A friend's husband is a really nice guy, a successful lawyer and someone I admire, but socially he has one bad habit I don't know how to handle. He will interrupt you in the middle of a story or conversation, tell his own anecdote, then show no interest in returning to what you'd been talking about. It can completely sidetrack conversations. I've tried joking about it, saying: "Well, guess I'll just give up on finishing what I was saying." He just laughs and doesn't seem to care. Also, his stories are almost always about himself, how important he is, and showcase him in the best light. I want to say something, but worry I'll hurt his feelings. Any ideas?
Your friend is what I call a "derailer."
A few years ago, I might have said "interrupter," but I now make a distinction between garden-variety interrupters and full-on conversation derailers.
It all started with me whining to my wife after a dinner party: "Sheesh, Pam, everyone was interrupting me all night. It's frustrating. I blame modern technology. We have the attention spans of toddlers now. Our so-called smartphones have turned us into …"
"Dave, get over yourself," she interrupted, glancing up from her phone. "Being interrupted is all part of the cut and thrust of social interaction. Just get used to it, and be glad you know such engaged and lively people."
That quieted me down for a while, until one day she was complaining to me about being interrupted.
Me: "I thought being interrupted was just 'part of the cut and thrust of social interaction.'"
Her: "It wasn't the interruption. It was that no one seemed interested in returning to what I was saying. Hurt my feelings."
That's when it hit me: The problem's not being interrupted. It's being interrupted by someone who shows no interest in later picking up the thread of what you were saying.
That person, I call a "derailer."
Since coming to this conclusion, I've noticed it happens a lot. My revenge fantasy: I win the lottery, buy several Lamborghinis, invite over some "derailers," then launch into an anecdote about how I bought a lottery ticket, had it in my pants pocket, brought the pants to the cleaners, but then the cleaners … When a derailer inevitably butts in and switches the conversation to something else, I drop the subject. The evening continues. Meanwhile, my butler is secretly parking the Lambos out front. As everyone's leaving, they spot them: "Wow, wonder who all those cars belong to?"
Me: "Oh, sorry that was gonna be the end of my story about the lottery ticket: I wound up winning and was going to give you each a car but changed my mind. Now I'm giving them to charity instead."
That'll show 'em.
The problem with derailers, especially if there's more than one in your midst, is the conversation flaps around the room like a trapped bat and never alights anywhere.
"So I was on the beach in Greece with my wife, feeling really guilty about getting my mistress pregnant, and was about to confess everything when the waiter brought over a plate of calamari …"
"I love calamari!"
"I can't eat calamari because of the gluten."
"Calamari has gluten?"
"Did you see that new book about the dangers of gluten? My trainer Frank says it's really good."
"Hey, my trainer's named Frank too! What gym do you go to?"
It can be boring and exhausting and what might've been an interesting discussion becomes a bunch of dialogue balloons popping out of people's solipsistic selfie-bubbles.
Conversation could and should be about so much more: debate, ideas, storytelling and, ideally, ultimately, enlightenment.
Aiming too high? I don't think so. Now, a friend of mine says her ultra-blunt husband will just make comments like: "Now you're finished your boring, self-serving anecdote, can we get back to the subject at hand?"
I don't think you have to be so harsh. In fact, I don't think you need to "say something" in the sense of taking this guy aside. Just, in the moment, continually and pointedly insist on your right and other people's rights to finish what they were originally saying.
Find a natural pause and say something like: "Can I just return to my story about how I handled my mistress's pregnancy?"
Or: "Seth, weren't you telling us earlier how you bought a house on eBay? Did you get to finish that?"
Play "conversation conductor" a bit, I suppose, waving an invisible baton. Also exhausting, true, but I hope your derailer friend will ultimately get the hint and, if he must interrupt, also have the courtesy to return to the subject under discussion beforehand.
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