What to Do About an Overtalker

“They have obsessive interests and tend not to notice social cues. The other person is leaning back, giving them all these cues but they don’t pick them up. They’re like a vehicle gaining momentum and the brakes don’t work.”

Either way, interrupt sooner than you might be comfortable with, to see if the talker yields the floor. If not, interrupt again, says Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of several books about the meaning in our speech patterns.

  • If you suspect the person is a narcissist, escape. If you don’t gain ground, maybe you’re dealing with a narcissist and need to cut your losses. Try “Excuse me! I see my former public speaking teacher over there!” or “I have to take a private call in two minutes!”

  • If you are dealing with social awkwardness, lend a helping hand. “You can say, ‘That’s really interesting, now let me see if I can summarize what you’ve said,’” Dr. Tashiro suggests. “You provide direct feedback and show you were actively listening. Then shift the focus to yourself, say ‘I had a similar experience’ or ‘Here’s what I want to talk about.’”

Don’t make assumptions: In general, Dr. Tannen suggests not leaping to immediate conclusions. “Try to see what’s creating a frustrating dynamic,” Dr. Tannen says. “Everything about how we talk is variable by culture, like how long a pause to take between turns. It could have to do with region, ethnic background or just different ideas about how to make conversation, not with pathology or bad intentions.”

She cites a couple, the man a New Yorker, the woman a Midwesterner, on a first date: He was doing all the talking and she was thinking really negatively about him, Dr. Tannen recalls. “Then he finally said, ‘Can you help me out here?’ He explained he was doing all the talking because it was what he knew how to do. He was trying to keep the conversation going. She was waiting for a question, to show his interest.” (The couple are now married.)

Use subtle cues: Sometimes, an overtalker is someone to whom you can’t give short shrift: your boss, say or a future in-law. See if you can steer the conversation differently or build in a pause (“Interesting. I need time to think about that.”) Or, work to get your message across with subliminal cues.

“Respond calmly, in a yoga teacher kind of voice and pace, deep breathe, see if you can get them to match you,” says Lynda McCroskey, a professor of communications studies at California State University Long Beach. “Lean away from the person, avoid eye contact, don’t touch them. As a last resort, check your watch or phone.”