How should I respond to my MIL's inane babble?
May 15, 2012 10:54 AM   Subscribe

(Anon bc my husband sometimes reads askme.) My mother in law often seems to suffer from verbal diarrhea; she fills perfectly reasonable silence with inane chatter, and it gets annoying and frustrating to spend time with her (I often have a constant refrain of "Cool story, bro" running through my head). Apart from just nodding, saying "mmm hmm" in a non-committal-please-don't-bother-telling-me-more tone of voice, etc. -- is there anything I can do or say that will make this stop?

I've tried seeming interested and asking questions in the hope that we could naturally exhaust topics of conversation, but I'm afraid I find most of what she talks about fairly irrelevant to my life/interests (eg. she could spend hours discussing the trivial parochial politics of her local church), and it's a struggle to maintain a back and forth. I've tried fostering a sense of empathy toward her, telling myself that maybe she needs to get this stuff out to someone for some reason I haven't yet grasped, but find myself still getting really annoyed.

Any tips for how to be more zen about this? I want to have a good relationship with her, but more often than not, I'm fluctuating between states of extreme boredom and extreme annoyance around her, and can feel myself slipping into childish territory at times (I have definitely rolled my eyes when she wasn't looking, and I'm not proud of this). How do I stop caring? Or more accurately, how do I start caring about what she has to say?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (33 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
is there anything I can do or say that will make this stop?

In my experience, probably not. The Babbling Lady in my life babbles because she's nervous and desperate to make a connection, and uncomfortable with silence--fixing her would require a total rewiring.

You can try to be more assertive and steer the conversation into some territory you can talk to her about (Pie making. Your husband as a child. You can try sharing something of yourself.) and keep a list on an index card in your wallet or something. But in the end, Babbling Lady probably gonna Babble because your list will be finite and hers will not be.

Sometimes my Babbling Lady does this so much I sort of want to cry because it's a totally empty conversation, but one I'm nonetheless held hostage to.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:03 AM on May 15, 2012 [15 favorites]

Yeah I don't think there's much that you can do to arrest this behavior. Some people just babble incessantly when they're nervous or they're trying to make a point, etc.
posted by dfriedman at 11:04 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh my, if you hadn't mentioned having a husband, I'd think mine snuck on here to complain about my mother.

What works for me is steering the conversation to discuss something that I'm interested in that mom is possibly interested in too. In our case its kids/grandkids. But perhaps also books, TV, freak weather incidents, neat thing you saw shopping, ideas for family gifts, etc. If you're lucky it turns from a monologue into a conversation.

On preview...A Terrible Llama made the point already. Just make sure to bring a book and retire to your room early during visits.
posted by Measured Out my Life in Coffeespoons at 11:07 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

telling myself that maybe she needs to get this stuff out to someone for some reason I haven't yet grasped

I am assuming that your MIL is a nice person who is interested in your life, and not some self-absorbed rude person who never listens. If she's like the older women in my family, she's just trying to get to know you better by sharing her life with you. All these things you describe with such disdain--these things are her life. She doesn't have anything else to talk about. I think she expects that by sharing her life with you, you will do the same with her. She wants to be closer to you. If you don't want to get any closer, then continue as you are. If you want a closer relationship with her, treat these topics like a story you're reading in a novel. Follow the characters with interest and think about why they are important to her. Ask questions about them, and then relate them back to your own life.

Honestly, I never had patience for this kind of thing either until my dad had a stroke. Then I realized that all these daily irritations would one day be gone, and that I would have lost something precious. The older members of my family are important to me and I don't want to lose time with them. I want the time I spend with them to be happy and pleasant and close. It took some work and teeth-gritting, but now I can spend hours talking to my mom about the boring things she did that day, because that's time spent getting to know her. And I enjoy it.
posted by rhythm and booze at 11:14 AM on May 15, 2012 [48 favorites]

Yeah, this can be an issue. My MIL is a peach of a lady, just as lovely and kind as she wants to be. We don't have a lot in common, with the exception of her son, but we each try. We're friends on Facebook, so I know what she's up to.

Some times you just have to make an effort. Really, is it so hard?

Try watching a movie together, or a show you both like. (I know, she's going to talk right through it, but even so.)

Be thankful that your MIL is trying to make a connnection with you, rather than some screaming harpie intent on ruining your life.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:16 AM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes, we've got a babbler too and sometimes it makes me want to drive nails into my skull. I agree that tension and/or silence can bring it on. Ours can be effectively silenced by giving her something to do, eg look after children, cook, do something in the garden. Or indeed a good book.
posted by unSane at 11:16 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I posted this AskMe on the same topic a ways back.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:17 AM on May 15, 2012

I just checked and you're not my wife, who could have easily posted this.

We have a mantra. "Be a stone in a river." Let it just sort of wash over you.

Point taken that the elderly often want to be closer or participate in your life. The problem is they often wind up inflicting themselves upon you. No I'm not cold. No I'm not hungry. Those are direct quotes from my 4 year old to my Mom, just this past weekend.

There's a difference between people who want to connect and people who want ammo to create drama and pick fights. If the former - be kind. If the latter - protect yourself.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 11:19 AM on May 15, 2012 [7 favorites]

Piping up to strongly second what rhythm and booze wrote. Thank you for expressing that thought so well - I was struggling with wording.
posted by pammeke at 11:20 AM on May 15, 2012

Engage her actively in conversation about things you want to talk about. There must be something the two of you have in common -- taste in books? a particular hobby? an interest in travel? her son?

If you're having conversations with her about things you are interested in, that's less time for her to fill with monologues about things you aren't interested in.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:20 AM on May 15, 2012

I have this problem with someone in my life and have, like the posters above, determined it's the desire to make a connection. Things that seem to help with this: talking to her/calling her more regularly, asking questions, and talking more openly myself. (Not necessarily about personal things, but just... talking).

My therapist also encouraged me to engage in "active listening" more, which seems to have helped.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:20 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Engage her actively in conversation about things you want to talk about.

I think this is great advice. There are people who for various reasons feel that they always must fill any conversational silence with something; your MIL may not be babbling because she is deeply invested in telling you about her church politics but because she feels she has to say something.

You can both relieve her of this responsibility and make things easier for yourself by actively driving the conversation to things you'd like to talk about.
posted by grobstein at 11:28 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

You could also try initiating more conversations with her. If she tends to call you and get all chatty about things, try calling her at times she's not used to, set a time limit, and inform her about something that interests you.

"Hi Mom! I only have five minutes, but wanted to let you know about Allie's soccer game. She scored two goals! And she also scraped her knee, but you know Allie, she never seems to feel pain when she's out on the field. I'm sorry I have no time to chat right now, but wanted to make sure you knew about this, because I know you like to know when the grandkids do something great. Be sure to mention it to her next time you talk to her. Talk soon? Okay, bye!"

She'll feel more involved and less inclined to try to cram in every little thing in the MIL-induced conversations, I'd warrant.
posted by xingcat at 11:32 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think this is common in older people, especially people whose social circle has shrunk over the years (kids moving away, relatives growing old and passing on, etc.). My grandmother's a babbler, and since she doesn't get out much and has few remaining relatives, I sometimes have to volunteer for listening duty.

The conversations can drag on, and sometimes she says things that make my eyes bug out of my head, but it helps me to look at the bigger picture: maybe I don't really want to discuss the bird species in her back yard, but I do want to make her feel happy, loved, and at ease. And if listening to her talk for an hour straight without losing my patience will do that, that doesn't seem like too tall of an order.

Essentially, I reframe it as doing my best to provide her with a pleasant experience, and reminding myself that being impatient with her isn't kind and she doesn't deserve it.
posted by Metroid Baby at 11:47 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is why cards and board games were invented.

It's not suitable in all situations but if you have to spend any prolonged period with her, it could save your sanity and will give you some kind of shared experience. Let her win.
posted by bonobothegreat at 11:48 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't think you can stop her. But how much does she really expect you to engage while she's doing it? I've noticed with some people who talk incessantly (which is so foreign to me because I can't imagine talking that much, that often!) that they just really like talking and as long as you're listening enough, they don't need you to be hanging on every word. Would she be offended if, for example, while she was talking you kept up your "Uh-huh, yeah" and asked the occasional question but also did something else like knitting or cleaning the kitchen? And if she happened to trail off, you just didn't say anything? I know some people like this are attention-starved and easily affronted, but most talking as a pastime, and don't mind if you get on with your pastime too, as long as you're not actually dismissive of what they're saying. It's weird to me because I don't talk that much so when I do I want people to really listen. It's hard to think that someone's talking to me and I can be "rude" and semi-ignore them. If you're the same way, maybe you're assuming that she has expectations of you which are not really there.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 11:50 AM on May 15, 2012

You two should maybe have a little book club? Whenever you buy a book for yourself, loan it to her afterward. Or even buy her an extra copy. That gives you something to steer the conversation toward in times of total boredom, and as other people have pointed out, it makes her feel included and connected.

It helps if you pick books that she's genuinely likely to enjoy.
posted by hermitosis at 11:50 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is kind of my life with my late dad's lady friend. I love some of the suggestions in this thread, especially the "set a time limit in advance for calls" and " start conversations about things that interest you both," but sometimes it does seem that it's important to them to have someone listen to a big infodump. I usually think with part of my brain about renovating my bathroom or story ideas or something at such times.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:51 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

verbal diarrhea

Just for reference, there's an actual word for this: Logorrhea.
posted by Rash at 11:54 AM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

My family has come up with some strategies for my Grandma who has one sided conversations like this. I couldn't imagine doing it with somebody else though because I could see it ending in tear or hurt feelings, but my mom and aunt just told their mom she needs to let other people have turns. It started with flashing hand signs for the number of times she's told a story in an evening. She also has been on a timer. She jokes about it from time to time, but she is really much more aware of it than she was before. She's even taken to telling people, "I've used up my turn, now it's your turn to talk." (Which can be a little weird if it's the first time they've met her.) Some times you can be so frank, but I think it's easier with your own family. Maybe your husband can help?

I know this is also just how some family's roll. I know my partner would go with the "Be a stone in a river" mantra, which has its merits, but I think that's how his family deals with stuff. I was brought up to avoid avoid avoid, or engage. Family dynamics are hard.
posted by kendrak at 11:58 AM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am assuming your MIL is in good mental/physical health and well oriented cognitively. If you value and want to develop the relationship I think the best thing you can do (and this can be risky if not done with genuine caring and diplomacy) is to let her know in a gentle and direct way that private time/silence (reading, music, TV, riding the internet ) is important to you. Approach this as if you are solely responsible for your irritation and need to temporarily remove yourself from the irritation. When you have exhausted your active listening skills and you find yourself being irritated say to her in a way comfortable for you--"I am going to read/surf/etc/ for a while". Much of the preceding advice is excellent but I suggest the latter as a "final" resort. Many "babblers"are aware, on one level, that they have lost their audience--but rather than backing off or becoming listeners they babble more in the hopes of engaging you. Remember, the message is not that you do not want to talk or listen but quiet time is important to you. Whatever you do, good luck.
posted by rmhsinc at 12:30 PM on May 15, 2012

BTW, I think kendrak had an excellent point. If this occurs in a group there is certainly nothing wrong with saying to MIL that "I want to spend a few minutes chatting with X" and then redirect the conversation to X.
posted by rmhsinc at 12:42 PM on May 15, 2012

My mother is like this, I call it "defensive babble". It is like a stream of conscious about her day and what she and other people did and said, and it never stops. It lacks any opinions or anything controversial. I have learned that it doesn't really matter what you say in response or even if you're really listening as long as you're not obviously rude. "Be right back" or "Go to run now" will let you escape gracefully anytime. I think you should be kind and listen sometimes when you can bear it, I used to prefer to be doing something with her like helping her cook or having tea or gardening. It can even be quite relaxing sometimes, the rest of the world could be going to hell and she would be happily babbling about how nice breakfast was. People don't get that way from having happy easy lives so try to be kind.
posted by meepmeow at 12:58 PM on May 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

People have great conversational and interpersonal strategies above. Mine is more of a hack for you. One time-honored method of coping with this is to take a handicraft with you and sit and knit/whittle/basketweave. It keeps your eyes and hands busy while leaving your ears free to listen. It makes boring chatter much, much more tolerable when only half your brain is engaged in it, and the other half isn't trying to crawl out your ears to escape.

You might also stroll with her while chatting. Again, chatter that would annoy me while sitting still (getting SCREAMINGLY BORED!) isn't nearly so boring while walking.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:01 PM on May 15, 2012 [5 favorites]

This is not such a bad time to take up knitting or some kind of craft you can do with your hands -- maybe she could even help you or do her own craft when you're hanging out.

I have the same kind of issue at times with my MIL. My response is to drink! (Not really. Okay, yes really.) But she does also play cards which is fun -- hearts is a great game or gin. I think part of it is her desire to be relevant. I don't see her very much so when I do, I try to settle in and be a rock in the river. Awhile back when we talked on the phone more there were times when I would put the phone down, go to the bathroom, complain to my husband, fix a glass of water, come back and she'd still be talking.

I've had mixed results trying to steer the conversation to more interesting (to me) topics. Sometimes we get a minute or two of something that I'm curious about and then it's back to health problems and intra-family squabbles.

Best of luck -- I do think that you will have to be direct when you need to take a break or end things. If you only have 30 minutes to hang out, say so at the beginning of your time with her and then say, "Oh wow -- look at the time -- I do have to run, it was so nice to catch up with you." Give her a hug and go.
posted by amanda at 2:05 PM on May 15, 2012

That's actually my father you're talking about. Actual conversation:

Me: Dad, um, could we have a little quiet right now so that we can read? We've all got books out, and it's sort of hard to read when you're talking.

Dad: Fine. That's no problem. I mean, I like to read. And I don't like it when people talk to me when I read. I find it really distracting, and the words I'm hearing and the words I'm reading get mixed up and I have to keep starting the same paragraph over and over again. Of course, it's also not like I don't have interesting things to say. I'm a professor, I'm an artist, I've been around the world, so I do have a lot of interesting things to share, and I'm sure you'd enjoy hearing them ... [and on and on for another hour].

My husband, sister and I play Dad Bingo, where we count up instances of the typical things he repeats too often, and keep a points total, and the winner is first to 50 who finds a way to shout Bingo! in some context-appropriate fashion, and everyone buys that person a drink. It makes listening waaaay more fun; but you need a willing partner or two.
posted by Capri at 2:16 PM on May 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

Can you do stuff with her?
Prepare food for her church thingies, gardening, baking, hiking, volunteer work, huntin squirrels, whatever? Then you can appear occupied and just mmhmmm every once in a while. Also your brain is half focused so the babble is just background noise.
posted by captaincrouton at 3:02 PM on May 15, 2012

My mom is like this. "Did you hear about what happened to Steven Phillips?"


"You know, Steve, from church. The one whose son was freebasing Clearasil, so now he lives in his car..."

"Mom, I don't know those people. I haven't lived at home for 16 years. And even if I did know them, it's not really my....."

"I could have sworn you knew them! Well, anyway, Steve just found out that his former roommate's hamster had six babies, except one of them, the black one with white spots....."

It drives me nuts. It drives my wife nuts. But my mom is 60 years old and it's really not my place to try to make her change. She is who she is. We put up with it when we're around my family, and laugh about it when we get home.
posted by tacodave at 3:29 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Well, you could just go with "cool story, bro" - my 20 yr old son uses that with me. And, sometimes he adds "tell it again".

It's all in the delivery.
posted by she's not there at 3:29 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Note to tacodave re "my mom is 60 years old...

This is totally none of my business, but I'm just shy of 58 and it would pain me if I thought my kids thought I was "too old to change". (Someday, you will be amazed just how "not old" you feel once you get "old".)

Anyway, "Cool story, bro" means we all laugh together.

(Needless to say, YMMV.)
posted by she's not there at 3:45 PM on May 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

To avoid my grandma doing this, we used to play scrabble.

To avoid my mother doing this, we sew quilts together, and I live in another state.
posted by nat at 8:19 PM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

This is my mother, and the only thing that we can do is just go 'mhmm'. This woman has had people (my siblings and father) tell her to her face that nobody's listening, and on particularly frustrating times, that no-one cares...

I can hear her babbling away as I type this.

Non-committal is the way to go, and continue to thank god that it's not something you have to deal with on a constant basis.
posted by daysocks at 9:48 AM on May 16, 2012

I have a Babbler I love very much, but boy can it be tiring. I play a slight mental trick: I pretend I'm writing a sit-com or play about whichever group my Babbler is going on about at the moment. So with your example, I'd tell myself I'm writing a British comedy about parochial church squabbles, and ask for more and more details. Sometimes my Babbler comes up with surprisingly hilarious descriptions, when I approach it as "tell me more about these crazy-ass people you know". I also look at it as a way to hone my conversational or comedy chops: can I come up with interesting questions, relate this to other interesting subjects, or amusing comments?
posted by lillygog at 4:28 PM on May 16, 2012

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