Keep it Quiet: Silencing a Chatty Carpool Colleague

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Hi Al,

A woman and I carpool to work because we live near each other and work in the same office building. It’s convenient and economical, but I’m trying to get out of doing it because it’s so exhausting for me. For the nearly two hours of the round-trip commute, she talks almost constantly, which is about an hour and 55 minutes too much for me. Even though I wouldn’t exactly call myself an introvert, I don’t talk unless I have something that I need to say and a reason for saying it. My carpool partner seems to be the kind of person who just needs to fill up the void with chatter. She talks about people and events that I know nothing about and, frankly, don’t care about. It’s not that I don’t like her, it’s just that I don’t really know her and don’t want to hear what she has to say beyond, “How are ya?” How do I handle this without hurting her feelings and/or looking like a snob?

Wants a Quiet-Time Commute

Dear Wants:

What we have here is a failure to communicate “let’s not communicate.”

Normally I advocate being direct and honest with people unless that assertiveness would very likely create hurt and hard feelings. In your situation, because the person with whom you commute is not a friend and barely an acquaintance, you don’t have enough information about her to know how she would react to the request, “Would you mind if we didn’t talk?”  From what you have said, however, I suspect you believe that she would be offended, and she probably would.

If you and she knew each other well, you would be able to let her know without hurting her feelings that you enjoyed the quiet on the commute in.  In fact, if you were friends, you probably wouldn’t have to bring it up because the two of you would share the belief that the opportunity to talk doesn’t always have to turn into the reality of talking.

What the two of you have is a mismatch in expectations.  Because you and she are in the highly atypical position of being able to converse for almost two hours a day, your co-commuter feels that this is time that should be spent chatting away.  Most of us, in fact a large majority, I bet, don’t have nearly that much available time to socialize with even our closest friends.  Yet, here you are having all this time with someone you hardly know. You see the commute as a time to collect your thoughts for the imminent workday or as a time to let your thoughts bounce off the dashboard and the roof of the car.  For her it’s more like catching up with her BFF (I’m assuming you are female because if you were a man, I doubt I’d be hearing from you about this).

Given how little you two have in common, the best way to approach a delicate subject is to minimize the personal nature of it and to keep it short.  Instead of saying, “I don’t want to talk to you,” you say, “I have to listen to these transcriptions of [business-related material],” and pull out your headphones.  In this way you aren’t even mentioning her when you explain not being able to talk to her, you make it work related, and you leave no rational response other than, “Oh, ok.”

It’s indistinguishable from a foolproof method I’ve seen work for my own children, nieces and nephews, high school and college students, as well as my hard-of-hearing grandmother when my father made her promise that she wouldn’t drive the car unless he was with her. Stuff in in those earbuds, point to them as you shrug your shoulders, and tune out anything you don’t want to hear!

Got questions about life? Love? Parenting? Work? Write to Whit’s End, an advice column by local husband, father, teacher, coach, former executive and former Marine Corps officer Al Whitaker.  Send your questions to [email protected]

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  1. You could also try playing podcasts on your drive. I really like one called Freakonomics… it’s available on iTunes for free. Really insightful lectures and this would eliminate her need to talk, especially about stuff you don’t care about. I’ve used this on road trips with friends and it works well — it even inspires actual insightful conversation. Good luck!

  2. Like this even better because “it even inspires actual insightful conversation.” As the novelist EM Forster has one of his characters say, ‘only connect!”Thanks, keeping reading and writing.

  3. So, re: your comment implying that only women are concerned about problems with communication: The stereotype is that a guy in this situation would just say something to the chatterer along the lines of “hey, would you just shut up for chrissake?” In real life though we have been given so many messages not to act like a Neanderthal that just about nobody would actually do that anymore. By implying that real men don’t ask questions like this, aren’t you chilling the willingness of guys like me to admit we could use some consciousness-raising?

    • Good point, Not. My point was that a man would probably be more direct (not rude) and not worry about it as much as a woman. You’re right about the stereotype but wrong about the wording; he’d most likely say, “Would you mind if we didn’t talk?” and then leave it at that.

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