Teach me to speak Masshole
September 24, 2016 4:31 PM   Subscribe

I've lived my whole life in the Midwest/Rust Belt and the South. A year ago, I moved to Boston, and I am floundering, struggling really hard to adapt to the aggressive conversational style people have here. I feel like I can't get a word in, can't ever finish a sentence, never get a positive or encouraging reaction to anything I say, and spend most of my time smiling and nodding stupidly as others talk over me. I know I need to "be more assertive" and "grow a thicker skin" and whatever, but... how?

I guess it might be relevant that I was a pretty awkward kid, and that learning Midwestern conversational norms was something I had to work really hard at — though people I trust tell me I did get pretty good at it. So feel free to explain things to me like I am five (sometimes it feels like I might as well be...) or mildly autistic (I've never been formally diagnosed but I've often wondered).

Specific things I'm wondering about here in Boston:
  1. How do I know when it's my turn to talk, or when it's okay to cut in? I know people interrupt more here than they did where I grew up, but the rule can't literally be "just completely ignore the other person and start talking about whatever you want whenever you feel like it" — right?
  2. How do people let you know they're interested in what you're saying? In the Midwest and the South we do a lot of backchanneling ("Oh really?" "Uh huh" "Interesting") and show interest by asking questions. Here when I manage to take the floor for a second I feel like I just get blank stares — but surely there must be some way to tell whether those stares are interested, bored or hostile, right?
  3. How do I interpret being interrupted? I'm used to a set of social rules where you basically only interrupt someone if they're being a jerk or making a fool of themself (assuming they're not hesitating in a way that says "Oh god someone please jump in here"). It's pretty obvious that getting interrupted here means something else. But what?
  4. I've figured out that if I want to talk about myself here, I can't wait for someone to ask me how I'm doing, the way I could in the Midwest, because people here just don't bother to ask. But… when is it okay to take matters into my own hands and change the subject to myself? I hear other people changing the subject to themselves all the time and it seems to go over fine — but when I do it, someone always seems to cut in and go back to talking about what they were talking about before. What am I missing?
Like, seriously, has someone written an instruction manual about this shit? I promise I was a competent conversationalist back home and am capable of learning, but a few hints would be nice.
posted by nebulawindphone to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
Just for the record: I've lived here my whole life, and still can't deal with this shit. It's not just you.

For the interruption part, it's largely in the smaller culture. On my Jewish side of the family, I have to interrupt constantly to make myself heard, and no one even notices. But I would never do that at my New England-y office. Watch what other people do; do they interrupt each other a lot? Follow their lead.

posted by Melismata at 4:41 PM on September 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am a lifelong New Englander who has had to learn to make room for people who won't stop talking until no one else is saying anything. I find it weird and kind of annoying, like a teacher who's waiting at the front of the class for everyone to settle down before starting the lecture. But many of my best friends are people who need that space to talk, and I've learned over the years to pay attention to people who aren't talking but SEEM to want to talk, and to actively create (what seems to me to be an awkward) silence so they can speak.

The tip I'd give you is to wait till someone seems to have gotten to the meat or the high point of the story. Thinking about conversations that I've had, I don't think that most people stop talking entirely until someone else has the floor. Sometimes that means they've started talking (even with just an "oh" that indicates they have something to say) and sometimes it's body language that clearly indicates that they're about to say something (an eager look, mouth slightly open, leaning forward, maybe a gesture).

But depending on your experience, the blank stares thing may just be that you're in with the wrong crowd. I have had that experience with one group of people I was getting to know/trying to befriend (friends of a very nice friend who seemed cool), and they were just people who had all their own friends and no interest in meeting new people or letting me into the group. They were flatly polite, but never responded to anything I said, waited semi-patiently till I finished talking, and then acted like I hadn't said anything. It wasn't a New England thing, just that bunch of people. Maybe you're meeting a crowd you don't click with.

(I'm sorry if I sound obnoxious or off base; I am an extrovert who has spent a LOT of energy in the past few years trying to understand and care for the many introverts in my life.)
posted by gideonfrog at 5:09 PM on September 24, 2016 [12 favorites]

I moved out of the Northeast because I couldn't .... relate, I guess? I felt like an alien on another planet. I talk with friends and family back home and I'm often interrupted. I deal with this by either getting irritated and interrupting them right back or not calling for weeks until I get my sanity back.

So, it's not just you.

One thing I noticed, is that my friends who were introverts tended not to do this. I suspect if you find your group, meaning, people who communicate similarly, you won't have to deal with this as much.

Also, sometimes people are just completely unconscious and just do this, no matter where they live.
posted by onecircleaday at 5:10 PM on September 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

One thing I can say is that the "blank stares" you're getting are people giving you their attention. What they're doing is shutting up and listening. The eye contact and the not-talking is how they show you that you've got their attention.

The interrupting, I'm less sure what the rules are there. I've lived here my whole life and it's hard to even notice it when it happens. The key, I think, is to wait until the person has finished getting out their main point and to cut in during the part where they're just verbally putting a bow on their statement. Or if you think you have something that builds off of what they're saying or which might be relevant additional info, there's a way to kind of interject that without screwing up the flow of the other person's speech.

A lot of the interrupting isn't so much talking over someone as it is talking under or alongside them. That is, a lot of the time the person you're interrupting isn't necessarily expected to stop talking just because you started; there's a way to get in your side-piece without disrupting the discussion. When people are really interrupting, you can tell because they'll increase the volume of their voice. If they start talking but at a similar or leaser volume to the person who was talking already, that first person won't necessarily register it as an interruption, and they may keep talking.

As far as telling people how you're doing, I dunno. I try to avoid talking much about my personal life when at work, and I don't encourage others to tell me about themselves either. I'm weird in that way, though.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:16 PM on September 24, 2016 [13 favorites]

Hmm, when I first read your question I for some reason took it to be that you were having problems with conversation in the workplace specifically. Upon review it looks like you're having a more general difficulty. Still, what I say above is true as far as I see it—it just might need some adaptation to apply it outside of work.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:20 PM on September 24, 2016

Yeah, just for clarity, this is a problem I'm having in a bunch of different settings — including sometimes hanging out with people who have gone out of their way to be nice to me, invite me to stuff, and treat me as a personal friend. So I'm pretty sure it's not just coworkers-being-coldly-professional or people-who-dislike-me-hoping-I'll-go-away.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:26 PM on September 24, 2016

Yeah, been here a few years, I'm sure there's a few folks that just assume I'm mute. Well if they noticed which is unlikely.

When I've been determined to make an interjection that's totally topical and worth making I've been a bit of a jerk and started a sentence (in a quite quiet voice but audible), paused when talked over, re-started, paused, and at some point the rambling stops and there's about a three sentence gap, be ready and be succinct.

But do take note that there is a reason the term is masshole.

The mifi meetups are a somewhat circumspect crowd, fyi.
posted by sammyo at 5:27 PM on September 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hmm...as a native Bostonian and frequent interrupter who now lives elsewhere (and has had to tone down said interrupting), my advice is to try not to overthink things and don't take interruptions personally or in a negative manner. The typical masshole style of conversation is loud and energetic with people frequently chiming in (or interrupting, depending on your point of view). Typically it's not intended to change the subject or take over, but to contribute to the conversation. And yes, interrupters frequently talk about themselves but I think that's a way of relating/engaging. Eg. "So yesterday I was on the green line..." "ugh I used to work on comm Ave and the B line is the worst". best way to respond- either let it go or continue with something like "I know, right? Anyways, so this lady gets on and blah blah". So that answers #3 (how to interrupt and interrupter). As for #1 I'd say wait until you have something related to say that builds off what the speaker is talking about- a totally unrelated interruption would seem a little strange. You'll know people are interested if they are quiet and looking at you, and also if they interrupt you and contribute something related to what you're saying.
Hang in there- you can always tell people you're from the Midwest and still getting used to the Boston style. You might get gently mocked but people will probably sympathize and warm up to you - ever so slightly :)
posted by emd3737 at 6:05 PM on September 24, 2016 [9 favorites]

A lot of the interrupting isn't so much talking over someone as it is talking under or alongside them.

This is a good way to look at it. As a lifelong New Englander (who really found the West Coast difficult to deal with) there's some sort of unspoken assumption that the goal is CONSTANTTALKING and so you can think of it like a relay race where you run up alongside someone and then you sort of get the baton from them and then you are the one with it but for a while you're sort of both talking. People staring at you are, in their weird way, trying to do some sort of hamfisted "tolerate conversational diversity" thing and give you space. So to my mind, to answer your questions

1. When that person has been talking enough, when other people are making fidget or murmurs like they'd like to step in, when they've made their point (and are maybe coming around for another point) or when it's clear they are not going to get to any point (worse with drinkers)
2. I stare and try to shut up a little. I never noticed I do that until you mentioned that it's a weird thing people do.
3. This is tough because I think there is a gendered aspect to it and so sometimes if I think people are stepping on my words because I am female and they are rude I'll say "Hey excuse me, one more point..." and keep talking, otherwise I'll try to trade some lines back and forth with the person so interrupted, sort of hand the baton back to them. You really do need to "find your people" for this a little. Some people are just jerks and its not worth trying that hard with them.
4. I don't know, I just will sometimes be like "Oh hey that one time when I did this thing that was like that..." I am not good at that part because I alternatingly feel like a total narcissist and a total doormat.

It may help if you're new to try to build up some relationships in some other ways too (email, texting, social media) so you feel like you have some connections (and things you know about people) when you actually are face to face with them and it might help you be more confident about knowing when it's "your turn" or even asking if they have advice for a particular group. Sometimes if people know you're having a hard time they can play wingman and sort of help you find your entry into a conversation. I definitely do this for shyer or quieter people, so there may be someone who could give you more context-appropriate advice.
posted by jessamyn at 6:42 PM on September 24, 2016 [12 favorites]

I know I need to "be more assertive" and "grow a thicker skin" and whatever, but... how?

Argh, that doesn't sound fun. As a kid, nothing made me feel less confident or relaxed than being told to be more confident and relax: if someone had told me to "be more assertive" and "grow a thicker skin", I would have resented and hated whatever change I was supposed to make. Perhaps a different self-talk style would help too?

I guess it might be relevant that I was a pretty awkward kid, and that learning Midwestern conversational norms was something I had to work really hard at — though people I trust tell me I did get pretty good at it.

Hmm. Maybe you can think of masshole style as liberating you from your oppressive childhood? Sort of? The masshole conversation is a fun style to play, if you can find people you actually enjoy being in a band with, so to speak -- or if you can find yourself bonding with people through being in a band with them.

"So yesterday I was on the green line..." "ugh I used to work on comm Ave and the B line is the worst". ... "I know, right? Anyways, so this lady gets on and blah blah".

And now I am all nostalgic for this thing I have had to learn and then had to unlearn.
posted by feral_goldfish at 7:15 PM on September 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your question reminded me of this answer to another question, which links to an interesting article on "New York Jewish Conversational Style." You may find some parallels to your own situation. It's just understood that people will talk over each other.
posted by hydra77 at 7:19 PM on September 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

I noticed New Englanders appear hostile in the 1st couple of conversational turns but warm up by the 3rd or 4th exchange.

Say you are at the dry cleaners dropping off a suit. You introduce this fact and the counter person seems like they actively wish you and your kin were dead and how dare you bother them to take your money.

You, undeterred, point out a stain. The counter person will force themselves to inspect it. How can silence be surly?

You, committed and forging ahead, ask when the suit will be ready. The counter person suddenly engages you, looks at you, smiles, and perhaps chats with you.

They don't hate you! You are no longer a stranger. You will return to this dry cleaner because you are accepted and you cannot go through this again with another one.
posted by charlielxxv at 7:21 PM on September 24, 2016 [19 favorites]

As for the interrupting, it's not interrupting...it's intertwining conversation into your conversation as a way of showing engagement and routing the conversation in a specific direction, as well as moving the conversation along - because Bostonians are impatient...because it's so damn cold(!!!) there is no time for anything (!!!!). So you are not interrupting back, you are intertwining your conversation with them and they will appreciate your engagement in return.

Also start saying "wicked", and "f-ing this" and "f-ing that".
posted by Toddles at 9:00 PM on September 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

and spend most of my time smiling and nodding stupidly

Stop smiling, stop nodding; stare silently and impassively. This is the New Hampshire Approach to conversation with mass ppl
posted by Greg Nog at 9:35 PM on September 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm not from Boston, but I come from a very similar conversational culture.
Jessamyn's point that the goal is constant talking is probably the best way to look at it. There comes a point where you've basically said what you have to say and are elaborating on details, offering different perspectives on what you have said, or even just sort of repeating yourself in slightly different ways as a way of filling airtime until someone else speaks up. Realizing that the speaker will basically never stop talking if given the reins might make it easier to know when to cut in.

In fact, you'll find that it isn't really true that people never stop talking. When someone is ready to pass the baton, they will stop just the same as people from linguistic communities you are more used to, it's just that the verbal horror vacui demands that those pauses be shorter. But they are there, and noticeabley longer than the rapid-fire delivery of someone who hasn't come to their point yet. Once the speaker has said their piece, tune them out during a couple of their filler sentences while you figure out your opener, wait to hear them come to a full stop, and then jump in. If someone else speaks up before you've come to your point, it's probably just the peanut gallery chiming in because they are engaged with what you are saying. Keep right on talking and they'll pipe down after they've made their comment.

Really, many interruptions are longer versions of the backchannelling you mention. In fact, I'd almost say (coming from an interrupter culture, of course) that they indicate a more sincere engagement with what you are saying because they are specific responses to what you are actually saying, rather than generic "uh huhs"; it's as though what you've said is so interesting that it has inspired an uncontainable intellectual reaction from your interlocutor.

Finally, and perhaps unfortunately, there really is an element of competition in the way people like this (us?) converse. CF the "conversations aren't contests" Calvin and Hobbes strip. They may deny it, but the person who manages to hold the floor longest through a combination of oratorial skill and sheer assertiveness scores social capital as a result. There were certainly less-talkative members of my circle, but they made up for it by the exceptional timing and incisive wit of their occasional zinger. In hindsight, the people who weren't willing to push to make themselves heard either eventually faded out of the crew or never made it in to begin with. At its best, this style of conversation can be invigorating and push you to think fast and speak engagingly, but it's certainly gendered and undoubtedly alienates a lot of people with worthwhile things to say, so I don't quite defend it.
posted by Krawczak at 2:13 AM on September 25, 2016 [11 favorites]

I came here to recommend the same "New York Jewish Conversational Style" article as hydra77. The author, Deborah Tannen, has a ton of articles on interruption, turn-taking, and regional conversational styles.
posted by enn at 4:31 AM on September 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also start saying "wicked", and "f-ing this" and "f-ing that".

Ha ha ha, no.
posted by maryr at 6:02 AM on September 25, 2016 [6 favorites]

I am so imbued with this style that at first I didn't get this question, at all, thinking to myself, I don't interrupt people all the time, what are you talking about. But then when I tried to imagine the conversational style you're familiar with (...wait, you mean you have to wait for there to be a pause of complete silence before a new person gets to talk?) that I suddenly understood, I think....I think there's two key signals you're missing, but that once you pick up on them you should be chatting away no problem. Let's call them Getting In Line and The Wind-down.

Here's an example:
Betty: Oh, my god, the green line. I was on there C branch by Coolidge Corner the other day, and

Veronica: Oh, I know exactly what you're talking about

Betty: Right? We're pulling out of the station and this guy in a van....[Betty tells anecdote, table laughs, she continues]...and I was just sitting there with my mouth open, looking at the woman across from me

Veronica: You get used it, to it, believe me. When I was taking a class out at BU...
So that first comment Veronica makes, that I think you're preceiving as an interruption? That's Getting In Line. That's Veronica sending a signal, "I have something to add to this conversation as soon as Betty's done." Betty acknowledges receipt of the signal and continues with her anecdote. Once Betty's told the meat of her story and the group has reacted, she enters the Wind-down, adding a few more remarks here and there, filling in some extra detail. Once Veronica sees she's in the Wind-down, she's clear to jump in at any point and begin her anecdote, indeed the group will expect her to do so and will instantly transfer their attention to her as soon as she begins to speak.

Sometimes multiple people attempt to Get In Line early in someone's anecdote; in that case, when Betty enters the Wind-down Veronica will generally look at Jughead and depending on which one's more axious to speak the other will give them the nod or otherwise signal that they can go first.

To me, interrupting someone only occurs if you start talking over them during the meat of an anecdote, not allowing them to get to the punch line. If they're allowed to make their point and then you jump in once they've done that, that's not interrupting, that's just taking up the baton so the conversation doesn't flag.
posted by Diablevert at 6:55 AM on September 25, 2016 [45 favorites]

Diablevert is exactly right.

It's important to also know that if I am doing this and no one is breaking in, it is actually not fun. It feels exhausting and as if I must carry the entire conversation forever, which I can do I guess, but I don't want to. I also judge how interested other people are by how much they interject - which is less "Really?" and more like "No!" "Oh my god, I would have lost it!" "Man, I hate that thing!" It's not a neutral interjection, it's a value laden interjection that agrees with the value of the story being expressed.
posted by corb at 8:17 AM on September 25, 2016 [4 favorites]


I come from the PacNW and was raised in a family that had kept a Norwegian conversational style.

Which is to say.

Conversations were sparse and meaning-laden.

Long silences to appreciate what had been said. And listen to the silence. Because shared silence is a profound statement of trust in that culture.

Interruptions? YOU NEVER INTERRUPT. ever. Except in cases of criminal injustice. Which you know are such because someone has interrupted.

Then I came to southern France. holy shit. That was when I was incredibly grateful for having played jazz. Where PacNW conversational style can be seen as shared solos, the Latin style of conversation, which sounds very similar to Masshole, is more like a joyous shared improvisation where the music only stops once it's time to leave. Honestly, I lived there 15 years, still go down there occasionally, and still have issues with being interrupted and knowing when it's time to leave. The "time to leave" thing still feels like "chatter chatter enjoying this oh yes great fun did you know about Y? I thought it fascinating and BYE" and they've disappeared and you're like, wut. But still. Seeing it as shared improvisation and a different sort of flow – lulls rather than silences – really helped put it into context. Do note that there is still such a thing as rudely interrupting someone, btw, but it's a different character. If your story's clearly not finished, then yeah, not cool. Sometimes people take midway points as end points, however, and that's not rude, just a misunderstanding, you get to interrupt to finish your story. Well, unless other cues have come up that make you realize you don't want to finish. That's happened to me occasionally.

(I still feel so relaxed when I'm with people from cultures where shared silences are seen as signs of mutual trust though. It's like, ahhhhh. Silence.)
posted by fraula at 8:21 AM on September 25, 2016 [10 favorites]

I struggle with the same thing. I've noticed that everyone's behavior changes depending on situation. I find that it is easier to talk one-on-one than in a group. People act differently when in groups. Or maybe go for a walk with someone I want to really talk to. Alcohol is another factor which stimulates some people too much. I also find it easier to communicate some things using text or email.
posted by conrad53 at 6:56 PM on September 25, 2016

In situations where someone with a more aggressive conversational style is cutting me off (or what I perceive as such), I find a good-natured and casual "wait wait wait, hold on, let me finish!" and a slight chuckle go a long way. You do have to make sure the rest of your anecdote or whatever is WORTH having said that though.
posted by Ragini at 12:36 AM on September 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

On the flip of it, this thread's made me feel better about my life choices. I'm an east coaster (Pittsburgh/Boston/DC) who married a Californian and moved west. My style is "everyone's going to say how they feel without being prodded for it", while my spouse is "everyone takes turns and the conversation is question-driven", more or less. Introverts... did poorly in the culture I came from.

It feels like the difference between Indian cuisine (spice based) and western cuisine (not spice-based); neither's wrong, but context is pretty much everything.
posted by talldean at 9:45 PM on September 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Diablevert's spot-on.

Anecdata: As a native of CO who talks quickly (unless I've been drinking), Coloradans and Californians are often way too laid back conversationally for me, but New Englanders often seem too interrupty. There seems to be kind of a sweet spot from say Yonkers to Charlotte where the general conversational style is paced right for my brain: a little on the aggressive side, but generally within the realm of (my idea of) politeness.
posted by aspersioncast at 4:02 PM on September 28, 2016

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