlers Respond
What do you think, middle-aged muddlers? Are you more chatty than you used to be?
Chatty Cathy Trivia Note: According to the IMDb website, Ann P. Ryan, the former stepdaughter of Zsa Zsa Gabor, was the first voice of the popular pull-string talking doll. Her father, inventor Jack Ryan, was married to Zsa Zsa from 1975-1976.
Not yet. So engrossed in my career, when I’m not engaged with friends family or work, I’m thinking about work. Then when I get home, after talking all day, the last thing I want to do is chat.
I’m an open book…..chatting my way through middle age and beyond, but it’s nothing new really, maybe a tad more pronounced now. Not a bad thing though.