Question #182: The Three Sentence Rule, or, How do I get my partner to shut up about Karl Popper?

Matt Smith as the Doctor

Brilliant men who like to think out loud, ay?

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

Cumberbatch and Freeman as Holmes and Watson

Do you really want to be your boyfriend's social skills tutor? Warning: Could lead to looking perpetually annoyed.

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:

Fin.

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.

63 comments
  1. “I mean, you could develop an actual conversational safe phrase”

    “Baby, you’re getting teal again.”

    “But–Kant–”

    “HEY LOOK IS THAT A HERD OF DEER IN THE DISTANCE?!”

    But giving other people the opportunity to enjoy it or not, and/or owning your own boredom, is probably a better idea, yeah.

    • notemily said:

      ahahah I was like “who left this amusing and clever comment?” and then of course it was you, Cleo.

  2. robiewankenobie said:

    I think sometimes, if you’ve got a partner or friend that you really like, the temptation is to want to make them bright and shiny in social situations. The thing is? Not your job. The other people at the party? Are big people too, and can change the subject if they want to. I mean, I understand making him aware of social cues, but don’t feel as if you need to make him more socially acceptable.

    Dude. My guy? Made of awesome. Like, I literally thing someone took awesome and molded it into theLeon. He’s hella awkward in social situations. When I was in my 20s and focused on making it bigtime? This kind of bothered me. However, I’m old now and I don’t need him to help me advance my rising barista career or make me look like a cultured and capable church secretary.

    • Stephanie said:

      Your last sentence made my day. I love it!

  3. Ariel said:

    My brother is really similar, he will go ON AND ON AND ON about his super-technical work if you let him, and almost nobody understands. Luckily though, most people love him anyways, and the people who really love him are the ones who are willing to say, “Hey, you’re the best, but I’m really not understanding a word you say. Let’s please talk about television.” My philosophy is, if you’re too conventionally polite to let somebody know you’re bored with the conversation, then you deserve to continue to be bored for a little while longer.

    My brother’s not the easiest person to spend a lot of time with, but that means he always know the people who like him, REALLY like him for who he is. His technical rants drive away all the polite-but-bored acquaintances and fake-friends, and all that’s left are the people who actually care about him as a person and find him interesting. It’s unconventional, but it works for him.

    • Ensign Perception said:

      My brother can be like this too – he’s a philosophy major, and back when he was studying the ontological-theory-of-everything types, we had an extremely painful conversation. He was trying to tell me what the deeper purpose of my chosen career totally is for sure, no ambiguity, I just needed to REALIZE that exactly this was what I was doing with my life and why, because I clearly had no idea wtf I was talking about. (Again, to review here, what I was talking about was my career.) It was pretty infuriating.

      I’m pretty sure there were two things that helped him slow his role… first of all, his classes moved on to stuff like poststructuralism, and secondly he discovered the joys of pot.

      Don’t know if there’s any useful advice in there for the LW! But there you have it.

      • Ensign Perception said:

        “slow his roll” I mean

      • Every philosophy student should smoke pot. I think it lends perspective.

        • “Everyone should smoke pot. I think it lends perspective.”

          Fixed that for you. 😉 (Incidentally helpful with matrix algebra)

  4. My husband can have a conversation with anyone, and can stretch any conversation out for hours. This is mostly awesome, but when we are on our way out of a place, he will sometimes start conversations that keep going and going, and he doesn’t usually get the hint with a verbal cue. So our signal is very discreet and nobody else notices it. I step on his foot. Not stomp, just move my foot on top of his and slowly put some weight on it. No one else sees, he knows what it means (we came up with it together) and then he wraps up his marathon conversation and we go.

  5. Esti said:

    I co-sign the idea that you shouldn’t be trying to manage your partner’s social interactions. I mean, if you’re taking him to a dinner with your boss or something, it might be appropriate to ask him to do x or y because it’s your boss and the night is really about you. But in general? He’s an adult, the people he’s talking to are adults, they’ll figure it out. If he’s not doing a good job of talking to other people instead of at them, that’s a skill he needs to work on more because you’re not always going to be there to help him be more considerate (nor does that really sound like a job you want to sign up for on a full-time basis).

    If the problem is not that you’re worried about him boring other people but rather that you’re bored because you get stuck in the conversations he’s having with other people and don’t feel comfortable using your normal “let’s change the subject” when there are other people around, I think you can deal with that the way you would with any other person you interact with socially who has your partner’s habit. Wait for a pause (everyone has to take a breath occasionally), and then ask the other person in the conversation something about their life or about a mutual friend or about that thing on TV last night.

    And lastly, while I have no idea how often he does this, maybe you should reevaluate whether this is really a big problem? You say he’s doing a pretty good job at managing the issue since you brought it up, so maybe the occasional lapse is just something that you need to accept as one of his little quirks. Often we’re hyper-aware of our partner’s faults the same way we’re hyper-aware of our own — is it possible that now that he’s working on this, the times when he slips bother you more than the other people he’s talking to?

    • L. said:

      Yes! This whole comment. Especially the first paragraph.

      Captain Awkwardland is all about boundaries, right? This is boundaries. His conversation, and others’ reaction to it, is his to manage. To try to manage someone else’s conversation is not a good place to be. Even as a parent it would not be a good place to be. Double that for a relationship where, I suspect, you would like both partners consider themselves total equals.

      I can totally see why these situations cause you discomfort but I think you need to just sit with that, and not touch it, and see what happens.

      Rule number one of relationships: you can’t change the other person, and that includes their behavior. Any such change has to be self-originated. If you don’t like how it is, you need to either change how you cope with it or leave the relationship. (That seems overkill for your situation–I’m not suggesting it.)

      I do also see that some partners may come up with mutually agreed-upon situations, as xenu01 describes. But that works because it’s self-originated and -maintained. A person perceives “I have issues with ‘x'” and works with the partner to find a solution to the problem.

  6. Ark said:

    I’m a math teacher, so rambling about calculus is what I do. However, since I realized a lot of people don’t want to know about math, I came up with a touchstone to be my social guide. If I ever start to get too far out there, I read “The Man Who Loved Only Numbers,” about a totally brilliant and totally socially awkward mathematician. If I see myself starting to take on too many (read: ANY) of his characteristics, I know to rein it in a bit.

    I don’t know if that’s the best advice, but I think that if you found a book entitled “The Man Who Loved Only Philosophy (to the point where he ended up ostracized and alone because he wouldn’t stop talking about Philosophy at the dinner table),” then it might be a good book to drop in his lap.

    • MorkaisChosen said:

      Erdos, yo.

      Good book. My favourite line beng the reference to him turning up on someone’s doorstep on Christmas Day and saying “Happy Christmas. Let n be the number… “

      • I also loved that book, with the exception of the “and oh, he was so lovably misogynist he described all women as slaveholders!” bits. It’s truly depressing how that kind of thing is treated as an endearing quirk rather than a character flaw for science heroes.
        (See also: Feynman)

  7. I was once in a relationship that was the horror-story version of this. Not only did my girlfriend like to talk on and on about her philosophy studies – which I liked, because she was brilliant and I like philosophy, too (but am not brilliant in that way and thus always learned something from listening) – but unlike LW’s boyfriend, you could not make her stop. At best she’d keep talking right over you, and at worst her feelings would get hurt and it’d become a tearful conversation about how YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE INTERESTED IN EVERYTHING I SAY BECAUSE YOU’RE MY BOYFRIEND.

    And there was another level of awful, in that she wouldn’t just do this with things she was passionate about, like philosophy. As has been said already, most of us like hearing someone we love talking about something they’re passionate about (to a finite degree). She’d do this about everything, to the point that, “How was your day?” became a fraught and dangerous question. She’d spend the better part of an hour recounting the kinds of details I don’t even remember about my own day, much less feel compelled to share with others.

    The solution in this case was to break up. Obviously the LW’s situation isn’t nearly as dire. So I guess to wrap back around to that, your boyfriend is already doing half of his job by being considerate enough to stop when asked, and being mature enough to not take it personally. He’s clearly reasonably adult about this. The other part of his job, as the Cap’n said, is to observe the cues he’s getting from his conversational partners. As she also said, that is not your job.

    • JenniferP said:

      “YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE INTERESTED IN EVERYTHING I SAY BECAUSE YOU’RE MY BOYFRIEND.”

      Commander Logic and I have GOT to finish that post on Geek Social Fallacies of Dating.

      • commanderlogic said:

        Bless you, gmail, I found the draft I sent you some time last year. THIS ONE WAS ON THERE. Prescient? Or just well versed in geek social norms?

      • Canary said:

        Oh yes please!

    • Latining said:

      Ohgod, I have a friend like this. She’s nice enough, but I had to invent a family dinner I “forgot” about after she didn’t shut up about [TV show] for TWO HOURS. I literally couldn’t get a word in edgewise to change the subject. Talkative people I can handle, but I’m really at a loss for when people just steamroll over you.

      • TL said:

        Tell them, maybe? I might be biased because I have an ASD, so idk how it is for neurotypical people, but “this topic doesn’t really interest me, could we talk about something else?” doesn’t bother me at all — and makes me feel glad, because I know now I am no longer boring the other person to death. (It took me until I was 13 to even start to get a hint of how to recognize extreme!boredom in fellow kids, and now I apologize incessantly when I talk because I can’t tell how to recognize boredom anymore since most adults have learned to control the expression of it :/.)

  8. kate said:

    I mostly agree with the CA answer. But I also understand that sometimes it can be painful watching the person you love embarrass himself (whether he knows it or not) by sooo not getting what is the situationally appropriate amount of information to include in his answer.

    So when you feel like you just can’t watch, you could put your hand on his arm and say in a loving way, “I’m not sure whether [poor auditor] was really looking for quite that much detail, love!” Then turn the other person and say “If you are interested, by all means have at it; I’m sure it’ll be a great conversation for both of you. But if you need to cry ‘uncle,’ by all means do. He really doesn’t mind. It’s rare to find someone who loves Wittgenstein as much as he does.” Then give your guy a peck on the cheek or other affectionate gesture so no one thinks you’re dissing him, and take yourself off to the refreshment table.

    • xenu01 said:

      I like this answer. My spouse and I form a partnership in which we try and help each other out where we are weak. I am better at interpreting social cues (girl training FTW!) and he is better at knowing when I should be saying no and I am being a people-pleaser instead. Hence when we were working together,

      Boss: Can you come in on Friday?
      Me: I think that should be ok-
      Him: Oh, but Xenu01, don’t forget you have a really important meeting with your advisor!

      Since I obviously didn’t have any such thing, it was up to me whether I wanted to be like, “Oh, right,” and take advantage of the escape hatch he had opened for me, or “No, I’ll reschedule it.” Which would be MY DECISION, because we are adults and trust one another to make the best decisions for ourselves.

      • xenu01 said:

        I should also make a note that the reason that we are able to do things like this is because we had many conversations where I would be all, “I am so bad at saying no and I hate it! Especially at work!” and together, we figured out what to do.

        Here’s the thing, too- maybe you are spending too much time together! Might I suggest that you suggest your partner look into a philosophy-centric meet-up group, maybe? Maybe if he satisfied his urge to talk about the stuff, he wouldn’t feel the need to center every conversation in the philosophy realm. My partner is lovely, but it would drive him nuts if I spent all of the time I want to spend talking about school talking about it! This is why I socialize with other students, so we can talk about school as much as we need to! That way, by the time we are having the “how was your day” conversation, I can give a summary instead of saying, “And then this happened, and then this happened, and then,”

    • Latining said:

      This is fantastic advice. My love and I are both working on our Master’s degrees and eyeing PhDs. When we’re in social situations we keep an eye on eachother and make sure neither of us is going into the Interpretive Dance of the Thesis. We’ve gotten much better at social situations after establishing this.

    • Canary said:

      This is brilliant. It sounds like a way to help your partner with social situations without hurting any feelings and also to leave the possibility open that your partner might have found exactly the right person to talk about subject X to.

      I see the point behind the posts that say it isn’t LW’s problem but as someone who tends to babble, I *love* it when people let me know they want to talk about something else. This gives the less known people permission to do that without thinking that they are being rude.

  9. volcanista said:

    Yes yes, great advice. From the other side of this, it can really chip away at a your confidence to regularly have a more socially savvy partner correcting you in public for being awkward or boring or just not following all the social niceties quite correctly, whether the intent is to be controlling or just to help. It feels like you are embarrassing for them to be around in public. Let him fend for himself with others and just set your own personal boundaries.

  10. volcanista said:

    Kate, I strongly disagree. If you find your partner’s social abilities that embarrassing in public, he or she is maybe not the right partner for you? Most of how a person interacts socially is not going to change by force of will or even by gradual training. There’s a very very short distance between trying to help your partner improve and condescendingly trying to change them into what you think is acceptable (while effectively ensuring they know that the way they are right now is NOT acceptable).

    • kate said:

      You have a point. It could easily be (or come off as) patronizing and undermining, especially over time and/or if overdone. It would matter whether this was a service your spouse said he wanted, rather than your little idea of how to buff him up ’cause you’re trying to make him into your idea of perfect with a nip and a tuck here and there (or a total makeover!!) when he has as much right as anyone to be himself, with his own quirks. I totally agree the latter is icky.

      I was influenced by thinking about people with autistic spectrum disorders, who chronically miss social cues and sometimes do appreciate being told outright what other people might pick up from subtler body language, etc. But that, too, depends on what that person self-identifies as their needs.

      • kate said:

        (You don’t need a diagnosed disorder to say “I know I have a tendency to run on and on about my pet topic and I don’t want people to start running away when they see me enter a room, so please stop me!”)

  11. xenu01 said:

    You know what? I just realized I agree with the captain wholeheartedly. Don’t micromanage your partner, LW. If you have some social anxiety about said partner, why don’t you bring it up next time you’re hanging out with a friend without your partner? “Hey, do you feel like you’re drowning in Philosophy when we hang out with my partner?” Chances are, they don’t. And if they do, yeah for sure they can say something about it.

    I really think that maybe the problem stems from you two spending too much time together and needing to hang out separately sometimes. I’d try that before thinking about breaking up!

    • Whoa thar, LW doesn’t seem to be anywhere near considering breaking up with him.

      • xenu01 said:

        I should clarify that I was not responding to the LW, but to volcanista, here: “… If you find your partner’s social abilities that embarrassing in public, he or she is maybe not the right partner for you?”

        So thanks for the Whoa thar, but not necessary!

    • Ensign Perception said:

      Right, unless the partner’s behavior is truly extreme, LW is likely assuming everyone around her dislikes the same things about her partner that she does! I like the idea of asking a friend, that could be a good reality check.

      • volcanista said:

        I do think that even if the partner’s behavior is “extreme”, it’s not the LW’s job to fix it, basically ever. Adults don’t get to manage each other like that. If the LW is embarrassed by the partner, the solution is decidedly not to just start “fixing” the behavior. And I agree with the Captain that if a partner asks for that correction, it enters a hazy territory of asking the LW to take on something they should mostly work on by themselves. I do think that if you can’t live with your partner’s social quirks as they are you probably should move on rather than trying to fix them; and if you CAN live with them, then you can let go trying to manage it in public. If your partner wasn’t embarrassed about it before you came along, why should they feel that way now?

        I admit this hits a particularly sore spot, because one of my exes was especially sensitive to things he perceived as embarrassingly not-perfect-public interactions, and I’m not terribly but am mildly awkward (and until him, did not give a shit about that and considered it just a bad match if someone couldn’t handle that about me). But he managed to make me feel shitty and self-conscious on a regular basis by trying to correct my supposedly incorrect interactions. And to be frank, fuck that, on basically any scale. It’s not necessary to fix a partner, and almost never a good idea to try.

        • xenu01 said:

          I am so sorry that happened to you! And I agree that managing a partner’s behavior can be a bad thing in many cases. Also, he sounds like an awful jerk akin to the person who constantly tells his or her partner that they could “stand to lose a few pounds.”

        • Ensign Perception said:

          Ugh, yeah, what he was doing to you was bullshit, based on obviously false premises about social interaction, and way too controlling. Nobody deserves to be treated that way, no matter how they are acting.

          I do think that xenu described a good model for couples who are open about their shortcomings and help each other out in ways they’ve both explicitly OK’ed. But yes, “fixing” is never a good dynamic to get into.

        • I completely agree, volcanista, and I’m sorry you dated such as dick. That said, you’re right that, a) it’s wrong to attempt to “fix” a partner unsolicited, and b) it’s usually wrong to be the partner who’s like “FIX ME PLEASE KTHX”, there is room for negotiation with regard to point b. Certainly some people are basically overgrown children who want their partner to be their new mommy, but xenu01 also shows a way to be adults about it.

  12. Hannah said:

    My husband and I have a signal, rather blatant, but it works, based off an old jazz tale. Once-upon-a-time John Coltrane asked Miles Davis how he knew it was time to end a solo. Davis replied something to the tune of “When you take the damn horn outta your mouth.” So, my hubbs, sweetie pie that he knows he is, is also a talker. When we need to get going (otherwise, I usually change the subject, et. al. per the post), I just say, “Take the damn horn out of your mouth, Coltrane.” It’s funny, and sometimes we get to tell that story and sound like sophisticated jazz lovers.

  13. Eden said:

    One suggestion: The LW said that her partner really doesn’t have anyone else to talk philosophy with. In that case, why not encourage the boyfriend to find a philosophy club? Or start a blog? Or find some other community as an outlet so he can have all the philosophy discussions he wants, and then talk about kittens and movies and celebrity scandals with everyone else? He could go on Meetup.com right now and set up a weekly or monthly philosophy discussion group at a coffee shop or bar in his town.

    • Featherless Biped said:

      Yes to this! There are also a lot of philosophy blogs with active an interesting comments. (If it is any use to the letter-writer, Dave Chalmers keeps a comprehensive list.)

  14. Just a thought… if LW is her BF’s main talk-about-philosophy-to person, then, on the occasions when he talks at great length about philosophy to other people, is he mostly saying stuff he’s already said to her before? Because if so, she might be getting bored the fastest.

    I do not have any advice on what to do if that’s the case, because when it happened to me, there were a lot of other factors involved as well, such as the fact that my last boyfriend was a mean, judgmental, narcissistic asshole, so his handful of Things He Said At Great Length At Every Fucking Party Until I Started To Wonder Why I Went To These Parties Because I Could Script Them All In My Head were all gleeful accounts of him tricking or upsetting or committing crimes against his friends (or people who he pretended to be friends with so that he could treat them as badly as his friends). So I never did figure out what to do if the conversation is not particularly fucked up, you’ve just heard it already and don’t need to sit through it again.

    • lizzieladie said:

      I wonder if this might be key here? My Dad is a pretty entertaining story-teller and very fun talk to, but literally never remembers if he’s told someone a story before, and rarely remembers to ask if he has. This also a trait shared by most of his immediate family.

      The family classics are cool to hear over and over again, but everyone’s renditions of the latest politics at work are usually only good for one or two goes before I get bored. If I’m only alone with the person or with a group where I know everyone has already heard the story, I usually go with an enthusiastic “wait, I think I remember this now, didn’t it end up “y”? It makes me think of “x”, and if I’m in a big group I usually either sit it out or try to start a smaller conversation with someone else.

      But especially if the philosophy stuff is something that LW has heard before, or if she’s already over her personal quota of philosophy talk in general for the week, she might be a lot more bored than everyone else there. In which case she should own that she’s the bored one and change the topic, or find other people to talk to about something else.

  15. roo said:

    I think everyone who’s really into philosphy is like the LW’s boyfriend. At least, everyone I’ve met, including my husband.

    J is often quite reserved. Not shy, per se, but he often doesn’t talk much in social situations. So when he opens the release valve, there’s a lot that comes pouring out. Sort of an all-filter/no-filter dichotomy. And since I’m pretty much the one person he talks to regularly, I’m often his sounding board (that talking “at” instead of “to” thing.)

    We’ve been together long enough that I’m mostly over feeling like I need to attend to all of it, which helps. I let the words wash over me while I putter. If he seems to want me to be engaged, or to offer feedback, I’ll tell him that I’m having a hard time keeping track of the main points– could he summarize? (The three-sentence rule is an elegant take on this approach.)

    And once or twice I’ve had to say, “I’m sorry, honey, but I don’t care at all about anything you’re talking about.” Which… isn’t the most sensitive way of putting it. Desperate times call for desperate measures? I appreciate the other options offered here.

    The up side is that if we’re both engaged, we still have some of the best long, twisty discussions. And I’m still learning from him, all the time.

    As for the social situations– yeah, I think the “owning it yourself” approach, coupled with a code word/gesture for when you subtly want to get going, is a winning combination.

  16. Once upon a time I was seated next to a scientist who worked on the particle collider at dinner.

    Thatte must have been a seriously bigge fucken dinner table!

    • roo said:

      Hee!

      Ba-dum-bum.

  17. Thank you for this one, CA, because it’s one I needed.

    My boyfriend is a technical sort, and he tends to get very enthusiastic about technical things–when someone offhandedly says something like “gosh, how does the autofocus on a camera work?”, they’re in for a half-hour lecture. (A very animated, entertaining, “isn’t learning exciting?” lecture, and that’s one of the things I love about him. He’s definitely the cool professor. But he can be the unasked-for cool professor.) And sometimes I do kind of wish there was a polite way to signal “honey, you’re going on again.”

    But you’re right. He’s a grownup. I’m his girlfriend, not his Social Skills Coach. (And a good thing because I’m very unqualified for that.) He doesn’t need or want someone to tell him how to socialize, and he’s never asked me to do that. It’s sort of sneaky-demeaning to say “I know how to be you better than you do” and it doesn’t really benefit me. I need to just go hands off.

    He talks to people when I’m not around and he does fine, because like most grownups he can take care of himself. Thank you for reminding me of this.

    • Canary said:

      An excellent distinction to make. If he doesn’t want help it is not cool to change him but if he does then some of the advice might be helpful. I’d leave it up to the partner whether or not he wants to be reined in(like I do) or not. It can be really nice to have help with being like that in public if it is done in a negotiated and consensual way.

  18. Mary said:

    When my partner saw this letter, he sent it to me, saying that I needn’t have changed a few small details in order to spare his feelings… which is to say, I feel your pain, letter writer. My partner and I are both big blabbermouths, actually (its one of our favorite things about each other), and I’m happy to talk with him on a variety of esoteric topics for hours on end. But while I am a lady raised in the South, and so have been trained from birth to be hyper-aware of the rules of polite conversation, he’s a dude and a Yankee, so… not so much.

    Big yes to the “don’t assume the other person is bored” advice. I have come to realize that lots of people are happy listening to someone be passionate about something random. People like learning new things.

    BUT, if you still want a slightly less awkward version of “Shut up!” I’ve found that these work:

    – Suddenly jump into the conversation with: “OMG… oh, sorry to interrupt [Boyfriend], but I just remembered about [other conversational partner]’s new [job/love interest/hobby]. How is that going?”

    – If you’re with friends who know how your boyfriend rolls, you can make a lighthearted little joke, like “Talkative [Boyfriend] is talkative” or “[Boyfriend] is on one of his tangents again… don’t you know better than to get him going?”

  19. leleleleletterwriter said:

    Hey everyone, I’m the letter writer so I wanted to respond to this helpful answer from Captain Awkward and everyone’s comments.

    It’s definitely the case that I have trouble setting healthy/good boundaries in relationships and am kind of a ‘fixer’. It’s also true that I’m bad at saying explicitly what I want. I’m more aware of these tendencies of mine in this relationship than I have been in others. I didn’t really understand this issue as yet another problem with me trying to ‘fix’ things about my boyfriend; I’m glad I wrote in because now I can see its place in the larger pattern in my relationships.

    I should have noted that I’ve never said anything to him in public yet (except to change the subject once he comes to a pause/finishes a section of thoughts) when he goes off like this, mostly because I didn’t know how to address it but also because of what I mentioned above about me being bad at saying what I want. So I guess I’ll just leave things as they stand and try to relax about the whole thing, except to keep on saying when I personally am not willing to hear anymore. I never thought about it as me trying to micromanage him, but I guess looking over my actions on this issue and others I am doing that a bit so I’ll try to be more aware of it.

    What really blew my mind about your response, Captain Awesome, is the part where you said,”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.” That is such a good way of putting it and it explains why that answer was so frustrating. I think sometimes my boyfriend confuses “not caring about what other people think” and “being direct” as in being an honest individual with “not caring what other people think” as in not caring how other people feel and not taking responsibility for his lack of tact.

    Anyway, thanks all for putting this in perspective for me and giving me some fresh eyes.

  20. My g/f and I have occasional exchanges which go like this;

    Her “I’ve just been telling you about a computer game for the past half hour.”
    Me: “Yes.” (At this point, I am often doing basic blog housework and making phatic noises to let her know I’m still listening. Which I am, just not with full attention.)
    Her: “I’m boring you.”
    Me: “I’m not really interested in the computer game. I just love the sound of your voice.”

  21. Eclairity said:

    Maybe I’m just weird, but if I ever get caught in a super boring conversation with someone who is pontificating about stuff I don’t care about I just tend to wander off in search of something more interesting ( smoking is a great excuse to extricate yourself from painful interactions). If it is something interesting but I don’t know much about it I will ask for a 101 explanation on the subject because learning!
    This question seems to not give agency to the other person in the conversation who is fully capable of steering this in a different direction.
    On the subject of your significant other droning on about something you’re not particularly interested in or have heard a bajillion times, why not just wander away yourself. There is no law that says you Have To Be Next To The Person You Are With At All Times!
    Their behaviour is not a reflection of you.
    I don’t think I’ve ever looked at a dude and thought ” Why isn’t his gf policing his intolerable behaviour?” I just think “what a jerk.” and then wander off.

    • roo said:

      The “social rescue” aspect of smoking is probably the number one thing I miss about cigarettes. They were a nice escape route. Deadly, but nice. And so tasty.

  22. maggie said:

    My sweetie can go on for ages about things that interest him. I like that he’s enthusiastic. But, I’m not terribly into the finer points of different cameras, or whatever. I haven’t ever tried to “save” him from that, thankfully. That’s who he is, other people don’t have to like it. If they’re already his friends, yeah they know he’s excitable on certain subjects.

    And as for me, when he’s going on and on and on about whatever it is (often includes the same story I’ve heard many times before), I just let him go. He likes to talk. He’s not ignoring my need to talk; I don’t have anything to say at the moment (or, I do, and we talk about that instead). He doesn’t really need input when he’s doing it, so…I let him go. I don’t try and pay a ton of attention.

    I don’t see it as something to get particularly worked up about. I’m not the greatest at social interactions either (probably in the opposite direction if I’m with people I don’t really know; I can be terse). We can be awkward together in our own special snowflake ways.

    • “Awkward together.” I like it. I’ve been in relationships where that works really well, and I honestly love it. Not having to be self-conscious about my own quirks, and allowing my SO to be the same way about theirs.

      It’s also possible for it to not work at all and result in hurt feelings and such, but that depends on the relationship and the specific people involved.

      • maggie said:

        It’s nice. We do our best to work on our relationship issues, and sort out stuff like “dear god stop leaving hair in the shower”, but otherwise we’re pretty happy to just do our thing. He accepts me as I am, and vice versa.

        Though I know that if I fall out of love with him, the quirks will drive me bananachips!

  23. Lucy Looseleaf said:

    “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”
    Gah. I think you just defined my relationship with my ex. He wanted me to rein in his sociopathic tendencies, and I got exhausted always feeling like the mommy/harpy/shrew. When I finally left him he couldn’t understand why that dynamic was soul-sucking for me. I told him that I didn’t want to change him, he deserves someone who loves his social-cue-ignoring, social-contract-breaking ways, but that person wasn’t me anymore. Then he offered to change, making for more awkward and a terrible breakup.

  24. Sarah said:

    A friend of mine tends to go on, so his best friend took to blandly murmuring “Tardis” when what he wanted to talk about was eating the conversation. It works pretty well.

  25. Yan said:

    I am LOVING the three sentence rule and will be using it at work, probably frequently (and especially with engineers). I wish I had had it/known it in my last relationship. Would have been useful (would not have saved the relationship).

    Also, I may impose it on myself. I’m lucky in my current job that there are other people in my particular vein of geek — it is one of the things that make being a bureaucrat work for me. In between filling out forms (only partially a joke), we can totally geek out.

    Magic #3.

  26. Ha, this reminds me of a trip to the Smithsonian with three friends. We were a developmental biologist, a geneticist, a macroecologist, and the unfortunate person with no science background who saw our faces as we looked at the Burgess Shale fossils and said “So what’s special about those then?”

    *45 minute three-way improv lecture*

    I think she stopped us by drawing herself up to her full height, taking a deep breath and saying in a loud clear voice “I need some tea now.”

    • xenu01 said:

      I just want to say I love this story so much!

      • Thank you!
        Maybe us nerds with a tendency to bang on about stuff should get t-shirts printed.
        “Ask Me About Anomalocaris!”

  27. Sheelzebub said:

    I want to second the ideas that a) it’s not cool to make your partner your social caretaker/parent and b) it’s okay to let your SO just be who they are. If what they do bothers you enough that you want to change it, you may want to reconsider the relationship. It sounds to me like you are not at that point, LW. So I would just accept this about him. You’re not his mother or his coach, you’re his partner.

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