Hi Captain Awkward,
This is a pretty short and sweet question, I’m not sure if it’s been asked before so if it has, sorry! It kind of ties into your request for stories about using your words to say the honest truth.
My boyfriend lives and breathes philosophy. I love this about him, even though I’m not that interested in philosophy myself, because I really admire how passionate he is about it and that he is so good at what he does. The thing is, he really likes to work out philosophy problems by talking them out; so when he talks about philosophy he’s more talking at me than with me. When it’s just us, I generally let him go on for five minutes or so to let him get whatever he’s thinking about out of his system and then say something like “I’m not really interested in this, let’s talk about something else.” and he goes “yes okay, sorry” and we talk about something else. I think part of the problem is he doesn’t have anyone in his life he can really talk to about this stuff but that’s not why I’m writing to you, because that’s an issue for him to solve, not me.
The real problem is, he’ll sometimes do this with other people when we’re out socialising after the inevitable round of “so what do you study?” “philosophy” “oh really, what sort of philosophy are you interested in?”. Sometimes he’ll just go off in way too much detail or try to turn the conversation into a serious philosophy conversation, but the sad fact is most people only have a passing mild curiosity in philosophy so it ends up him just talking at them. He’s aware of the problem and does a pretty good job of managing it (because he also thinks it’s kind of rude) but sometimes forgets. What I’m wondering is, what’s a nice way to say “no one’s interested, change the subject.” without being rude to him or embarrassing him in front of other people? Subtle cues don’t work; once he gets going he needs to be told straight up to stop. We’ve talked about this and he says to just say “stop talking” or something but I feel like even though that wouldn’t offend him, it would look weird to other people and might make them more uncomfortable because it will look like I’m being dismissive or rude to him, and it feels to me like it would be rude to do. So what’s a sensitive, socially appropriate way to say “you’re talking too much about this?” Or should I just go with “stop talking” and damn what other people think?
Thanks in advance,
The second coming of Wittgenstein
Dear Second Coming:
Meet the Three Sentence Rule.
Partner A(usually played by me in my relationships): Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah stuff!
Partner B: :patiently listens:
Partner A: blah blah blah blah BLAH BLAH blah blah blah?
Partner B: Huh. Howabout that.
Partner A: And did you know blah blah blah blah blah blah blah? Which reminds me, blah blah blah blah blah blah…
Partner B: Okay. I’m going to need you to sum that up for me in three sentences.
Partner A: :thinks for a long second: :sums it up in three sentences:
Partner B: Cool! or Appropriate Soothing Noises! or What do you want me to do about that?
:change of subject:
Try it and see how it works for you? It’s the tl:dr of conversation.
I see why you get embarrassed and/or annoyed when you’re out with others, and I can see that his solution “just tell me to stop talking” sounds all nice and direct on the surface but really means “I get to keep talking until you invoke the conversational safeword” and frees him from responsibility of having to filter or think about his audience. It’s not that you need him to stop talking in those moments, it’s that you need him to be more aware.
However, next time you’re out and about with others, try something else: try NOT managing how he interacts with others. Don’t assume they are bored. Don’t cut him off because you’re worried that they are bored and “no one’s interested.” Change the subject when YOU are bored, and own it. “That’s enough philosophy for me for the night. Seen any good movies lately?” Or leave him to it and go talk to other people. You are almost always on the losing side of an argument when you start invoking what other people might think, like “I love it when you go on and on about philosophy, you know that, it’s just I’m worried that other people are bored.” You’re not your partner’s mom or his teacher, you don’t have to answer for him to others. Others can speak up for themselves if they need to, and/or he can learn to check in with his conversational partners and make sure they are enjoying what’s happening and not assume that he gets to lecture people until you, as Social Skills Monitor, intervene. You can always change the subject yourself or excuse yourself for a bit while he gets it out of his system.
I mean, you could develop an actual conversational safe phrase. “Do you think it’s going to rain? No, seriously, do you think it’s going to rain?” Is that more subtle or polite than “Please stop talking,” though?
One final thing. Once upon a time I was seated next to a scientist who worked on the particle collider at dinner. (I know, my life is awesome sometimes). I was like, I don’t want to make you talk shop at dinner if this is a break for you, but if you are comfortable, TELL ME ALL ABOUT THAT. The poor guy kept interrupting himself and apologizing, sure that he was boring me, and I had to keep saying no, no, I seriously want to know ALL ABOUT THAT and then he got really going and started using silverware and wine glasses to explain physics to me? Oh god, it was brilliant and sexy and so fun and I do not know how I made it through that meal without attaching my face to his face. We professor types do need to learn to slow our roll sometimes, but people pay to hear us talk about Our Thing for a reason. Some of your friends will learn never to ask your boyfriend about his work if they don’t really, really want to know the answer, but others will feel the way you do about him.
P.S. Here’s your Valentine’s Day poem, made to order (or not):
Don’t Be Literary, Darling – Sasha Moorsom
Don’t be literary, darling, don’t be literary
If you’re James in the morning you’re Hemingway in bed
Don’t talk of yourself in the style of your own obituary –
For who cares what they say of you after you’re dead.
Don’t be always a thought ahead and a move behind
Like a general reconnoitring dangerous ground,
This is a game it’s better to enter blind
And the one who wins is the one who is caught and bound.
If you can’t be straight then just say nothing instead.
I’ll know what you mean much better than if it was said.