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Ingrid Gabriel: Mindful Prattle (#12 – Boomer Gone Wild Series)

  • Written by Ingrid Gabriel

Please ponder the following question…do we still have to listen attentively to old people now that we are old people?  What are the cultural expectations when you, a Boomer, are cornered by another Boomer of a near age and any of the means of escape are impractical.  Like, jumping into the ocean off a ferry car deck is likely to have some downsides.  But is death by freezing water worse than having a senior stranger share the minute details of how he replaced the flatbed engine in his Dodge Ram with a Chrysler Hemi?

Just so you know, hemi engines are a series of American V8 gasoline engines introduced by Chrysler in 1951 featuring overhead valve hemispherical combustion chambers. The hemi surface is smaller than a flatbed, so less heat escapes during combustion creating hotter and better burning fuel.

I did not request to learn these hemi facts from a stranger over a 1.5-hour ferry ride.  Also, it is highly unlikely that the information will come in handy at a future date given that if ever I should want to replace the flatbed engine with a hemi in the Ram 1500 that I do not own, I would be doing the work myself.

I don’t know if the guy was trying to enthrall me with his engine smarts, or, alternatively, drive me over the passenger deck railing just to escape hearing about hemi torque output (425 bhp).  He was a Boomer, and I did not  know how to communicate to a co-Boomer that I had previous plans to retreat to my Kindle during the journey homeward, so please wrap it up.

Even at my age, I feel obligated to freeze in place, affect a respectfully alert expression and pretend to appreciate the accumulated worldly wisdom of another Boomer whenever they decide to hold forth (as if wisdom is, somehow, linked to longevity).

And I know this is not my problem alone.  Recently, I was trapped in a store by a Boomer who wanted to share with me his accumulated knowledge on the German Luftwaffe, followed by an exegesis on Sumeria.  That took about 45 minutes and although I really had to pee, I did not even try to escape.  Last weekend, I saw the same Boomer again, and this time he was rendering a younger listener immobile while he gave a full account of the Battle of Gettysburg.  I hurried on, glad to have avoided his pontificating grasp. When I circled back down the same aisle, he was full throttle into his interpretation of Revelations.  His listener stood with a glazed expression and seemed to tilt to one side, like you do when you are standing with locked knees and are about to lose consciousness.

Another Boomer I run across regularly introduces himself each time with a narrative about a head injury he suffered and how the accident was a revelation that lead him to start a podcast, or a web page, or a company or a video blog … not sure, by this time, I am inching toward the nearest exit … and I need to check him out online so I can read more about him.  

If you are reading this and are saying to yourself, “Perhaps these Boomers are just lonely.  Or perhaps they are struggling with cognitive issues.” To that, I say, I am a Boomer as well and perhaps I have fewer hours of my life left to untangle the underlying reasons why some Prattle Prone members of my own generation seem clueless about the conventions of conversational etiquette.  And, besides, if you can reel off the minute details of internal combustion or WWII air warfare, you are not in cognitive decline.  You read and have interests, and you drove to wherever we intersected, geographically speaking.  You remember disco and rotary wall phones and when there was only one kind of Coke.  Your marbles are still in your marble bag.

But let’s unbox the other possibility…that you would like to talk to someone. Chin wagging with another human is a near-universal need.  We don’t make lunch plans with friends or golf dates with buddies just to eat or improve our swing.  We are a social species, and we affirm our participation and status in our tribe by communicating. It feels good to hear ourselves talk and have someone on the other end listen, hopefully, with interest.

When we prattle well, and engage our listener, it doesn’t really matter what we are trying to convey.  We can complain, gossip, commiserate, reminisce, reveal, obfuscate, philosophize, preach, share, orate, declaim, praise, character assassinate, enthuse, lambast, advocate, exaggerate, opine, and boast.  But if we monopolize and talk on without any regard to our listener’s engagement, we are likely to have fewer opportunities to share our thoughts on anything at all. 

As we silver-tops merge over into the slower lane of life and the world increasingly accelerates around us, it behooves all of us who are being stalked by AARP to remember the Prime Directive of conversation: don’t bogart the convo.  This overarching rule is true for members of any generation, of course.  But when a Boomer ignores it or loses touch with the requisite social dance steps, exclusion is nearly inevitable.  

Younger people are quick and can hide very effectively behind all kinds of gadget wizardry to avoid you.  Worse, perhaps, is watching a listener arrange a fixed patient expression as you offer a thorough run-down of the supplements you are taking and provide an update on your growing intolerance of dairy products. We are not as socially agile as we once were and our chatter is not as glib (or, necessarily even current). Now is not a good time to become boring.

So, how do you know if you, yourself, are a prattler?  Well, like so many things we enjoy in life, the pleasure hormone dopamine cascades through our system as we natter full throttle.  It feels nice to have someone listen to us, particularly as we age and may feel less relevant, and we want them to listen longer.  Presumably, if we are talking to friends or loved ones who have a deep interest in what we have to say, we can hold forth.  But if we prattle for more than even 20 seconds (I know…I haven’t even warmed up at 20 seconds) without checking on our listener’s engagement, we may already be in a conversational danger zone.  

Thus, even if you are tightly clutching the talking stick and find the sound of your own voice enthralling, you are obliged to at least offer to pass the stick over in under a minute.  Likely, we want people to enjoy talking to us and we hope that they will look forward to running into us again.  But, we have all found ourselves staring long and hard at the ketchup options in the grocery store condiment aisle when we know a known prattler is on the prowl and we are hoping said prattler won’t notice us (which is why I always where condiment-colored clothing when I go to the grocery store – I want to blend into my background like an octopus or a chameleon).  

We, rightfully, feel a bit exploited when a prattler sucks up our time and attention without showing any appreciable interest in us, our thoughts or our well-being.  Mindful Prattle should be a goal for every Boomer.

But back to the original question…do you still have to listen respectfully to seniors once you reach Early Bird Special status yourself.   Well, I have always accepted that insincerity is the cornerstone of good manners.  (Why else do we attend going away parties for people we can’t stand and pretend we will miss them?) I once saw an impatient senior just turn on her heel without an excuse and veer off, leaving the prattler disoriented in mid-prattle.  I empathized, but I winced.  There should be a more gracious way of disengaging from a one-sided conversation. 

So, let’s say you are pinned in place by someone running on about their micro-interests, opinions, or complaints.  I find that interrupting the prattler’s continuous flow acts as a reset, forcing them to a halt, even briefly.  For example,  “Pardon me for interrupting – I am so sorry that I have to hurry off.  But it’s been an interesting chat since I share your interest in engines/lost civilizations/head injuries/Nazis.  I’m sure we’ll run into each other again.” (Inevitable.) 

Alternatively, declaring an urgent need for a potty break is a reliable segue.   What Boomer doesn’t need to pee urgently at all times?  (Also, just saying “potty break” is pretty off-putting, even for a prattler.)

These aren’t perfect tactics, and a committed prattler may not even take a pause (or just follow you).   But, having excused yourself and signaled your imminent retreat, you have done your best to exit stage right.  

And if nothing seems to discourage the prattler that’s holding you hostage, come join me in the condiment aisle.  We can stay very still and stare at the ketchup together.

Ingrid arrived from Texas 20 years ago with her 6-year-old daughter.  In addition to writing, she has many non-marketable skills and degrees.  She was also voted "Most Likely to Choose a Book Everyone Else Hates" by her book club.  Ingrid's tramp stamp tattoo is a quote from Jimmy Buffet:  If we couldn't laugh, we would all go insane.

Ingrid can be contacted at ingachai59@gmail.com


Copyright Ingrid Gabriel, February 6, 2024