Muttering : where do you cross the line?
February 21, 2008 10:37 AM   Subscribe

Muttering to oneself : how much is too much? And what if the muttering consists largely of profanity? See also.
posted by stinkycheese to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This comment from your linked thread outlines what is charming about muttering, ala Popeye cartoons. Taking a page from the sailor-man's book may help WRT the cursing: Waddaya mean by that, ya razza-frazzn dump truck why I oughta...
posted by Scoo at 10:50 AM on February 21, 2008

Depends... if you do it while other people are not around, no problems.

If you do it around other people you may come across as passive aggressive, hard to understand, and annoying, people assume that if you are making speech noise you want to be heard and will strive to hear you, specifically impeding that will earn you a reputation. So you decide if that matters to you. Personally I did use to mutter to myself, especially when trying to think out loud and was told how annoying it was by a few people I respect. I no longer do, and I can see how it is annoying to others.
posted by edgeways at 10:54 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Also depends on the situation-stuck in traffic with a bunch of idiots on cell phones, fine; at the symphony, not so fine.
posted by TedW at 10:57 AM on February 21, 2008

Muttering immediately crosses the line if the mutterer is muttering about the person who is listening.

Additionally, there's a proximity quotient: muttering to oneself about any topic in the presence of someone else in tight quarters (the previously mentioned elevator, public transportation, while standing in line, at the office) is weird; interjecting profanity into the muttering under these circumstances is, to me, disrespectful to those within earshot. On the other hand, if you're by the side of the road trying to figure out why your car isn't running? Mutter and curse all you'd like.
posted by jamaro at 10:58 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Yeah there's a presumption that people muttering within earshot of other people and cursing are at least a little bit crazy, because it falls outside the range of "how to interact with others" Personally, I mutter a lot when I'm alone and swear like I usually would. I had a student who would come to my drop-in computer lab who would mutter as she was using the computer -- not usually directed at me but not always not directed at me -- and her muttering was disturbing to other students. They weren't sure when she was talking TO them, and they thought she was sometimes talking ABOUT them. It didn't seem like something she could completely control and she actd a bit put out saying "well people should just stop listening to me..." when I asked if she could tone it down some

My feeling is that we're attuned at some level to pay attention to speech sounds, as edgeways says, and so muttering with other people around in an ambiguous situation (where you might be talking to them, at that point or in the future) is really something to be avoided. Because that's true for most people, that etiquette, people who continue to mutter and especially swear in the presence of others are often thought of as impolite at best and completely crazy at worst.
posted by jessamyn at 11:07 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I think the question is, how much like Joe Pesci in Home Alone do you want to appear like?
posted by disillusioned at 11:22 AM on February 21, 2008

Muttering always crosses the line, unless you are pushing 80, in which case it's still creepy, but excusable.

I don't begrudge a person who slams their finger in the door and curses at themselves (or the door), someone who has a lightbulb go on over their head and makes a verbal "ah ha!" sort of noise, someone who might be reminding themselves verbally what they have to do, etc. None of that is muttering. Muttering is the creepy, low-talking that you do when you are pissy and crotchety and too old to worry about trying to appear normal in public. Muttering is a right you earn, somewhere between the right to drive 45 mph in a 55 zone and the right to fart with abandon in public areas.

If you are young enough to be on Ask Me, you are probably too young to mutter.
posted by tastybrains at 11:26 AM on February 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

I talk to myself all the time. I'm an only child and it just comes naturally. But, I only do it when I'm alone or at least believe myself to be. Talking to yourself when others are around is just plain rude, whether you're talking about/to them or not. It's frustrating when someone is speaking but you can't quite make out the words, so even if you're not intending them to hear you at all they just might and it's probably not making them happy.

Save the monologues for the stage.
posted by tommasz at 11:41 AM on February 21, 2008

The question is whether or not the muttering is in response to what is called internal stimulus, i.e., auditory or visual hallucinations. If it is, then it could be symptomatic of a psychotic disorder.
posted by The Straightener at 11:42 AM on February 21, 2008

I am a Mutterer To Self. Jessamyn's example of someone using a computer and nattering to herself is a good one I think, because I tend to do it most when I'm involved with some kind of task, and particularly if it's kind of frustrating. In general I don't do this around other people (if I can possibly help it; translating EU policy directives is reasonably dull and merits the occasional expletive) because speech is in general assumed to be communicative, rather than letting off steam, and it just kind of weirds people out.

A dithery aside; once I was walking down the street, buried in thoughts, and realised I was muttering "delicious, delicious, delicious" to myself, had been doing so for a good few blocks, and couldn't remember what I had been thinking about.

Avoid this.
posted by eponymouse at 12:01 PM on February 21, 2008 [2 favorites]

Muttering at all will lower some peoples opinions of you. This may or may not bother you. Personally, muttering in public doesn't bother me if its in a place that is loud and talking is acceptable, and if there seems to be a reason for the muttering, such as working on something complicated. Mostly swearing muttering for no obvious reason would make me feel nervous and a little paranoid.
posted by fermezporte at 12:05 PM on February 21, 2008

I'm a mathematician. I talk to myself in a low voice a lot when I'm walking around, trying to solve a problem in my head. It sort of helps me keep the ideas straight. I try to not do it when people are around, but I'm sure I've been caught doing it at least once.

My feeling is that as long as you're not saying creepy things, giving people menacing looks, etc, it's not a big deal. I think you have the freedom to speak, even if you aren't necessarily talking to somebody else. Provided, of course, that you're not completely ruining other people's ability to enjoy shared space. I think some low muttering is really much less annoying than somebody having a personal conversation on their cell phone in a public space.

The point at which it becomes too much, in my opinion, is when one of the following occurs:
1. The volume becomes louder than a low conversation.
2. The content is offensive or threatening. This may include profanity.
posted by number9dream at 12:09 PM on February 21, 2008

Muttering to oneself : how much is too much?

Tough to say. Depends on many of the circumstances identified by others above.

And what if the muttering consists largely of profanity?

Automatically too much. I always associate this with "barely contained rage" and avoid the person (whether that impression is accurate or not).
posted by pardonyou? at 12:36 PM on February 21, 2008

Wolfdog mentions Tourette's in the linked thread, and there are a couple of people who hang around in my neighborhood who have flagrant Tourette's who mumble to themselves all the time. Once I took a quick step toward one of them because I was thinking of running across the street to beat the flashing light, and his mutter rose to a shout instantly and I laughed and now he glares at me every time he sees me. Oh well.

The worst mutterer I ever met was the normal-hearing only child of a totally deaf mother.

I assumed grumblebee chose his name because he does this, but the linked thread seems to imply not.
posted by jamjam at 12:59 PM on February 21, 2008

I never thought of myself as a mutterer. This morning I was working from home, and since my partner was there too I suddenly became aware of how much I talk to myself. "What an idiot email... where's that file I need to refute her?... Not there, let me try this folder... #$%^&! What the $&^% is my computer doing?"

In other words: I mutter to myself about my mental process, which quickly gets profane if I get frustrated about something. It probably happens more often than I realize.
posted by bassjump at 1:58 PM on February 21, 2008

I have the hardest time restraining myself from mumbling when nearby disruptive children (e.g., kids running amok at an airport, screaming babies, tantrum throwers) are making it difficult to hear myself think. That puts me in pain, like a knife through my ear, and I know I've made comments like, "God! What a brat!" or "Make it stop!" and have been overheard by their clueless parents. On occasion, though, the parents have taken action, which is a good thing.
posted by carmicha at 2:13 PM on February 21, 2008

Any muttering is too much in my opinion. If you are asking a direct question or engaging in conversation then talking is fine, but just speaking for the sake of hearing your own voice to me is really arrogant. I would always ask oneself if the other people are actually wanting to hear what you are muttering.

Random interjections into a conversation or a silence to generate a conversation, but just muttering to yourself is rude.
posted by koolkat at 3:53 AM on February 22, 2008

You sound pretty normal. I have been handed a pretty little excuse my doctors for by abnormality; I have Tourette Syndrome. You probably don't. I certainly couldn't diagnose you from 2 sentences. So the way I mumble and mutter under my breath may be different from you.

My problem is that I blurt. Thoughts simmer and pop to the surface of my brain, and without thinking they slip out my mouth. They're wildly out of context. I remember I was thinking about the disappointing website of a graphic design firm yesterday, and I had to reassure my boyfriend that the sentence "Asshole, and his website sucks too" had nothing to do with his website. People are going to automatically assume you're talking about them. They're not mind readers. Unless you explain, they have no idea of the thought process that led to something random, possibly insulting, possibly profane tumbling out of your mouth.

I also talk about the tasks I'm doing, especially if it is something difficult (for me) to process. When I'm doing inventory I greet all the digital cameras at work like they were happy little chipmunks and I was fucking Snow White. I narrate everything I do in Photoshop. When I'm drawing I mumble about the angle of lines, where they intersect. If I am working close to someone else, I explain that I'm just talking to myself like an idiot, and apologize.

So, if you talk to yourself as much as I do, it is too much. You're going to have to learn to hide it. Don't make eye contact with people if you don't want them to think you're talking to them. Sneak into other rooms and get it out of your system. Explain it to friends and family, and when they think you're talking to them and they missed it, have an explanation. The fellow I live with is always asking "What?" when he half-hears me say something random and I just say "It was a tic," and we leave it at that.
posted by Juliet Banana at 7:03 AM on February 22, 2008

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