80 year old MIL talks incessantly
March 5, 2013 3:59 PM   Subscribe

My 80 year old mother- in- law of 30 years talks non-stop about things I am not interested in----- but the people-pleaser in me keeps listening to her politely and I end up feeling exhausted.

I see other family members interrupting her mid-sentence or just walking off while she is talking and out of guilt I guess I keep listening to her ad nauseum.

I have very little in common with her and am not really interested in the details of events that she offers in conversation. I feel like I am not true to myself when I listen to her.

I even avoid being by myself with her when we are at her house and I about die when the phone rings and it is her.

Part of me feels like I should give her the gift of listening to her (she is 80 years old!) but another part of me feels very impatient with the whole situation.

I know she will never change but would like some advice about how to be polite but also be able to get out of a LONG conversation with her.

Any exit strategys welcome.
posted by seekingsimplicity to Human Relations (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I see other family members ...

Do that. She obviously is used to it, if nothing else.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 4:14 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Give her X number of minutes on the phone and then say, "Well, I have to go now. It's been great hearing from you -- good bye!"
posted by michellenoel at 4:18 PM on March 5, 2013

For when you want to be polite and listen for a while, but don't want to be sitting there fuming over being bored: bring a small handicraft to do while she talks. If you knit or crochet, that's perfect.

For when you want to exit the conversation: "Oh, I didn't realize what time it was! I need to get going." Add as much or little detail as you want about why you need to get going (and you don't really need to explain at all, but if it would make you feel better then go ahead).
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:23 PM on March 5, 2013

You can help yourself by setting some expectations. She's already more or less comfortable being cut off, so here's how you do it politely:

MIL: "So, I have this HUGE bunion on my toe, and my doctor said that it was the biggest he'd ever seen! It's amazing how..."
You: Millie, that's so interesting! I'd like to hear all about it, but I only have ten minutes before I need to {check in with with my boss/check on the roast/check on my kid/try and socialize with introverted-aunt-Erma/whatever}. Do you have a ten-minute version?"
MIL: "Sure! Anyway, it's amazing how..." (10 minutes elapse, she is still talking.)
You: "Millie, thank you so much for sharing that with me. Like I said earlier, I've got to go now, but thanks for catching me up with what's going on in your life!"

Vary it a little bit, but keep it the same, whether you're in person or on the phone. Phrases to use:
"I've got until 10:30 to chat, and then I need to X. What's going on with you?"
"Can we pause right here so I can X? We can pick up when I'm done, or if it's not convenient, we can talk again next time."
"I wish I had more time, but today, I have ten minutes. What's on your mind?"
"Well, would you look at the time! It's already 7:15, and I have to go."

You can also attempt to steer, which is more advanced, but worth a try. Find a segue and go with it, and ask her questions that will keep her talking. Try:

"Did FIL love chicken as much as you do? What are your favorite recipes?"
"I bet you did love hearing that old song on the radio. What were your favorite shows when you were younger?"
"I know, kids these days, right? What kinds of mischief did Husband get into when he was younger?"
posted by juniperesque at 4:27 PM on March 5, 2013 [28 favorites]

My beloved mother is 83, and I feel your pain. Do you have caller ID?

For years I made sure to have my laptop and wifi fired up before I picked up her calls so I could distract myself during our conversations. I sometimes ended phone calls by requesting bathroom breaks (it seemed important not to mention being busy, whether or not it was true).

It's counter-intuitive, but what finally resolved this for me was that I made a conscious decision to give in to her conversational rhythms: laughing at her jokes, trying (vocally) to keep up with her digressions, asking follow-up questions, etc. (for many years I would simply give brief conversational cues like "oh" or "yeah!"). I'm guessing that she could sense my impatience, and was anxious to make a connection and feel like she had been heard and acknowledged before hanging up, which ended up making things really uncomfortable for both of us. Our phone conversations are much shorter now, and more interesting and satisfying for (I think/hope) both of us. I cherish the phone time we have with each other rather than viewing it as a chore. She tends to be the one who concludes the calls.

I wish I had started doing this ten years ago.

This is your mother in law, not your mom, so the circumstances are surely different. But maybe it's worth a shot.
posted by sophieblue at 4:35 PM on March 5, 2013 [28 favorites]

For telephone situations, mouth to your spouse ["go ring the doorbell!"]
*Ding *Dong
"Oh, our company has arrived. Gotta go!"

If it's an in-person visit, pre-arrange with the spouse or a friend to announce that you're wanted on the phone. Mr. Terrier and I even have a name for just such contingencies..."Hey, it's Roger Ellis on the phone!"
"ooh, Roger Ellis! I've been expecting this call!"

Do these things. And try, try to stop being a people pleaser. It gets one nowhere.
posted by BostonTerrier at 5:03 PM on March 5, 2013

I would think your spouse would be in the best position to advise you what to do.
posted by Dansaman at 5:14 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I understand your difficulty and can see myself falling into that situation quite easily.

I don't know if it's me getting older (mid 40s) now, but I'm starting to enjoy experimenting in social situations and going in the opposite direction of what I would have done in younger years. Such as, in this case, telling somebody it sure seems they like to talk a lot. In other words, saying out loud what people are doing that is wrong/off/needing of comment. "Wow, that was sarcastic."

My working hypothesis is a) saying what I observe is empowering and b) sometimes people just need to be aware of things. I'm still working it out.
posted by Celsius1414 at 5:16 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

For in person visits, is there a hobby that you can enjoy that you can do while you listen to her? It sounds like a good opportunity to get some knitting done.
posted by bq at 5:28 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

My 80 y/o grandmother is like this and I really avoid talking to her. One thing we've done (we being my whole family) is starting to remind her of how many times she's already told us a story and that she needs to let other people talk. It was sort of weird seeing my mom start it, like training a kid or a dog, but it's starting to work.

When she starts telling a story about her band playing a song that we've heard already that day, we say, "Oh yes, you've told us this before." Or flash two fingers. It used to really fluster her, but now she sees the value.

A similar tactic is used to remind her to give others a chance to speak. It's working now, too. I saw her at Christmas this year tell a story to my S-i-L and then pause and say, "Now it's your turn to tell me a story." A little awkward, but more pleasant to be around.
posted by kendrak at 5:31 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

My mother-in-law is exactly like this and I was once like you. I was programmed to think it rude to stand up and walk away from someone while they are speaking to you, even though her own children did it all the time. One day, I made a conscious effort to do that, difficult though it was and I saw that she was not offended at all. In fact she kept speaking to the empty room. This made me realize that she simply verbalizes what is going on in her head and it's not a normal conversation with the usual rules. She is generally a very sweet lady and we have been getting on even better since I realized that I did not have to be trapped in her endless flow of harmless trivia.
posted by ptolemy chennus at 5:37 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

My grandma is 85 and does similar things, and my mom (~65) will talk on and on and on just to fill up space. I engage them both for a little while and then I make an excuse to leave or hang up. Engaging means asking follow-up questions, not just saying "uh huh," "yeah," etc. It also helps to try to take an interest in what she is saying, or oftentimes you can engage someone by asking questions and turn the conversation to more interesting territory. She is probably just trying to make a connection to you, and if you engage her a bit instead of cutting her off like other family members do, it would probably really make her day even if you only engage her for 10 minutes here and there.
posted by fromageball at 5:40 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mod note: helpful, constructive answers please.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:49 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mine does the same thing--she vocalizes almost every thought that comes into her head. We call it the director's commentary on the DVD of her life.

And the best thing in the world I've learned to do is to say, 'I hate to interrupt, but I have to XXXXXX' and then make a break for it. It works like a charm and isn't a negotiation.

On the phone or when she's not face-to-face with me, I'll use the Fake-A-Call app on my iPhone to get me out of unending conversations.

All of that said, I would *never* just walk out of the room on her when she's speaking to me. I think that's nasty, unacceptable behavior, and if my partner did that, I'd talk with him about how that's not only disrespectful to his mother, it leaves me alone with her.
posted by yellowcandy at 6:50 PM on March 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Agree with yellowcandy that walking out of the room is just rude.

My MIL used to drive me crazy. She talks ALL THE TIME, even when chaotic things are going on around her and it really, really makes me want to scream.

Then I realized that this is the woman who gave birth to and raised the man I love. She's the reason I have him and the reason I have my wonderful children. When I started engaging her in conversation, I realized she had valuable things to say (not all the time; neither do I!) and valuable things to teach me.

The other thing is, she will not be in your life forever. It's just a fact. Wouldn't it be lovely if you could appreciate the things she has to say now? Maybe try to guide her conversations to your spouse's childhood or her childhood? You could learn things about your family and make an old, well-meaning woman very happy.
posted by cooker girl at 7:19 PM on March 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Do something else while you are talking to her in person - cross-stitch, knitting, crochet. That will legitimately give you a reason to focus on something else and give her the attention she needs at the same time. You might need to work on your 'uh huh' ' ooh I know' 'oh dear' 'mmmm' noises to make it believable, but it'll be worth it, if she's that annoying.
posted by goo at 7:32 PM on March 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Conversations with my grandma used to revolve around endless banalities about the weather, the state of her garden, and e.g. whether it was time to repaint the garage. With the best will in the world I had a hard time sticking with those conversations.

Things improved a lot when I started asking her about her childhood and young adulthood, what it was like growing up on a farm, how she met my grandfather, etc. Now (about ten years on) I've heard a lot of personal and family history I would never have learned otherwise.
posted by shattersock at 1:56 AM on March 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

All of that said, I would *never* just walk out of the room on her when she's speaking to me. I think that's nasty, unacceptable behavior, and if my partner did that, I'd talk with him about how that's not only disrespectful to his mother, it leaves me alone with her.

My grandfather is like this, and the rest of the family does this to him constantly. It makes me crazy, because I am the one usually left, trapped, listening to him yammer on.

For him, it's a cultural thing. If someone is in the room, you ought to be talking to each other. The only way out is to politely excuse yourself for legitimate seeming) reasons.
posted by gjc at 2:32 AM on March 6, 2013

Another vote for doing something else. I sit with a sketchbook or a crossword puzzle. Or fire up my tablet and read headlines or delete emails.

If you really want to get away, arrange with your spouse to call you on the phone. But if you are only encountering this on occasional visits or whatever, maybe just resign yourself to sitting there.
posted by BibiRose at 4:34 AM on March 6, 2013

My dad is about to turn 82, and can talk forever. I love him to death, and I'm usually good for about 15-20 minutes at a time, but he seems to need about 45 minutes to an hour on the phone with me every call, and I don't have so much free time in my life that I'm able to handle losing an hour of it every day. I'm not sure if living closer to him would be better or worse - I'm on the other side of America from him, and only get to visit once a year or so.

I tend to find something mindless to do while on the phone with him, so I can pay attention to what he's saying and still have something to do with the other 90% of my brain. Warcraft works great - doing dailies or working on crafting/profession skills is best. Those things are boring on their own, so having my dad to talk to keeps them from being mind-numbing; talking to my dad alone is mind-numbing, so the dailies/crafting is a nice distraction.

Another thing I try to do is call him every day. He doesn't seem to need as much time every night if we do talk every night, and if I call him (instead of waiting for him to call me), I think he feels like he's getting the attention he needs so he doesn't have to draw the calls out.
posted by kythuen at 5:46 AM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Set a timer when she calls. When it goes off, excuse yourself and hang up.

Trapped in person? Set an appointment on your calendar with an alarm, excuse yourself to leave for your appointment.

Trapped at an event? Excuse yourself to go get a refreshment/use the bathroom/check in with someone else.

Good luck with that!
posted by dragonplayer at 9:54 AM on March 6, 2013

I've got the same problem. My MIL has absolutely no filter in her head. Whatever she thinks, she says. I haven't had much of a conversation with her in YEARS because she will just talk, talk talk without stopping or caring if anyone's listening. My husband (her son) used to try to get her to shut up. He even told her that when she's talking, the person listening always gets a look on their face like they want to commit suicide, but it didn't help.

I finally learned to just stop talking to her, aside from hello and goodbye. The last time we (she!) had a conversation was when I stupidly complimented her on her new glasses. Well, that led her to talk about who works at the optician's she went to, the daughter of a former student of hers. THAT led her to talk about her old teaching days. THAT led her to talk about other former students and who acted bad in school and what they're doing now.

That's what all our (again, her!) conversations were like. One thing led to another to another to another...I couldn't stand it anymore, so now we don't really talk. Sorry, I have only so much to give, and I gave it all years ago.
posted by shelayna at 9:54 AM on March 6, 2013

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