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In Praise of Shutting Up When You Have Nothing to Say

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This post is a contradiction in terms. If my intent is to inspire fewer unnecessary words, why wouldn't I start here? That's a good point. I hope! But I also hope you can relate to what most of us are subjected to every day, all day long. The endless -- and often loud -- cell phone conversations that make you wonder why the cell phone was invented at all. "I just got to Home Depot. Yeah. Home Depot. No, not that one. The one just off the highway..."

My personal favorite? Or rather, least favorite? 'Well, I suppose I should get going... " I've heard exchanges that begin with it go another half hour, 45 minutes. And I think, "Weren't we all better off with just a little more mystery to our lives?" You can decide. Meanwhile I have a couple of stories that might help you do that.

When I was a cocktail waitress, I was patient with people I worked with when they wondered if the restaurant would be busy that night. The first few hundred times it happened, anyway. I'd wonder right along with them, and toss off some remark about the weather or homecoming or whatever might have an impact on the evening's business. After a while, though, I ran out of responses.

It took me a while to lose patience -- but I did, eventually. "This table didn't tip me, I wonder if I'll get cut, I thought it would be busier tonight." Shut up already! One night a server stood at the bar, wondering if we needed "better table tents in here." Like that would attract customers. I just looked at him, and then I walked away. Which the bartender thought was hilarious -- because he'd set that up, knowing how bored I was by the whole routine.

Darrell and I have lived together in the same small town for almost 20 years, and for most of that time we've gone running on weekdays. For 20 years I've fielded the same comment from people who are eager to tell me they've noticed. "I saw you out running!" they'll say, every time we meet. I've always responded with something friendly enough to congratulate them on the attempt at small talk, not so friendly they feel obligated to come up with more of it.

Until the other day, that is. I was getting my hair trimmed when a neighbor sat down in the next chair for the same. I knew it was coming, and I dreaded it this time. This gentleman lets his dog run wild despite the leash laws -- and lets him, as The Onion once put it, find the absolutely perfect place to take a dump. But he doesn't follow along with a plastic bag to clean up the evidence. So what used to be a sweet little street becomes more of an obstacle course unless that family's on vacation.

As predicted, the man jumped in during a -- what? -- two-second pause in the conversation I was having with my stylist to say it. "I saw you out running!" I paused. And then I just did one of those, "Mmm... " like your dad used to when he was reading about his beloved football team in the newspaper and you wanted to use the garage door as a chalkboard.

I thought that would be a conversation stopper, but it wasn't. My neighbor was ready: "Do you run every day?" I paused again, as if I had to think about it. I waited just long enough for my stylist to wonder if I'd even heard the guy. "No," I finally said. Just "No."

I made the next move. I tossed another question at my stylist on the subject we'd been talking about before we were so eagerly interrupted. And I kept firing questions at her with so much gusto she looked a little exhausted by the time she brushed me off and took my check.

I have nothing against this man. Well except for the whole dogs terrorizing runners thing. But he's a nice guy, and... whatever. It just strikes me it took 20 years to realize how bored I am with being told someone saw us running.

Isn't that awful to admit?

And yet, and yet... If I wasn't so easily bored my talk show would put you to sleep. I select guests based on their ability to keep me interested for an hour. If they can, chances are you'll also be interested -- and we'll both learn something.

The other day, as Darrell and I dug into lunch at our favorite little table next to the produce section in a favorite grocery store, he asked what my little cube of orange sandpaper was.

"That's a nail file," I told him.

"That's a nail file?"

"Yeah," I said. "I hate the boring ones."

"Nail files can be boring?" he asked.

I looked at him.

"You really don't know me very well, do you?"

Days later I'm still wondering what was going through the mind of the woman at the table next to us. I'd like to think something good.

There are a lot of ways to make the world a better place.

Keeping your mouth shut unless you have something interesting to say is one of them.

For more by Maureen Anderson, click here.

For more on conscious relationships, click here.

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