Interior monologue, externalized.
December 22, 2003 7:04 AM   Subscribe

How many of you frequently talk to yourself? Why do you do it? Do you do it more when you're completely alone or do you do it when people are around? Are you halfway talking to yourself and halfway talking to the other people? [more inside.]

Okay, after offending people with my classist comment about spitting, I'm going to jump headfirst into the fire and offend even more people with
(what some may perceive as) a racist comment: where I live (NYC), it's almost exclusively African Americans who consistently talk to themselves in public (I'm excluding crazy people from this discussion). This must be a normal part of black culture (at least in this part of the country). I don't understand it.

I have a couple of questions about it:
(1) Do you think this is natural human behavior? Have I just been trained out of it by my upbringing? (I know, it's the same question I asked about spitting...) The few times I have talked to myself in public (usually at times of high emotion), I'm gotten embarrassed and glanced around to see if anyone heard.

(2) Is talking to yourself 100% talking to YOURSELF? Sometimes I'm in an elevator with a self-talker, and I hear him say something like, "Man! What a DAY!" or "Damn this elevator is SLOW!" Although the talker is not looking at me, I always get the feeling that the talk is partly for my benefit. And I wonder a couple of things: (a) am I being rude by not responding (I never do). Should I "talk to myself" too ("yeah, this IS a slow elevator!?!") Should I talk directly to the self-talker? Should I ignore it? If two of these self-talkers are in the elevator together, what do they do? (b) do self-talkers engage in self-talk when they are completely alone? I guess this is the heart of the question. I'm wondering whether it's really just for them, or if it's a social thing masquerading as a personal thing.

Again, I hope I don't offend anyone. I think a great thing about forums like this is that we can ask these questions. I could never go up to someone on the street and say, "excuse me, but why do you talk to yourself?"
posted by grumblebee to Human Relations (28 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not of significantly African descent (nor is any majority of the people I see talking to themselves) and I often find myself offering little side-comments as I do certain tasks: "I'll just take this... yep, almost done... mmm, nice and hot...." It's a rare day indeed, though, that I do this in a public place unless I'm particularly frustrated and uttering an animistic "open, damned door" or the like. As to why I do this, I couldn't tell you. At some point in the last 10 or so years, my silent inner narrarative started finding its way out.

If you ask me, I don't think race enters into it, though it's possible there might be some local cultural influence where you are that accounts for the difference between your observations and mine.
posted by majick at 8:09 AM on December 22, 2003

Did it ever occur to you that that person in the elevator might be saying "Man! What a DAY!" to you rather than themself, regardless of whether they were looking your way? They may simply be being social, and go away thinking "Man, white people sure are standoffish." If you'd said "Yeah, tell me about it," you might have gotten into an actual conversation. My brother and his wife, who live in Vienna, assured me that the Viennese were very unfriendly and never greeted people when they passed on the street. Out walking with them, I smiled at people I passed and said "Grüss Gott!" (the Austrian equivalent of "Good morning/afternoon"), and they always smiled and said it back to me. Draw your own conclusion.

Me, I talk to myself when I'm working on something, for instance taking books out of boxes and deciding where to put them on the shelves. "Should this go with the reference books? Naaah..." The only downside is that my wife occasionally calls from downstairs "Are you talking to me?"
posted by languagehat at 8:30 AM on December 22, 2003

It's natural in many settings. In my childhood development class back in college, we learned that children speak to themselves in make-believe and play settings, as well as when trying to work through complex problems. While the voice largely disappears in adulthood, when some adults are concentrating or thinking very deeply, they'll talk to themselves to help get through it.
posted by gramcracker at 8:39 AM on December 22, 2003

I don't really talk to myself much (apart from things like 'What's this?' and suchlike), but I do have a very rich internal monologue in which I have conversations with myself. I also have an irritating tendency to repeat what I've just said out loud under my breath.
posted by adrianhon at 8:56 AM on December 22, 2003

I talk to myself, under my breath--usually it's just moving my lips along with my internal monologue. I've always done it--I try really hard not to do it when other people are around, because it is a bit odd.
posted by eilatan at 9:04 AM on December 22, 2003

when some adults are concentrating or thinking very deeply, they'll talk to themselves to help get through it

I sometimes find myself doing this when I'm programming, or doing something else that requires concentration. Maybe the mental process of forming words and speaking helps you concentrate.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:48 AM on December 22, 2003

languagehat has a point.
My mother talks to herself quite a lot, while cleaning or doing other boring tasks I can hear her whispering her end of the conversation as she imagines negotiating her salary etc, other times she talks to herself as if she's telling a friend a story. Either way it's so mumbled and hard to hear it can never be confused with a loud "man what a day" in an elevator, and she rarely does it in public. I find as I'm getting older I've picked up this habit. It makes doing the dishes more entertaining.
posted by dabitch at 9:55 AM on December 22, 2003

My inner monologue is constantly spouting random and vagrant shit into my conscious thought process.

My parents taught me that you're not crazy unless you vocalize this stuff frequently (though why they taught me this is lost in the dim recesses of my memory). My best friend has a habit of randomly spouting out a string of nonsensical and frequently vulgar sentences followed by three sharp raspberries. He thinks he's normal. I think he's got a mild form of Tourette's. It's all in the upbringing, I think.
posted by WolfDaddy at 10:08 AM on December 22, 2003

Lily white here, and a self-talker. Although I'm not entirely sure I'm actually making noise, or just thinking it.

My objective is to become a crazy old coot, shuffling down the sidewalk talking my own beat, weirding people out.

Can't say as I notice many other people talking to themselves. That's probably because in my mind, my own voice is drowning them out.

Maybe I've reached my goal, and should pick a new one...
posted by five fresh fish at 10:10 AM on December 22, 2003 [1 favorite]

It's really just thinking out loud, and it only sounds strange to other people because they don't have the context for it that you do. I live alone and do think out loud a lot, but I do try to keep a lid on it whenever anyone else is around. I think the line for "problem muttering" is when you stop realizing how strange it will sound to others and/or it becomes such a habit you don't realize when you do it and can't easily control it.
posted by orange swan at 10:29 AM on December 22, 2003

I speak my thoughts aloud all the time, but I'm not really talking to myself -- instead, I'm very often talking to things -- the computer, the car door, the car coming towards me, the mailbox, the trees ....

Of course, I also still believe that my childhood toys were animate objects that I could have conversations with. An artifact of being the only child on a big farm, I guess.
posted by anastasiav at 10:48 AM on December 22, 2003

Five Fresh Fish reminds me of my dad.

(I think) I only talk to myself out of frustration, shock, or being deeply absorbed in something. The rest of the time, I usually keep so quiet that people sometimes don't even realize I'm in the room.

I don't think race has a thing to do with talking to yourself. When I lived in Worcester, I met many self-talkers, and they came in all shapes, sizes, colors, and ages.

The voices do not discriminate, I guess.
posted by catfood at 10:53 AM on December 22, 2003

Response by poster: Did it ever occur to you that that person in the elevator might be saying "Man! What a DAY!" to you rather than themself, regardless of whether they were looking your way?

Yes, which is one of the reasons why I asked the question. It's odd to me -- from my background -- to talk to someone without even glancing at them. I would feel somewhat comfortable looking them in they eye and responding. I WOULDN'T feel comfortable responding to them in kind: looking at the floor and saying, "Yeah! Today, sucks."
posted by grumblebee at 11:48 AM on December 22, 2003

grumblebee: Some people are more shy than you are or have different body language cues, and an utterance like "What a day!" sounds awfully close to an invitation for a line or two of smalltalk to me even if not directed at you with eye contact. Come to think of it, I'm guilty of doing this on rare occasions, and yes, I'd be talking to you (or at least using you as a sort of Greek chorus of acknowledgement) even if it weren't apparent from body language.

It didn't even occur to me on first reading of your question that you'd even consider this to be someone "talking to themselves."
posted by majick at 12:36 PM on December 22, 2003

(Remember: your comfortable direct eye contact at initation of an exchange is someone else's challenge from a potential aggressor. Body language differs just that wildly across individuals and subcultures.)
posted by majick at 12:39 PM on December 22, 2003

Most of the self talkers I see seem to be having conversations with invisible people, or are still arguing with some person who is now 3 blocks away. Either way it is disturbing, and triggers alarm in me. I figure if someone cannot keep their mouth shut, they are likely to push you onto the subway tracks, or cut you with something. Keep on your toes, and keep your eyes on them.
posted by thirteen at 12:52 PM on December 22, 2003

Response by poster: Majick, thanks. It's good to hear from someone on "the other side of the fence." I'm a very literal person, and I tend to make it very clear that I'm talking to YOU when I'm talking to you. I think many problems in life arise from misunderstandings based on differences in conversational style.

Funny thing is, I'm shy too. But it would never occur to me to try to overcome my shyness by adressing strangers in an indirect way. My tendency is to not address them at all. Sad, I guess.

Just so you don't think I'm totally nuts, I'm not saying that it never occurs to me that someone might be talking to me unless they are staring me point blank in the eye. But there's a sort of talking-to-yourself voice -- the kind of thing you do when you make remarks out of the side of your mouth. I get confused when people do this and, at the same time, MIGHT be talking to me in some indirect way.

I DO remember doing this when I was a really small child. I'm sure it made my parents laugh, but I used to wander around the house, "talking to myself," saying things like, "I sure wouldn't object if someone cooked me some brownies..." under my breath. I didn't want to be accused of actually begging for brownies. So I hedged my bets and talked in a way that -- I supposed -- if challanged, I could say, "huh? what? I wasn't talking to you. I was just talking to myself." Which in my case would have been a lie.
posted by grumblebee at 1:07 PM on December 22, 2003

grumblebee, you mentioned an elevator specifically, which seems to have its own eye-contact rules because of the necessary curtailment of personal space. A stranger making eye contact from a foot away while locked (temporarily) in a smallish cage could be pretty uncomfortable. Staring at the floor or numbers and saying "Wow, it's hot," could be a normal way to start conversation in that instance.
posted by callmejay at 1:08 PM on December 22, 2003

No way. It's the silent types that are dangerous! The talkers are already busy, and you can hear whether they're getting stressed enough to become a danger. But those quiet people - oy! There you are standing at the very edge of the tracks, looking at the electric rails and wondering whether the power really is turned on, muttering to yourself about how someone really ought to invent a better way of doing it, like maybe the rails could be wrapped in a slit rubber sheath so that they're normally safe, but the train would have a pin that reaches through the slit to get the power, and actually, the problem isn't with the power so much as the grounding, so maybe the better idea is to move the positive rail far enough away from the ground rail that you can't bridge them with a normal-sized human body, when, WHAM!, you get slammed from behind by one of those crazy quiet people, the ones you can't hear when they sneak up behind you, the ones with the shifty eyes, who ask "What a Day!" in the elevator without actually looking at you, and you're spanning through the air arms akimbo, looking at that deadly electric rail and wondering whether you were right about the ground rail being the problem, because maybe the ground itself is a problem and you wish there was some way to just, like, fly across, but no, you're going to land, and did you remember to wear clean underwear, not that it really matters, and then you sort of startle out of your trance, because the bell is ringing, and it's time to get off at the next stop, and people are looking at you kind of strangely, and you wonder whether you just said all that out aloud again...
posted by five fresh fish at 1:10 PM on December 22, 2003 [1 favorite]

yeah, I think callmejay has it re: the elevator - small talk in elevators rarely start with eye to eye contact unless it's as the person is walking into the elevator that they make a comment, and that will probably only be if they already recognize you or there's some obvious reason to say something. Even with coworkers, people don't usually look at each other when they talk in an elevator, in my experience.

That said, I would never have thought that's what you meant by "talking to yourself". Which I sometimes do, at home, alone, and most often when dealing with some complicated issue (or maybe after too many cups of coffee). I keep myself from actually speaking out loud when I'm out in the real world, but I still have running internal conversations with myself, especially when I walk longish distances, or am on public transport without a book.
posted by mdn at 1:49 PM on December 22, 2003

I do it all the time. As Morrissey famously remarked, "it's the only way to get some decent conversation".
posted by 111 at 2:03 PM on December 22, 2003

I'm twenty-three years old and an only child. My mother reminds me every once in a while of three imaginary friends I had that I would talk to. I remember having the friends, but I don't remember how I played with them.

All through high school and college, I was involved in theatre. One of my favorite observations during speech contests in high school was that they were the only times you could get away with talking to the walls.

That said, I talk to myself fairly often. It's usually talk of an analytical nature or things that deeply affect me - i.e. why something I said hurt someone when I didn't mean it to, and how I can resolve the problem. Much like mdn, I do it out loud when I'm alone - it helps me 1) slow down enough so that I really think about what I'm saying, and 2) keep my attention on what I'm thinking about. In extremely rare cases, it's "my half" of a dialogue I want to have with someone.
posted by ArsncHeart at 2:08 PM on December 22, 2003

Here's grumblebee, thinking black people are all culturally disposed to talking to themselves out loud, in public, when really they're just being friendly. Nice.
posted by Big Fat Tycoon at 2:08 PM on December 22, 2003

Response by poster: No, big. Most of the people I'm talking about are definitely talking to themselves. I would bet all the money in my bank account that if you asked 10 people to observe them and ask who they were talking to, all 10 would say, "to themselves."

I'm sorry I brought up the elevator example. It derailed the conversation. Elevator talk composes 1/2 of a percent of what I'm talking about. And I agree that in such a cramped space, it's harder to tell who is talking to whom.
posted by grumblebee at 2:47 PM on December 22, 2003

Let me try this again, since my last comment was summarily deleted for absolutely no reason at all (I can only assume that a "light" tone wasn't called for in this serious of all serious threads, and therefore my submission didn't rank amongst the other brilliant answers as to whether or not we talk to ourselves.

Yes, I do on occasion speak to myself out loud, although it is often when there is no other person in the physical vacinity. Often I use different accents when I engage in such behaviour, accents that vary drastically. Hopefully this message finds all of you in good health this holiday season, and hopefully it has been stripped of any underlying lightness that might otherwise have ruined your day. Fair thee well.
posted by The God Complex at 7:30 PM on December 22, 2003

Most of the self talkers I see seem to be having conversations with invisible people, or are still arguing with some person who is now 3 blocks away.
Are you sure they are not on a cellphone with an earpiece?
posted by mischief at 9:22 PM on December 22, 2003

i do it all the time, though only when outside and only when i'm alone, now that i think of it. usually, i don't make any sense. i'll say things like:

"he is such an ass." and "they didn't think he would, but he did." and "not if you don't want me to." however, i never have a "conversation," per se.

i'll also spontaneously burst out with ideas for stuff i'm writing. "remember that archer's a son of a bitch. don't tart him up. he doesn't deserve it."

when i say something i need to remember, i record it in a voice recorder (the only item i never leave the house without).

i'm a canadian honky.
posted by dobbs at 10:55 PM on December 22, 2003

I too have been know to mutter darkly to myself as i wander the streets. It's just one of those things. Of course, some crazy people do it more, and the things they say can be outside the normal "leaking inner dialog" (Make that a metafilter tagline if you will), but other than that, it's pretty normal.

Interestingly, I read recently an article about colour and mental health problems. (can't find it - damn my inablity to use google) Turns out that although a higher percentage of black people than white people suffer from mental illness in places like the US and the UK, these percentages do not correlate to mental illness in predominantly black countries. In fact, in these countries, the opposite correlation can be found. The latest best hypothosis is that the extra stress caused by (a) inequality and (b) racism is what causes this racially biased instability.
posted by seanyboy at 5:33 AM on December 23, 2003

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