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Sometimes I find myself on the receiving end of what I call "wittering," or for lack of a better term verbal diarrhea. This is essentially where someone will start talking at length, often without pause, about themselves and events that have happened in their life. Upon me trying to change the subject or re-direct the conversation, they usually steer it back to wittering about themselves.

I find this especially happens with older people, and more often with older women, who tend to repeat themselves both within the same conversation and across multiple conversations.

It usually happens more with people I don't know that well.

In these situations I usually tune out and make noises that I'm pretending to be interested, then I make up some excuse and exit when I can't take any more. I can't help but feel like this is a little rude of me (then again, it's a bit rude of them to assume I want to hear all about their life and events which I have no context for), so I was wondering if there's a "nicer" way to make my exit before twenty minutes pass while I have other things to do.

Ultimately I didn't ask about their current medical problems, or their life history, or their in-laws, and I really don't care or want to hear about it; I don't know why they assume that I do. Perhaps to my detriment in these cases is that I think I'm a pretty good listener, maybe they pick up on that and exploit it.

So what would be the most effective and most polite way to exit or change the subject of these conversations into something we can both enjoy?

Some clarification:

This usually happens either in social settings or at home. For example, I live in a house-share with an older couple, and one of them will often witter unprovoked whenever they see me. I'll be coming in after work or after buying groceries, saying hello etc., and then they'll dive straight into their chosen subject of the moment.

Me: "Hey, how are you" etc.

Them: "Fine. So, my mother in law..."

One thing I try is to basically cut in and say "Sorry, I've got to (do some task or go to some appointment)" and start moving away, but this person in particular tends to keep talking, even when I'm out of the room and moving away. No matter what I do they don't seem to get the message, and will take any opportunity to talk my ear off. It's got to a point where I just avoid them now if I can, which feels unpleasant and anti-social.

Another example that I can tolerate more is when people ramble about things which are in context. For example, I'm in a walking group, and often older people will witter to me about their walking escapades, but I can kind of understand that since they're talking about something relevant, even if they do go on too much and (I think) it's clear that I'm not interested.

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    In what context does that happen (bus, waiting room, professional context, ...) ? – Aserre Jan 21 at 10:28
  • Are these actual conversations that evolve into wittering, who initiates them,...? – AsheraH Jan 21 at 11:10
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    This just sounds like small talk. What is the goal you are trying to achieve? Avoiding these conversations completely? Being better at steering them into things you want to talk about? "Deal with" is vague. – Pyritie Jan 21 at 11:12
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    @Pyritie : according to OP's first paragraph, and it's phrasing (as I read it), I'd say that it sounds like more than just casual small talk. It's more like a continuous rant that's bothering OP. People seem to do more than talk, they complain and vent, I'd say... – OldPadawan Jan 21 at 14:44
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There are multiple reasons why people may behave this way, and recognising their motivation for "wittering" may be helpful in choosing an approach for dealing with it.

One reason a person may "witter", particularly in the style of your example whereby they quickly change the subject to themselves, is that they have conversational narcissism - "a desire to take over a conversation, to do most of the talking, and to turn the focus of the exchange to themselves". This isn't a welcome trait in anybody, and an approach which doesn't give them the attention they want may actually be a kindness that contributes to them correcting the behaviour. Another very different reason why someone may "witter" is that they lack social skills, which could include some persons with ASD. A person who talks too much simply because they don't know when to stop doesn't necessarily have any selfish intent for doing so, and really deserves a more gentle approach.

The article I linked to above on conversational narcissism does a great job of explaining how "normal" conversations work. A good listener not only allows a conversation starter to make their point, but supports it by asking questions along the way. Conversational narcissists don't support what you have to say - they use the opportunities instead to turn it around to something about themselves. However, such a person also desires that you be interested in what they have to say. They require you to show your interest by asking supporting questions, which act as fuel for them. You can quickly end conversations like these by subverting their expectations and either turning the conversation back to what you wanted to say, or by simply not showing interest and walking away.

For cases where you do care for the other person, or feel that the reason for them talking too much may be more benign and not motivated by a desire to dominate the conversation, this article on Psychology today has some great suggestions. Simply put, if a person doesn't have a desire to dominate the conversation then they won't mind if you interrupt them politely with something like "may I interrupt you", or "I think I get the point".

In the case of elderly people - a polite interruption may be "I'm sorry but I really must be going". The second article I linked to makes the point that "it’s really not damaging to tell someone who you’ve been listening to for more time than you have to spare". Older people tend to have more time than younger people, especially if they are retired. Most will understand that younger people have less time than they do, so a polite excuse based on lack of time should not be interpreted by them as being rude. Of course, on this site we only advocate approaches which tell the truth, so only say this if you really do have to be somewhere else.

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