DEAR CAROLYN: Over the years I have noticed few people in my social circle listen. They talk over each other, interrupt, even look away seconds after asking a question. And they do this to everyone, not just me. It's maddening. I don't deserve special attention, but if someone asks a question I expect a few seconds to answer. These same non-listeners, by contrast, will happily monologue for several minutes about their recent knee surgery, their new golf clubs or the staggering talent their daughter has for riding horses. My wife is an enthusiastic extrovert, and though she sees the bad listeners around us, she rarely gets disillusioned, telling me my expectations are too high and, "It's just socializing. Go with it." She also labels me an introvert, and while this is likely true, I also thoroughly enjoy a thoughtful conversation, one where people offer interesting ideas and listen as often as they talk. These conversations are increasingly rare. I've chalked it up to the self-absorption that creeps into people as they age, coupled with modern content overload that has mutilated our attention spans. But it's still deeply unpleasant. I've tried coping mechanisms: I abandon expectations. I listen carefully — more than I speak. I limit the stories I tell and answer questions concisely. When all else fails, I decline the invitation and settle down with a good book. Am I having a midlife crisis? Have I become a misanthrope? Do I need new friends? I suspect I come across as rigid and judgmental. But I enjoy good company and long for the days when people delighted in listening to a story as much as telling five. Please show me the way to socialize happily with bad listeners.
Lost in the Din
LOST IN THE DIN: I was going to recommend misanthropy and a book, but you beat me to it.
I doubt there's any "way" to make these bad listeners any more interesting or satisfying company. You are who you are, for one thing. And, you've tried most of the coping tactics available to you. The only one I'd add is to reframe your reasons for seeing these people. Rather than "enjoy myself," try something a little longer-range, like, "to keep my marriage happy," or, "to increase the likelihood of casseroles during rough patches," or, "to keep me from talking to squirrels." Eyes-on-the-horizon-range. (Plus books.)
But you do have options under the "new friends" banner. Just-social friends, over time, can grow numb to each other's day-to-day. You can like each other immensely and care about each other and still not have much new earth left to turn over. So that points to friends through common interests — ideally where you work collectively toward a tangible outcome, since that often forces verbal exchanges, which in turn discourage the dread sequential monologuing of "catching up."
What might this mythic conversation-juicing shared outcome be? Not for me to say. With a range wide enough to reach from causes to community theater to joining or coaching teams to chairing local events to cultivating obscure intellectual interests, there's no place for outsiders in this decision. And you'll face pandemic limitations, and probably more new bores than gems. But to my ear, you sound ready to do something interesting — whether anyone lets you tell them about it or not.