I have 20 seconds before I lose your attention. After that, you will start tuning me out.
At least that’d be true if I were leaning against your cubicle and reading this post aloud to you. Twenty seconds is the point at which a person’s audience — be it a coworker or a boss — goes from attentive to eyes-and-ears-glazed-over, according to Mark Goulston, a business psychiatrist and author of the book Just Listen.
After 40 seconds, my incessant rambling will begin to work against me: Your perception of me will devolve from disinterested to downright resentful.
This phenomenon — in which listeners go from intrigued to bored to “Please, shut the fuck up!” — should encourage people to be concise as possible in their workplace interactions.
Goulston, in a recent Harvard Business Review op-ed, suggested you employ the “Traffic Light Rule” in your daily interactions. For the first 20 seconds, your light is green. Speak as much as you like. After 20 seconds, know that your grip on your audience is diminishing. Only proceed if they genuinely seem interested. (Spoiler alert: They’re probably not.) At 40 seconds, your light is red. Any more yammering, and you’ve almost certainly lost them.
So why, then, if talking at length is so detrimental to our personal and professional relationships, do we continue to engage in such rambling?
The short answer: We love the sound of our own voices.
The soothing feeling we derive from masturbatory rambling occurs on a neurological level. Talking about ourselves — and I speak collectively here because I’m just as guilty of this as anyone — releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that activates the brain’s pleasure and reward centers, according to a July 2013 study from Harvard University’s Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab.
The problem is when we talk, our audience doesn’t bask in the same sense of release.
So the next time you find yourself in conversation with someone who won’t stop droning on about how crazy his commute was this morning, try to stem your frustration by remembering he’s just succumbing to a baseline neurochemical impulse.
And keep your response short lest you subject him to the same kind of linguistic torture.
John McDermott is MEL’s staff writer. He last wrote about how the Democratic Primary is destroying the relationships of straight couples across the country.