Me Talk Pretty One Day

This morning, I listened to a TED talk in which movie critic Roger Ebert talked about losing his ability to speak (and part of his jaw) to thyroid cancer, and the journey that he’d gone through to find a computer voice that felt natural. He started his talk speaking with “Alex,” his favorite computer voice, but then had his wife and friends read the rest of his speech, fearing that the computer voice would be too monotonous for the audience.

Ebert’s journey to find a natural computer voice continues, but he says that he enjoys writing because it allows him to not feel different from how he felt before. In person, people sometimes misread his disfigured jaw and assume he has “lost his marbles.” In print, people treat him exactly as they always did.

For years, I have wanted to try a couple of social experiments (or maybe they’re performance art pieces – the line gets blurry sometimes) in which I don’t speak for a week. Do you do what voice patients do and wear a little pin explaining your silence, or do you just not speak and see if people notice or act weird? What if you allowed yourself to talk, but only allowed yourself to ask questions? How would that affect the quality of the conversation? Would people notice, or would they just think you were super curious? Super caring? Super nosy? Or would you just end up in some kind of Who’s On First style comedy routine?

“Why do you keep answering questions with questions?”
“What do you mean? Am I doing that?”

This also reminded me of a recent conversation in which I implored someone to speak to me via email or IM rather than by phone. This was due in part to his being a couple thousand miles away and seemingly unable to find a decent phone connection, but it was more about my willingness to type. I hate the phone. Verbal conversation is awkward enough, but the phone means having to do that dance without the 70% of conversation that is non-verbal, to say nothing of crappy phone connections, sound delay across states, and the fact that cell phones now do everything except sound good. It’s 2012: by now, my mom should sound like she’s speaking into a Shure SM57 instead of a soup can.

I am always a bit blown away by other people’s ability to converse in person. Someone asks them a question and they just ANSWER, making it seem like they had the words already on deck. People compliment them and they say “thank you” and then return the compliment. People return from vacation, and they know what questions to ask. Did you see the fireworks at Disney? How was the weather when you were there? I could ask questions all day, but I’m too busy screening all of them, trying not to be too nosy (“Did you check the hotel bed for bed bugs?”) or to accidentally say something rude. Somebody compliments me and I say “thank you,” but I always forget to return the compliment. Or I feel like the compliment would immediately seem totally insincere, like I’m only giving it because one was just given to me. Or (most often), I’m so surprised to be jolted out of my own head while I’m standing in the elevator or walking through the grocery store that I just say “thank you” and get the hell out of there. I’m just standing there, probably on some other planet where I’m working out a work problem or figuring out what I can make with the random assortment of foods in my fridge and BOOM, someone’s talking to me and I’m expected to not go “augh!” as though the person has just leaped out from behind a pillar wearing a werewolf mask.

And god help anybody who asks me a question. My answer always spirals off into left field and, once I realize I’ve gone off-course, I pause and just ask whether I answered the question. This goes over particularly well in job interviews. I end up sounding like a crazy person who speaks English as a third language, right behind Esperanto and dolphin. (This is the part where you should be picturing Daryl Hannah shattering 100 TV screens as she shrieks her mermaid name at Tom Hanks. “Eeeee! Eeeee!”)

This is especially frustrating when I think of how well I could have handled any given situation if it had occurred via email. In email, no one interrupts you, so you don’t feel rushed to hurry and answer before you get interrupted. In email, you get your whole point across and no one jumps to the conclusion to which they thought you were getting.

I don’t know why it happens. It’s just like verbal conversation moves too fast for me. I’ll make a face to try to think of the right word, and the other person sees me and assumes I’m upset. If I typed it, it would read something like “I’m not sure I agree with your point there because I question whether that study was really done in a fair and scientific way.” In person: “I think you’re wrong cause that study was dumb.” I have considered whether this is a sign that I have a very small but specific kind of autism or whether my brain just goes into overload easier than most.

If I had all the time and money in the world, I’d get EEGs done of my brain while talking and my brain while writing. I would do this with lots of people and come up with some conclusion to explain what’s going on in there. Surely, someone has already done this, but my Googling turned up nothing but results about people driving while talking on cell phones.

No word on whether those distracted drivers felt like their mom was talking into a soup can.