Involuntary Blowhard Syndrome
November 3, 2010 8:59 AM   Subscribe

Well, Hush My Mouth (Quite Literally): help me stop spouting off half-formed, uninformed (and often purposefully-inflammatory) opinions. It wasn't cute at sixteen. It's REALLY not cute now.

So let's say someone brings up a Big Topic: religion, politics, history, human rights or some such... either online or in-person. I'm not particularly well-informed about this topic, and nor do I hold any strong views regarding it (this holds true for MOST topics... I have neither a solid intellectual background NOR a fiery, contrary personality).

Yet sometimes - more often than I'd like - I'll feel compelled to interject an ornery, iconoclastic opinion. Example: people are discussing voting. While I lean towards one side of the political spectrum, I'm spectacularly ill-informed about the nation, the issues and this and EVERY OTHER election. And I'm not even INTERESTED in politics, at all. Yet I'll still feel compelled to pipe up, say, "Voting is stupid... it doesn't really change anything... it just provides the illusion of choice!" (and a lot of other embarrassing nonsense woven together from old Loompanics catalogs and Wikipedia articles).

Afterward, I invariably feel this creeping sense of horrible, awestruck curiosity, like, "... why the hell did I just do that?! I looked like a tool! I don't KNOW or CARE enough about that issue to have ANY opinion, let alone a totally reactionary one! Was my brain just taken over by aliens?"

My question for you, dear MeFites: have any of you ever done this (please say yes)... and if so, HOW DID YOU STOP? Did you discover what it was that made you act like this? Did you develop any techniques for preventing it... or at least mitigating the damage?
posted by julthumbscrew to Human Relations (27 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Instead of stating an opinion or cracking a joke, ask someone in your group a specific question about what they just said. And not in a leading, "that just proves the point I'm about to make!" way. A sincere question. If you can't think of one, don't say anything, unless it's a graceful attempt to shift the subject.

Also, drink less at social functions. You will not. believe. the difference. this makes.
posted by hermitosis at 9:04 AM on November 3, 2010

Best answer: You're doing it for attention. You've been conditioned to do this to get attention, because it always gets attention. Something deep in your brain has learned that saying things like this is the attention-pellet lever.

You've got to either find a different way to get attention, or stop wanting attention.
posted by millipede at 9:06 AM on November 3, 2010 [9 favorites]

Best answer: It sounds like you don't feel confident that you have the knowledge to participate in these discussions, so maybe you're inserting yourself this way as a way of getting attention (when you'd otherwise be ignored) a kid who derails "grown up talk" that has excluded him from being the center of attention.
posted by availablelight at 9:08 AM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Don't focus on completely shutting up. Go ahead and express your opinions if you want to. But do it in a more modest way. Qualify your statements. People are usually more impressed by understatement than overstatement. Instead of trying to lay down the absolute truth, frame it a different way: as a question or an interesting observation or something you're curious about. For instance, if your immediate thought is:
Voting is stupid, it doesn't really change anything.
You could frame the same general point in an open-ended, inquiring way:
Why do people vote when one vote doesn't change anything? Doesn't that seem irrational? Well, maybe they get something else out of it. But couldn't this do more harm than good? More voting isn't necessarily better...

This way, you are putting your own ideas into the mix, but in a way that invites other people to add their thoughts and doesn't imply that your opinion is necessarily the ultimate right answer.
posted by John Cohen at 9:09 AM on November 3, 2010 [6 favorites]

Try, a few times, not saying anything at all unless you have something substantive to say or an on-point question to ask. You will be AMAZED at how much deference and attention people give your clear substantive points or your incisive, on-point questions if you don't say things as often and only speak when you have something to say. Honestly a good question makes you look as intelligent as a good point, even if you're revealing your ignorance of the particular topic at hand with the question -- showing that you listen, understand, and are trying to take the point deeper is impressive.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:12 AM on November 3, 2010 [10 favorites]

I find that forcing myself to either be quiet or to step away from the computer for even 1-2 minutes is often enough for a sense of the pointlessness and stupidity of saying something to rise to the surface and swamp my loudmouthed ego.

But I still struggle with it - good luck!
posted by ryanshepard at 9:13 AM on November 3, 2010

Response by poster: (I sort of want to mark EVERYTHING as a "best answer" - these few brief comments have provided more of a [horribly embarrassing but useful] window into my psychology than thousands of dollars' worth of therapy ever did. You guys rock.)
posted by julthumbscrew at 9:19 AM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Understand that a) you don't always have to "win" a discussion and b) it's perfectly acceptable to not have an opinion on something.

It's really hard to do, but in social situations like this it might be good for you to learn to be more comfortable in your own skin. By your own admission, you're neither contrary nor "intelligent" (in quotes because intelligence can mean about a billion things that aren't "book learnin") by nature, so it's possible that you might have a bit of an inferiority issue when in social situations. You might feel like you're expected to contribute, yet ill-equipped to do so due to your self-identified shortcomings, which leads to the verbal trainwreck you describe.

I was like this for a long time myself, and the best way I can explain how I overcame it is that I just...shut up. I started to realize that I wasn't adding anything to the conversation, and more to the point, I realized that every time I did something like interject a fiery opinion, I'd be expected to back it up, and 99% of the time I had nothing. So I learned to just stop saying stuff, and to listen more than I spoke.

Over time, listening became the habit, rather than speaking; in the years since, I've learned a bit more about how to strike a balance between the two. But at first, keep quiet and you'll learn a lot more, both about the subject being discussed and about yourself.

Good luck - it isn't easy, but it's worth doing.
posted by pdb at 9:21 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

My guess is that you're bored and fidgety. You dislike the topic, you're stuck listening to people gab, and well, idle hands are the devil's workshop. This is slightly different from doing it for attention- more that you're doing it to provoke chaos or break up the boring party. I would attempt to entertain and distract yourself in some fashion- by daydreaming, thinking up different topics of conversation, playing that game where you close one eye, then the other, and watching things in your field of vision jump back and forth... Or spend less time with people who talk about things you have no interest in.
posted by Nixy at 9:24 AM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Yes, I do it too. I do it much less than I used to. In a lot of ways it's about attention but it's something else too, something harder to really put a name to. In the past I've deliberately steered conversations towards a subject where I knew I could drop an incendiary bomb and then watch the carnage.

Two things helped: Therapy and the realization that it provided a brief endorphin rush but ultimately accomplished less than nothing, and in fact that I was starting to get invited to far fewer parties. The satisfaction of standoffishness takes a backseat to the fact that you're being perceived as genuinely abrasive.

Shut up when it's time to shut up (you'll know when it's time to shut up because you'll feel that urge rising), take a sip of something and sit back and offer an opinion when you have one that won't be disruptive. Once you've managed it a few times, you'll find it gets easier.

Here's another hint: I tend to bring a sketchbook with me nowadays. If the conversation starts turning towards topics where I'd be tempted to drop something provocative - say, folks start going on about how the star wars prequels were some sort of affront to humanity as opposed to some forgettable crappy movies - I take out the sketchbook, I start drawing. It doesn't remove you from the conversation the way that reading does, and you can still pay attention in case there's room for you to offer something productive.

The beauty of this is that, if you resist the idea because you're not much of an artist - well, the sketchbook is for practice, it's how you get better.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 9:25 AM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Sometimes it's more appealing to be remembered as "the jerk with out-there opinions" than as "the loser who had nothing to say"?

Agree with everyone who says you might want to think about why negative attention feels better to you than no attention at all.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:05 AM on November 3, 2010

Best answer: I used to do this, thinking it made that that wacky, iconoclastic chick, when in fact, it made me annoying. I don't know that I had an big aha! moment, but i did learn, over time, that listening and asking questions made me seem more thoughtful and thus, attractive, than did spouting off. A well-timed question can actually stimulate further discussion more than my old pronouncements.

And if you really get good at listening to what other people say, rather than trying to dream up something witty while they're talking, you end up more informed and more charming, which gets you positive attention.
posted by Ideefixe at 10:13 AM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Ha, yes, I do this!

At its worst, it's a way to get attention, and it's obnoxious and a sign of insecurity.

But there are also good things about it -- -- it's just part of my personality, and all humor is in part to get attention. It can also be a kind of rhetorical technique, like a polemic, which can be a perfectly valid way to argue (and to break out of a boring, cliche-laden conversation). But the problem is that people who don't know you well, or who don't understand the idea of a polemic, will think you're serious.

Finally, I've realized that I just legitimately have opinions and thoughts at right angles to a lot of people. I try to find friends on the same wavelength, rather than always having to self-edit. If you said during an earnest conversation about Our Democracy that "Voting is stupid... it doesn't really change anything... it just provides the illusion of choice," I would probably laugh and think you were someone I should hang out with more.
posted by yarly at 11:14 AM on November 3, 2010

Any chance that, when you catch yourself doing this, you can acknowledge it in the moment and redirect? Either by reframing as John Cohen suggests or with a self-deprecating kind of "but what do I know?"
posted by mskyle at 11:55 AM on November 3, 2010

Seconding Cohen.

If you've thought about something, bring your doubts to the conversations along with any half-baked stance. It's more interesting for everyone.
posted by phrontist at 12:24 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's some food for thought.

You don't care about politics because you feel politics don't effect you. This is, of course, not true.

You're young. You're straight (I assume). You have a child and are getting an education. (I went to your profile and your blog and read the about section). You're white and appear to be at least somewhat conventionally attractive. You are apparently pretty smart, despite your self avowed ignorance of some pretty large topics.

You may be skating on the bliss of privilege. You haven't had to think about X and it's implications because there have been none for you.

Example: I have a former colleague who I follow on Twitter. The other day she commented that someone in front of her at the gas station had only put $2 into her tank and that "people like that shouldn't be allowed to buy gas or drive." I was aghast at the sentiment because while it's been a LONG (thankfully) time since I've had to make the decision between gas and food, I did once have to make it. So I responded with a simple "You mean the poor?". Message received loud and clear. She'd never even considered that it might have been the last $2 this woman had.

You seem to share a pretty common affliction, which is the inability to see why something matters to others. Once you understand that there are real implications for real people... whether it's a vote on DADT, a tax cut, the governors race, battery cages and factory farming, global warming, the war in Darfur... you'll start listening and paying attention.

I bet that when you learn of something that directly impacts you there is an effort to learn about it. When you happen upon a discussion where you feel you have no stake take a moment and consider that. Is it true? How about people you know and care about? Your family? Your friends? The business and services you rely on every day? I bet you can connect the dots more often than not.

And maybe not long after this you can actually, you know, have a real opinion instead of a wisecrack.
posted by FlamingBore at 12:48 PM on November 3, 2010 [7 favorites]

> I don't KNOW or CARE

While to some degree this is about getting attention, this is probably even more about insecurity, and the belief that you don't know enough to contribute or compete in the existing conversation, and so must shut it, and its leading lights, down.

Instead of focusing on how much you know or don't know about Topic X, why not focus on becoming really good at drawing out others' expertise on Topic X?

Many people have expert knowledge on some topic or other, but few know how to share that in a way that is interesting.

One someone else-- like yourself, perhaps-- knows how to draw that information out, in an interesting way, the entire conversational circle is enlivened, and the person drawing that information out effectively can get as big a boost as the person delivering the information.

And by developing this skill, you aren't limited to one domain of knowledge; instead, you can get credit for unlocking the knowledge of all those around you.

You are freer than they are.

Why settle for being one of the Presenters, when you can be the Master of Ceremonies?
posted by darth_tedious at 1:10 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: FlamingBore: your answer was especially helpful, but probably not in the way you'd intended. When I posted this, I made a vow to pay special attention to comments which REALLY pissed me off... because anger, especially the knee-jerk kind, can often signal underlying fear and insecurity. And boy howdy, did it EVER in this case.

First thought: "Hey, I didn't ASK for ways in which I could develop an interest in politics!". Second thought: "... but why did that upset me? Maybe because part of me feels I'm somehow dumber or more inferior than those who DO have an interest in Big Issues? Hmmn!"

First thought: "How dare FlamingBore assume that I'm a typical privledged white girl who knows nothing of hardship!" Second thought: "... gee, I guess I'm terrified of being perceived that way (while not all of your assumptions about me were accurate, some were)... and might even resort to outlandish remarks to appear less pedestrian. Hmmn!"

First thought: "Oh, so I have to be sanctified by hardship in order to become interesting?" Second thought: "... I'm also afraid that all the hardship I HAVE experienced hasn't taught me a goddamned thing. Hmmn!"

And so on. So... while your comment did seem slightly personal-attack-y, the way in which it touched multiple nerves WAS really, really enlightening. So... um... thanks for the personal attack?
posted by julthumbscrew at 1:57 PM on November 3, 2010 [5 favorites]

My guess is that you're bored and fidgety. You dislike the topic, you're stuck listening to people gab, and well, idle hands are the devil's workshop. This is slightly different from doing it for attention- more that you're doing it to provoke chaos or break up the boring party.

I dunno about the OP but this is dead bang on the mark for me. A similar thing happened last night when a couple of our friends dropped by and they decided to turn on CNN and watch the returns with the mister.

I loathe politics to such a degree that having to be captive to the talking heads on the news like this sets off a seething white-hot ragey sort of panic attack type response I can't even control.

So I whined a bit, and tried on my patented useless "Jesus guys, you may as well root for the fucking Steelers as be all rah-rah about some political candidate, for all the good it'll do you..." snarky rejoinder, neither of which convinced them to change the topic or the channel. So once it sunk in a bit that I was being a pain in the ass about something they were genuinely interested in, I excused myself and wandered off to read while they drank beer and argued. S'cool, the mister kinda needed a boys' night out anyhow.

I enjoy football, but if I hated as much as some of my friends do, I'd probably do the same thing when the guys turn on the game every Sunday. It's the same issue. In essence, what I've discovered is the same thing all those folks pointed out up there. Anytime I'm disinterested / disenchanted with the topic, I tend to get a little restless with the discussion at hand. I then have to decide whether I'm curious enough to learn more about the subject by keeping my mouth shut, or if it's irritating enough to me that I don't really want to even be in the same room with it.

In this specific case, rather than be bored out of my skull, or irritated enough to want to derail their discussion, I just removed myself from the temptation to be an asshole. I imagine if I were at a party / social function it'd be easier to just excuse myself and find someone else to chat with about something more interesting.

Note: I am over 40 and still learning the gentle art of keeping my foot out of my mouth in social situations, so you may want to take my recommendations with a grain of salt.
posted by lonefrontranger at 1:57 PM on November 3, 2010

@darth_tedious: If you have any advice on *how* to develop that skill, I would love to hear it.
posted by RobotHero at 2:34 PM on November 3, 2010

Best answer: I was you, as a teenager and in the early parts of college.

Then I started learning about politics, and other big issues that people tend to have these sorts of discussions about. Part of it was becoming an adult and getting to have actual experiences that informed my worldview, rather than forming opinions based on the desire to get the "attention pellet" and the way it seemed like the world ought to be from the perspective of a seventeen year old. The other part is that I am a naturally curious and opinionated person. I genuinely wanted to learn why it's important to vote, or why a certain political position is wrong/right, or the true facts about Religious Group X or Social Movement Y.

Now I'm every bit as opinionated and contrary-minded (see these awesome threads that are now in the internets forever because of said traits!). And I am still working on my tendency to be a know-it-all in real life. But at least when I get into trouble with this, it's not because I'm just seeking attention via playing devil's advocate, it's because I'm expressing my real feelings or the facts as I understand them. That's a start. Right?
posted by Sara C. at 2:49 PM on November 3, 2010

julthumbscrew - Um, great?

In all seriousness though, I completely understand your initial reactions and hope that with a re-read or two you can see that I really wasn't trying to attack you, but it certainly must feel that way for all the reasons you elucidated.

And politics was just my example of something that really does have an impact on everyone. Even international politics.

There are still a lot of things in this world that I really don't want to give a rats ass about because it's easier not to. The most recent thing that I finally stopped purposefully perpetuating my own disconnect around was eating animal products. I still catch myself making rationalizations for why I want to eat this or buy that product. I can still fill a huge ass bucket with stuff I should know more about and don't. I attack that when I come to it.

I *hate* deconstructing my own privilege around so many things but mostly around money and access. I wouldn't stack my hard knocks against anyone else's because it's not a competition I'd want to win. Though I believe we all face challenges - and based on your blog it sounds like you've gotten knocked about too. No one has the perfect life. By all rights I should still be working a low paying manual labor job. I got incredibly lucky and parlayed a break I got into a ten plus year career that now has me living a pretty awesome life. My situation could have turned out very differently.

Race privilege is another hard one for me. I'm 40 and am still learning about it. I came of age in a time when we were taught that the best thing we could do was to be color blind. I think that was possibly the worst lesson I learned growing up. Ignoring something doesn't make it go away, it just makes it easier to justify. Which I kind of think fits into what you are dealing with. Maybe.

I'm glad you got something out of my earlier comment, even if it stung. It was not my intention and I hope you develop a strategy that helps you through situations where you feel uncomfortable.
posted by FlamingBore at 3:12 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

It can be fun to play devil's advocate sometimes. The key is to make it clear that you are playing a game, not expressing deeply held opinions. You can do that by phrasing it as a "what if" question, as someone suggested above, or by outright stating: "Okay, I'm going to play devil's advocate here: voting is useless because it doesn't change anything" (or whatever the topic is). If you have the right sort of friends (those who like debating, and don't perceive argumentation as personal attacks), this can trigger fun conversations. And if you make it clear you are just trying to get them to explore their ideas, you can jump around from one crazy opinion to another, just to see what they do.

If you do this with EVERY conversation, though, you will piss people off. So practice shutting up and listening sometimes too :)
posted by lollusc at 4:02 PM on November 3, 2010

Best answer: It can be fun to play devil's advocate sometimes.

I can honestly say that I have never found it fun to be in a conversation where someone was playing devil's advocate unless it was about a completely unimportant thing like whether "The Cosby Show" or "The Bernie Mac Show" was better.

If there's one thing I hate--and there are literally millions--it's people playing devil's advocate. The Devil already has enough advocates! Don't be that guy/girl.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:18 PM on November 3, 2010 [8 favorites]

Response by poster: Once again, I'm reminded of the Metafilter community's collective amazingness.

Thank you, thank you, thank you to everyone... as I mentioned earlier, this thread has been an amazing window into my psyche and will hopefully be a good beginner's primer on How to Converse Like a Freaking Grown Woman Already.

Some things stung to hear, but ALL of your advice was conveyed tactfully and constructively. And hey, in my case, positive change usually begins with an existential backhand to the schnozz.

First resolutions: say 50% less. Think about my motivations for saying all remaining things. And read at least two or three NYT articles (which are NOT from the "Health" or "Food" sections) each and every day.
posted by julthumbscrew at 4:57 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

The way you word things is important. If Jane and I are talking about voting and you say "Voting is stupid! One vote doesn't change anything!" then we feel like you're attacking us and calling us stupid. But if you say "I don't vote because I feel like one vote doesn't make a difference" then that is much different. That can lead to a calm and reasonable discussion of the merits of voting.
posted by IndigoRain at 5:45 PM on November 3, 2010

I don't think you have to say less (but it wouldn't hurt), or read more articles (but it wouldn't hurt). Just turn your comments into questions. You can say as much. You can get as much attention. And you'll learn from the other guys. And be more interesting.

I used to be the zaksame as you. And now I've discovered I like finding out more about what the other guy thinks.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 12:18 PM on November 4, 2010

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