I often talk to myself, and for a long time I couldn’t figure out why. I never did my thinking out loud before my husband died. I wondered: do I do it now because I live alone or is this typical of aging?
To be fair, sometimes while my dog was alive, I was actually talking to him, but of course he didn’t listen unless he heard his name, and that was fine. When the dog was off somewhere, doing what dogs do, I aimed my remarks at myself instead, and I didn’t really listen, either. If I did pay attention momentarily to what I was going on about, I found that usually I was just producing a running commentary on what I was doing. (“It’s not on the shelf. Now where do you suppose I put it?”) If my father had been listening in, he’d have described my soliloquies as a diarrhea of words with a constipation of ideas.
According to research, talking to yourself can be a smart thing to do. When experimenters showed subjects photos of products typically found on supermarket shelves and asked them to point out certain things as quickly as possible (find all the jars of peanut butter, for example), people found the items faster if they repeated the name while they looked. Apparently, we should all trudge up and down grocery aisles, muttering things like “Peanut butter. Peanut butter. Peanut butter.”
I don’t usually talk to myself while shopping, but when I do mutter in public, people seldom pay any attention. Years ago, if someone walked around talking out loud to herself, everyone would assume she was crazy; now they assume she’s on the phone. If anyone does look at me strangely, I just point to my ears to signify that I’ve got Bluetooth implanted.
Once a day when I’m home, I talk to my husband, who died in 2008. Oh, I know he isn’t really paying attention either, but he was a good listener when he was alive. Though he was never critical, he wouldn’t let me kid myself. And no, I don’t imagine his end of the conversation, though at the back of my mind, I know pretty much what he would have said. I listen carefully during these one-sided conversations because I’ve discovered that I can learn a lot. I’m a worrier, and things I’ve been worrying about often sound much less dire as I put them into words out loud. At other times, I mention something seemingly trivial and suddenly realize I’d better pay attention because it may not be so insignificant after all. (“I should talk to the doctor about this persistent cough.”)
Recently, I figured out why I so often think out loud. It has nothing to do with aging and everything to do with the fact that I’m used to having someone around to talk to, and now most of the time, I don’t.
Perhaps I should try to cure myself of this habit, but I don’t really see the need. One of the better things about getting older is that you care much less about what other people think and much more about your own opinion. I’ve decided it doesn’t matter if I talk to myself. It may even be a good thing.
Flora Davis has written scores of magazine articles and is the author of five nonfiction books, including the award-winning Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960 (1991, 1999). She currently lives in a retirement community and continues to work as a writer.