People often marvel at how quiet I am. They tell me to lighten up, or that I take myself too seriously, or that I need to talk more. My responses vary depending on who I'm talking to, but range from a grunt ("Huh, yeah") to a cutting quip ("That's just because I communicate so efficiently I only have to say ten percent of the words you do") to a rhetoric piece citing university studies and Scripture, with a couple of quotable quotes thrown in ("Researchers have shown that many talkative people are only talkative for one of two reasons: vanity or insecurity. I suffer from neither. The Bible says, 'Even a fool, when he keeps silent, is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is considered prudent.' Mark Twain summed it up nicely: 'It is far better to remain silent and appear a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.'")
Truth be told, though, I wonder sometimes, too. I think for the past year or so, it has been a function of my job. I'm getting a bit more adept at it now, but for months I've worked on the art (which is more of a laborious chore for me) of making small talk with people. I mean, I don't have to make small talk, but people generally get a little antsy when a police officer stands there and stares at them for minutes on end, so I make a go of it.
And so, I find something to talk about. If I'm scrutinizing them, it might be about how much they've had to drink. If I'm just getting information, it might be about...well, anything I can manage, to be honest. And so for ten hours a day, four days a week, I struggle to manufacture pointless conversation to keep people somewhat relaxed. The problem doesn't lie there anymore...the problem is going home.
You see, after all of this pointless chatter, I'm done. Sometimes I feel like I'm one of those airheaded girls in the mall on her cellphone, bobbing her head side to side as she gnaws on gum and injects her stream of inane blather with random occurrences of 'like,' 'totally,' and 'ohmigod':
"I was, like, down at the gas station yesterday *chew chew*, and, like, ohmigod, this guy totally butted in front of me in line! *chew* And I was like, 'Uh, like, excuse me!' And then the guy made some, like, lame excuse about his wife being in labor, or something stupid like that, and totally, like, ohmigod, blew me off!"
Because there are some things I say so often that I just go into macro mode. I initiate the sequence and words just start spilling out. There's the shoplifter sequence:
"Okay, I need to get your side of the story, but before I do that, I need to read your rights to you. This doesn't mean you're under arrest right now, I just need to advise you of your rights when you're talking to me, so listen carefully..."
The aw-shucks-gotta-give-you-a-ticket sequence:
"Okay sir/ma'am, there's your paperwork back; unfortunately, I am going to have to cite you for _________. There's more information on this envelope. You also ___________, but I'm just going to give you a warning on that this evening. I do need some information from you..."
And the accident sequence:
"Okay, here's your license and insurance back. This is the case number I'll be writing the accident report under; it'll be available in three to five days on the city's website, listed here at the bottom of the slip. If you go there, you'll see a pane on the left with an option to view accident reports...just click on that, enter your report number, and you'll be able to see a full copy of the accident report - everything I know will be on that report. Basically, though, if you just give this report number to your insurance agent, they can take care of everything behind the scenes...it's pretty hands off for you. Do you have any questions for me?"
So when I go home, not only do I not want to talk, I don't even want to listen. All night long I listen, to excuses through drivers' windows, to whiny teenagers in loss prevention offices, to a constant stream of radio traffic. I just want a nice, sensory free environment, where I'm free to listen to ambient noises like distant trains and computer fans and the slight whistle my nostrils make when I breathe.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the opposite of what Kimberly wants. While I'm at work gathering reasons why I do not want to talk or listen, she is at school gathering reasons to speak and be heard. She gathers observations and wants to share them with me; I gather observations and wish I didn't even know them. So, as you can imagine, more often that not this dynamic makes for a delicious little conversational impasse.
Beyond the job, though, I've just got a threshold thing. If I say something, more often than not I've already said it two or three times in my head, carefully parsing exactly what words I want to use. This is why I'm awful at comebacks - I always craft an impossibly witty response, but it's invariably about ninety seconds after you said your piece, by which time the moment has almost always passed. Everything's got to be a magnum opus with me.
Maybe deep down, though, it's just a defensive thing. Words are always clues - they're insights into someone's makeup, no matter how seemingly insignificant. The words I use and the way I say them give you information about how I tick. I guess in some microscopic way, that gives you power over me, and I resent it. I also know that you can't unspeak a word. There are a lot I wish I could wring out of the air. The written word is inherently destructible - paper is flammable and bytes are corruptible. If I decide I don't want you to see the very words you're reading in a week's time, you won't, and I can deny they ever existed. And while it's true that nothing published to the Internet is ever truly deleted, I can definitely make retrieval beyond your means.
So why do I talk so little? Probably because most people talk so much. I prefer to think. Few people think too much. It gives you a calm sense of focus. If everyone in a situation is talking, the cacophony is logic-blinding. If everyone is thinking, things begin to sharpen in resolution. I am out talking to people a great deal, but between dealings I have a respite in my patrol car. Even in stressful situations, I can still function because nobody is breathing demands in my ear. (This is probably why I so often tanked so hard in Field Training.)
I simply begin to assimilate data. 'I should turn my lights and sirens on. Check for traffic. I am going 130 miles per hour. The ice cream shop is open. The suspension is beginning to float. I wonder what would happen if I hit a raccoon at this speed. Check for traffic. A blowout would be really unfortunate here. That car has one headlight dimmer than the other. Hit the airhorn at the intersection. Check for traffic. Why does this person think they should stop right in front of me when I'm running code? There are three officers on scene now. Primrose turns into Westview west of Campbell. License plate begins with ADZ. Check for traffic.'
Struggle that it is, though, I still need to work on it. Kimberly deserves an ear and a shoulder, and my friends deserve more than silent ruminating and nods in passing. Silence is ultimately the cloak that veils everything about me except what I want you to see - the identity that I have so very carefully crafted. It's an extremely heavy garment at times, but it's comfortable, and it's what I've always worn.
Marvel if you like. But no matter how much you talk, you're wearing one, too.