Sean Moncrieff: Want intelligent conversation? Talk to You
Apparently, talking to yourself is not proof that you’re barking mad or lonely. That’s a relief
For me, talking to myself seems to have multiple functions. Illustration: Getty Images
Because we all have mobile phones and because most people have those Bluetooth headphone thingies, it’s possible to make phone calls without taking your hands out of your pockets. In the course of my day, I see it all the time. Yet still I find I have to remind myself that that is what’s happening: if you just arrived on the streets of an Irish town and didn’t know anything about electronic communications, you’d think that people routinely walk around while talking to themselves out loud.
The way I framed that previous paragraph implies that talking to yourself is odd or even dysfunctional. Yet it’s not. According to various studies, the overwhelming majority of people do it. I do it. Herself is always walking into rooms and catching me at it. I’m still making it sound seedy. But it’s not.
Self-talk also seems to come in various forms. Some are able to manage it while their face remains stony still. Some talk away, oblivious. Some whisper-shout. Some narrate their actions as they go about their day. Oh, me back. Must put the oven on. Why is there an owl in the sittingroom?
Some occasionally exclaim – as I just did when I was closing the Word document I write this column in and pressed Don’t Save. I won’t repeat what I said.
When I’m not verbally abusing myself, I mutter. I’m not making much sound, but my facial movement would imply that I’m having a full-blown conversation with someone else; and sometimes that’s what it feels like. Yet I’m not always aware that I’m doing it.
Daughter Number Four does it all the time; or, more precisely, she’s not that bothered who owns the ears that are listening to her. She’s a perpetual speaking machine
For me, talking to myself seems to have multiple functions. I can be bitterly rehashing an old argument (though this time, I win), or rehearsing one I haven’t had yet (which I will probably lose). I ask myself questions: why do I feel happy or fed-up today? Occasionally, I interrogate my own beliefs. I wonder out loud is it possible to reconcile the tension between collectivism and individuality in modern liberal democracies. I wonder do I really enjoy Call the Midwife. Or is it just because Herself likes it?
I never shut up.
I tend to consciously speak out loud when faced with some sort of DIY problem. If, say, I’m putting together an UPSNÖRDÅ Ikea coat-rack, I nag it into place. I ask myself a series of questions, and then wait for this other version of me to reply. I could just as easily carry out this internal monologue silently, yet speaking the words seems to have a clarifying effect.
Obviously, I googled this to ascertain just how barking mad I am. Apparently, I’m not. Apparently, it’s quite healthy – within reason. For kids it’s a crucial part of their development. Daughter Number Four does it all the time; or, more precisely, she’s not that bothered who owns the ears that are listening to her. She’s a perpetual speaking machine.
Yet talking to yourself – or being caught doing it – still has connotations of embarrassment. It could be that we associate it with severe mental illness, or find it threatening: certainly, if you see a stranger on the street yakking away to themselves, your spidey-sense would tingle. Or perhaps it has an implication of loneliness: if you’re reduced to taking to yourself, it’s because you don’t have anyone else.
Yet in many respects, your own self is the best person to talk to. There’s no danger that you won’t listen, or that you’ll interrupt. You’ll always understand exactly what you are saying. Want intelligent conversation? Talk to You.
And the more I think about it, I’m struck by how much of my time I spend doing it. Apart from what I’ve described here, my day job consists of me sitting alone in a radio studio, talking to people I can’t see. When I write this column, I will routinely read bits of it out loud. See? I’m talking to myself right now.