Many times I have wondered about the whole aspect of conversation and whether or not people make distinctions between different conversation types: discussion, conversation, debate, simple chat, and so on. They all have their specific meanings with specific goals and depth of engagement. But do people know the differences between talking “to” someone and talking “at” someone? These two letter words can have a massive impact on your whole perception of talking with others. And a lot of it begins with who is the central focus of the spoken words.
Talking “to” people is deep: centered and focused on the listener. When someone talks “to” someone, they are speaking in terms the listener can comprehend. It takes into account their point of view, their feelings, and their opinions. A unique connection is made: how someone talks will vary based on the person to whom they are speaking. Tact and empathy play a huge part in making such an exchange a success.
Talking to someone is a give and take situation as well. Questions are asked. The listener is somewhat expected to give a genuine response. And the speaker is expected to take these responses into account.
These situations tend to be engaging and dynamic. But if there is no common ground, they can be fairly awkward, unrewarding, and straining. Try talking to a random subway rider about their thoughts on Olin’s semi-annual tricycle race for example.
Talking “to” someone is best used in a one-on-one situation for people you are well acquainted with or have a similar interest to serve as a topic. But if you have the knack for it, any and all types of verbal engagement work out as well.
Talking “at” people is much more shallow than its counterpart: centered on just the speaker’s words with little regard as to what those words are or who is listening. However, that is not exactly needed.
Perhaps two more recognizable forms are the classically negative lecture with the teacher merely drilling through a power point and the friend ranting about something on their mind. Words and thoughts are projected into open air. They may or may not be received.
This style of speaking tends to be ideal for less-than-charismatic public speakers who have to handle several people at once. Also sometimes all you really need to do is talk, get whatever is on your mind out of your head.
Usually there is an endpoint, as talking “at” someone is fairly static. The words being said have been mostly predetermined. Questions tend to be rhetorical. Interruptions can actually throw the speaker off, or be rude, so talking “at” is not ideal for conversations, discussions, or debates. However in most other situations, especially when it comes to general friend or playful chatter, it is perfectly fine.
Likely, we think that we talk “to” people all the time, as that may come off as the ideal. Those who talk “at” others in inappropriate situations risk appearing self-centered and disconnected, if not rigid and insensitive. However this is not always the case. Not everyone actively wants to be talked “to” – it can be met with hostility. This is where talking “at” others can help to break the ice. Or perhaps I should say, shallow communication gradually lets you go into the deeper, more genuine kind.
Not everyone is capable of effectively using both forms of communication, though they can be somewhat trained with practice. Chances are you have your preference in certain situations, or natural style. Most people will likely find talking “at” others to be easier because it does not require as much effort. However, people need to consider whether they are talking “at” someone when they should really be talking “to” them, or vise versa. It can make a huge difference on your communication style, and general “talking” outcome.