The articulate monkey dilemma

The articulate monkey dilemma

One of the compliments I often get is that I am ‘articulate’. It makes me laugh every time, the idea is so absurd to me. I’m not blind to my own strengths, but I don’t believe that being articulate is one of them. At least–not most of the time.

There are two situations in which I can be articulate. One is here, in writing. Writing gives me the ability to slow down, put the words out there in the order I want to present them. Ensure that nothing has been missed (and to go back and review, making sure nothing has been left out!).

There’s no ‘negotiated communication’ in writing, where what I want to say alters by the response of my audience. When I’m speaking, I’ll often gloss over things or even stop talking at all if I think the person I’m talking to isn’t interested. I’ll make heavier subjects lighter, pick and choose the parts I think people want to hear based on how they react.

True, people will read into this whatever they want to–but the actual message doesn’t change. Once written, I lose control over it. I no longer get to curb and polish on the fly, either people will read or they won’t. Either they will understand what I see, or see something else entirely.

The other situation is in ‘rehearsed’ or ‘performed’ speaking. Best example is always in class presentations or job interviews, which I do very well in. Odd, isn’t it? For someone who feels anxious and uncomfortable in social situations, I am bloody good at public speaking. I get nervous, but once I’m up there and get going, it’s a whole new me. A confident, expressive, informative and articulate me.

But that’s not me so much as it’s the result of so much rehearsal. Hours upon hours meditating on what to say, what order to say it, what words to use. How slow to speak, when to speed up, how to accentuate my points with gestures and facial expressions. Sometimes I’ll have a proper script, sometimes I’ll rehearse it out loud… but the majority of it is internal.

When I’m watching TV… rehearsing.

Listening to music… rehearsing.

At work… rehearsing.

Any moment where my brain isn’t completely consumed by another task at hand, I am rehearsing.

Sounds exhausting–and it is. Fortunate though, right, that those sorts of presentations are far and few between? Yes, but they’re only the obvious examples.

Need to talk to a friend about a complex and potentially hurtful matter? Oh, I definitely need to rehearse that. There’s no way I’m walking into that situation before I’ve thought out how the conversation might go (and its hundred variants), played them through my mind and assessed the merits of each approach.

Going somewhere that involves being around someone I don’t know well, or have that much in common with? I’ll make an arse of myself if I don’t rehearse. I also research. Facebook is a great way to covertly follow different topics and easily find tidbits of information that can be then worked into conversation. That’s how I do it. That’s how I keep up.

Putting in an order at McDonalds? Better rehearse while I’m waiting in line. Don’t forget to clearly express ‘no cheese’, somehow that always gets missed. And add ‘coke for the drink’ so they don’t have to ask. Oh and make sure you say ‘large meal’, that way they’ll have all the information they need and we won’t have to fluff around getting my order straight.

It literally applies to all conversations. Even conversations among the most trusted people in my world, especially group conversations, I am often largely silent. And then I will speak up, hoping to say my piece before the topic changes. By the time I speak, I’ll have rehearsed that one phrase 6-8 times in my head, questioning whether I should say it.

You should see how often I have to discard well-prepared statements because the conversation changed or (another issue I seem to have a lot) I wasn’t sure how to break in to speak. Or, I start speaking, and… realise no one cares and stop. I often try to break in to conversations at the wrong time, end up talking over people and backing off. The more people involved, the more complex it all gets and the more likely I am just to sit and listen.

Obviously, I should just stop rehearsing and learn to be ‘me’. Talk on-the-fly, don’t get so anxious about what you’re going to say that the chance to say it passes! I’m only hurting myself by holding back my contributions, right?

I really don’t know. My rehearsed, thought-out responses are at least that: thought-out. Like my writing, they are more capable of saying what I intend than any attempt to speak without script or rehearsal. Working in customer service, the communication exchange for that role was so repetitive that you could have replaced me with a robot and nothing would change. It was a script I could recite even on days where I felt completely empty.

Once I’m outside the scripts and the rehearsal, I’m lost. This is why I laugh when people call me ‘articulate’, even though almost all they get to see is actually quite articulate. They don’t see my inner debate on how to speak with someone, they don’t watch the sentences fall together until I like them enough to give them breath. They don’t feel my frustration in knowing I should have something to say, but not having anything available.

So what does happen when I’m unscripted? There’s a couple of reasons it can happen.

One, I’m in an extremely good mood and I’m with someone I trust. I get extremely chatty when I’m happy, and I desperately want to talk to people about everything that I think is wonderful or interesting. I still edit myself if I think what I’m saying isn’t going well, which usually means shutting up about whatever I’m rambling about and asking more about something the other person wants to talk about (I’m aware that not many people really want to hear about my fascinations… it bores them.)

Two, I’m drunk in a good way. When I’m drunk and happy, it’s much like me being happy only I won’t stop and spare you the details of whatever I’m ranting or raving about. In both cases, I often talk fast and I can jumble my words in the excitement to get them out. I want to tell you absolutely everything I can before I start censoring myself again. This is probably the purest form of me. Annoying… but I don’t give a shit. You can sit and listen to me.

Three, I’m overwhelmed.

If I’m overwhelmed, you’ll be lucky to get anything at all. In computer terms, all of my RAM is taken up trying to process what is going on around me and I literally don’t have the capacity to formulate an output. I’m basically that spinning wheel cursor, trying my hardest internally to get something happening–but it doesn’t. Sometimes that just means that I stay silent until I’ve worked through enough to bring other systems ‘online’ again. Note that I also struggle with carrying out other actions while overwhelmed, like… lifting a hand, or removing myself from a situation.

Not all situations give me the time and space to process and then speak. That’s where it can get ugly. Often I want to have a response, but don’t. Sometimes I am supposed to have a response, but I don’t have anything rehearsed and ready. It’s like the whole English language has vacated my brain and I’ve lost the ability to string coherent sentences together. The more pressing the situation, the harder it is to recover. I’d be a terrible journalist under pressure.

This isn’t one of those situations where if I just ‘try harder’ the words will come, or where I’m being silent out of guilt, or to aggravate another person. I literally, completely and absolutely, cannot speak. I can’t underline that enough. I don’t have access to the words to respond.

Occasionally I will manage a small nod and a ‘yep’/’nope’–this is the closest I have to a ‘script’. This is the closest I have to a rule for dealing with these situations. This is the only speech that I know is ‘acceptable’ in the situation. The only reason I can do that much is to make the conversation end. Placating the other person until I can retreat and process, and think up all the things I should have said.

That feeling when you think up a great comeback days too late? Me. All the time. Every conversation ever.

The last reason is that I want to break out of rehearsed conversation, or I feel a need to. No, I don’t like that almost every word out of my mouth is reviewed and edited and examined (before and after saying it). Sometimes I want to speak in situations I’m not ‘prepared’ for, or have what feels like ‘honest’ communication with someone. It’s almost always a train wreck.

Unless I’ve considered how a statement might play out among people, it usually gets taken the wrong way. People assume I’m talking about something else, have an opinion outside of the one I’m trying to communicate, or otherwise hear something that I don’t intend to be saying.

The words can come out jumbled, awkward, I have to stop and rephrase. I confuse things and definitely don’t say what I’m trying to say. There’s nothing articulate about it. A thousand monkeys on a thousand keyboards probably scripted what I have to say. It’s not that I’m speaking without thinking, but I’m not thinking enough. Like running a spell checker over a document and not seeing red lines, assuming it’s all good to go–where normally I’ll go through each line and painstakingly draw out all the grammatical errors. The words used wrong. Put things in a better order.

It’s usually closer to what I mean to say (at least, I think it is), but rehearsing and scripting takes time. ‘Casual’ conversation is work. It takes a level of attention and processing power that is above and beyond other casual activities… like watching TV. And even then, I still often don’t get out what I want to–because I’m editing the words as they come out of my mouth.

Friends who let me babble on about whatever has sparked me when I’m chatty–thank you. Thank you for letting me ramble your ear off in my fast and tangential way. Even if you zoned out partway through, or weren’t listening at all–still thank you. It actually means a lot for me to feel I don’t have to shut down the conversation because you’re not interested.

On the other hand, if you’ve noticed that I do turn topics away from something that clearly interests me, and you don’t feel bored or bothered by it–tell me. I absolutely suck at taking hints and reading situations, and I’m constantly looking for signs that I’m making people annoyed or uncomfortable. Good old me interprets the benign as a reason to stop, and manages to completely ignore actual cues to give up.

I love talking about the things I love, though. I really want to share them with people, and show the people I love the things that are fascinating to me.

Sometimes I worry that the excessive rehearsal and consideration I give to my words also results in them being void of emotion. I’ve been accused several times throughout my life of ‘indifference’, and I’ve never been sure why. I’m pretty much all-or-nothing. I throw myself at things until they break me, I take so much pride in the work that I do that when it’s criticised.. yes, I feel personally hurt. I know that rationally I’m going to make errors and they’re not the end of the world, but my work is an extension of me.

I don’t feel differently of things because they’re less important. My parents once remarked that I used to make ‘shitty coffee’ as a means of getting out of being asked to make them–they thought the story was an amusing anecdote about a spiteful child. Thing is, I took great pride in the coffees I made even if I didn’t want to make them.

What I think happened was there was a phase where I would pour the hot water into the cup with just the instant coffee and sugar in there, and then add milk. This was because if you added the milk first, not all of the coffee dissolved and there were ugly brown spots floating on top. It didn’t look like good coffee, and the way to fix that was do the hot water first.

Nevertheless, I didn’t find out about my ‘shitty coffee’ making until I was an adult. Which sparked, as comments like that always do, a full analysis of how it could have been understood that the reason was I don’t care. Why does this reason keep coming up? Most of all, how do I fix it? Short of pointing to the subject and directly stating ‘I care very much about this’, how do I communicate that everything I do I consider to be a part of myself and my stamp on this world?

Questions about my sincerity and other emotional states have been raised over time, too. It’s kind of a shock to realise that something you believed you were expressing has become so warped in transmission that people aren’t sure if you mean it. I blame a poker face built on years of not letting bullies see me cry. Add that to the fact that I am oblivious to most social cues, and I guess what you see from the outside is a cold hard bitch (yes, I’ve been called that too).

Speaking of social cues… did you know that when someone comments on something you’re cooking (like, ‘Oh wow! That smells amazing!’) that you’re supposed to offer some? I actually just learned this from a book. Is this really a thing? Have I been offending people by not offering what I’m making? Worse, have I been sending my housemates the message that I want their food when I compliment how wonderful the house smells at dinner? It does smell nice! They’re amazing cooks!

The whole thing leaves me feeling very confused and a little isolated. I’ve always known I’m socially awkward, but I’m only more recently becoming aware of this huge disconnect between what I think I’m saying–and what’s being heard. I’ve even had relationships end over it, because he thought I didn’t care and wasn’t invested while I could not think about anything else but the next time we would see each other.

I like communication that is direct and concrete when it comes to feelings and plans. I love debates that are abstract and philosophical, but when it comes to information that I need to rely on, I hate having to second-guess what someone meant. I hate the idea that people second-guess me because I’m not making whatever signals I should be making.

Ask me. If you feel my behaviour is out of place with what I should be displaying, ask me. I’d rather have a five minute conversation that is mildly awkward than a prolonged period of someone being upset or confused by me and having no idea why. I can’t see myself from the outside, either, so I think so long as no one comments that I’m doing things right.

Apparently I’m not. When people ask, it gives me the opportunity to reflect on what I did, said, and how it was received. That’s information I can store away for future reference and correct myself going forward.

And if it so happens that asking me leads to me being unable to speak, don’t freak out. Say what you need to say, accept that I can’t respond in that moment. I’m listening and I’m hearing you, and I’m probably frustrated to tears because not being able to get words out is its own kind of torture. The more rational and direct you are, the better I can process things. State the situation as you see it, and give me some space to process.

I’ll get back to you with answers a when I have them.