There’s always one (or if you’re unlucky, several) at any gathering. If, like me, you meet lots of people in your work or social life, you’ll come across your fair share; and even if you’re fortunate enough to be out of earshot, you’ll recognise them by the glazed looks on the faces of their audience. Yes – I speak of the dreaded Monologists: people (possibly closet didgeridoo players) who have apparently mastered the art of talking and breathing at the same time and cannot, will not stop, no matter what the context or whether what they are saying holds any interest for the hapless soul they have cornered; people who have no idea that conversation should be a two-way process; people bereft of all social grace who, once in possession of a victim, will hang on to them as tenaciously as a bulldog with lockjaw.
My most recent encounter with the breed was mercifully brief, but I saw him in full flow later on, blind to his captive’s expression of utter helpless misery. I felt that guy’s pain. I knew if I had a shred of decency I would go and rescue him before, like a trapped animal, he chewed off his own foot in desperation… but I was too cravenly grateful that the beam of the Monologist’s attention was otherwise engaged, that his ghastly web of tedium was being spun around somebody else.
I blame good manners. Monologists get away with this behaviour secure in the knowledge (if they ever stopped to think about anyone else) that the vast majority of people are far too polite to say, ‘You are extremely boring and rude – please shut up and go away before you oblige me to kill you.’ When I meet them at lectures or re-enactment events I feel constrained by professional courtesy to give them attention, often at the expense of people I’d prefer talking to – the ones politely waiting to ask questions, engage in mutually rewarding dialogue or buy books, rather than subject me (and everyone else in the vicinity) to their endless self-obsessed rambling. They beard me as I’m trying to set up or pack away presentations, or even when a living history camp is being literally dismantled around their ears, blithely oblivious to the fact that actually, I’m rather busy and preoccupied.
But it happens socially, too. Once, when meeting a group at a friend’s house to discuss a community project, I made the mistake of asking a slight acquaintance how she was. And she told me, in minute and excruciating detail, all about her late husband’s last illness and fairly recent death. She told me as other people arrived only to receive the barest acknowledgement as she continued pinning me and our hostess down with this matter too painfully sensitive to be readily interrupted. She told me as the new arrivals tactfully left to give her space, and was still telling me when they returned some ten minutes later – having started, come hell or high water she was going to finish that story. Obviously, I felt for her – but I also felt for the others, who were plainly embarrassed by walking into some stranger’s personal stuff, irritated that the meeting they had come for showed no sign of getting under way, and frustrated because, like me, they felt powerless to make her stop.
Ultimately, it does no-one any favours. The polite majority get bored rigid because they don’t want to hurt the bore’s feelings, while the bores bore on… and on… and on without the faintest inkling of how they are being received. And they’d probably be horrified if they did know, because they’re not bad people, just clueless; maybe lonely; maybe inadequately schooled in the art of conversation. So I think lessons in social grace should be mandatory; and until they are, I’m going to invest in an animatronic nodding Helen-head which will make noises of polite interest, and let the Monologists talk at that while I get on with more interesting things. After all, they’ll never notice the difference.