When a voice rises from a nearby cubicle, a better question than "You talking to me?" may be "You talking to you?"
Susan Shapiro, a business-technology consultant, talks to herself constantly in what amounts to auditory to-do lists and step-by-step instructions. She calls herself an "idiot" at times, "brilliant" at others and occasionally says things out loud such as, "I can't believe I'm talking to myself out loud." She once discovered a colleague hovering behind her, waiting for her and her cubemate to finish their conversation. "We weren't talking to each other," she says. "We were each talking to ourselves."
Self-talking starts early, beginning as crib speech for the fun of it and becoming toddlers' repetition of rules they're learning to live by, researchers say. Late in life, you might say to yourself, "Why am I looking for my eyeglasses in the refrigerator?" only to discover holy cow! that's where you left them.
In between, in your cubicle-bound life, researchers say as many as 96 percent of people talk to themselves aloud, and deaf people have been observed signing to themselves while answering test questions. It's believed that people primarily blather to themselves when alone so as not to appear nuts. But those of us in the cube farm know better.
The irony is that self-chatter, like sharp objects, is both most suited and least suited to the workplace. "At work where we would most benefit from talking out loud is also the place we are least likely to do so for social reasons," says Alain Morin, a professor of psychology at the Mount Royal College in Calgary, Alberta.
Among the things it's useful for is what's called self-regulation: goal-setting, problem-solving, decisionmaking and planning. ("When she says, 'You already got a raise,' I'll say, 'Which didn't keep pace with inflation."') These conversations with one's self tend to increase, research shows, with the complexity of tasks and when someone's having a bad day.
"There's not a lot you can say when things are going really well: 'I want to keep things as they are,'" notes Tom Brinthaupt, professor of psychology at Middle Tennessee State University. Self-talk is "not that different from a thermostat. It's one of the ways we monitor ourselves, control impulses and guide actions."
The downside: "It can very much be disruptive."
Self-talk, unscientifically, also seems to be the stuff in the noisy maelstrom of the mind that slips out. It also ensures that at least one person is listening to you.
When the pressure's on before, say, a big presentation, there's a lot of anticipatory conversation a stress rehearsal. Evan Steingart, former head of sales at a consumer-products company, worked with a salesman who rehearsed his entire pitch the day before he met with clients, including their objections in a different voice.
"It was an extreme distraction to the rest of the group," says Steingart. "People were so mesmerized by it."
They couldn't stop themselves from secretly dialing into the conference-room phone and listening in whenever he went there to practice. "Fortunately, he would always make the sale, and he never got into an argument with himself," adds Steingart.
For some, talking to oneself is a way to reach group consensus, sans group. Chris Weyers, who works for a financial-services company, talks himself up all day, he says, "as if someone is helping you get the day organized, urging you on to get things done faster, telling you not to check e-mail when you hear the ping."
He's more efficient, he adds, because "two heads are better than one." The problem is his assistant, whose hearing isn't what it once was, rushes in throughout the day, asking, "Are you talking to me?"
Many of us are as used to someone's self-chatter as we are to people with invisible cell-phone headsets seemingly blathering on to themselves. J.P. Tristani, a former commercial-airline pilot, flew with a DC-8 captain who, whenever faced with bad weather on radar, would "consult" aloud with an Indian chief he pretended sat in the jump seat behind him.
"I didn't care who he was talking to back there," he says, "as long as I didn't hear a voice coming out of that black void."
Self-talk can be both a cause of distraction in the office and its cure. After a while, you listen to yourself think aloud so you don't have to listen to the soliloquy next to you.
"Talking to yourself eliminates some other distractions," says J.J. Stives, who sat next to an incessant self-talker. His partner, Christine Ascherman, a commercial photographer, talks to herself about exposure and aperture before and during her shoots. "It wards off conversation," she says.
Carli Entin, an associate magazine editor, loves talking to herself whether it's "appearing" as a panelist on "Meet the Press," narrating her imaginary cooking show ("replace some of the water with coffee for a tastier cupcake") or blogging.
At work, even when a colleague told her she stopped listening, that didn't stop Entin's side of the conversation or the fun she had engaging in it. Besides, her self-chatter can be efficient. "By acting out the conversation," she says, "I no longer need to have it."