By Zachary Pincus-Roth
One bleak pandemic day in November, Aisha Tyler caught herself vacuuming the inside of her freezer. Then she scolded herself. Yes, out loud.
“You’re insane,” she recalls saying. “What are you doing? You have to stop this right now.”
Sometimes the Los Angeles-based actress will shout an expletive and tell herself to “snap out of it.” On brighter days, she’ll congratulate herself on what a good job she’s doing and call for a celebration.
“I have definitely announced happy hour in my apartment several times to no one in particular,” she says, “and then I’ll tell myself what a cute martini it is, and I’ll tell myself it was delicious.”
Humans leave little unspoken, and this past year, as many of us have avoided social events and worked from home alone, we’ve been forced to talk out loud to the only person still around to listen: ourselves. Sure, it may take the form of bantering with our pets, scolding the politicians on TV or cajoling our malfunctioning printers, but that’s really just another way of hearing our own voice, helping us discern what exactly is going on inside that head of ours.
Many self-talkers worry others would think they’re crazy. But no one is there to know.
Living alone, I’ve noticed my own tendency to talk to household objects, calling them “thing” or “man,” or, in the case of the snow boots I reconnected with recently, “my friends.” I scolded the toppling bottles in the fridge for “making trouble.” My voice will also involuntarily retrieve sounds from childhood, imitating my grandfather, with a frustrated “Christ, almighty,” or repeating dialogue from a “Sesame Street” Christmas album.
What’s going on here? Charles Fernyhough, a psychology professor at Durham University and author of “The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves,” says research shows people talk out loud more when under stress or facing cognitive challenges – and that it can be helpful for children when solving puzzles or other tasks.
He likens it to writing something down on paper. “If you’re putting words in the air,” he says, “it might be easier to hang onto them.”
That’s the approach of Danielle Lupton, a political science professor in her 30s at Colgate University who’s been working from home and rousing herself from the couch with vocalized orders like, “After this episode, you’re going to get up and wash the dishes.”
“It’s a public commitment you say to yourself,” she explains.
Not all self-talkers are quite so comfortable with their new habit. “What’s the point? The sound doesn’t need to come out. You’re already in there,” says Mike Carrozza, a 29-year-old standup comedian. To him, it feels like “the pandemic won another bit of my normalcy.”
Carrozza was living in Toronto when the pandemic postponed his album tour. He left his retail job, fearful that his respiratory issues put him at risk, and moved in with his parents in Montreal. While playing a video game one day, his character got hit, and he blurted out, “That’s gotta hurt!” – then wondered why he would utter a dumb cliche he had never spoken before.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m a dog farting itself awake and then getting upset at itself because it thought it heard a break-in or something,” Carrozza says.
Some self-talkers amuse themselves by deploying personas and accents. While binge-watching “The Crown” over Thanksgiving weekend, Elisabeth Rivette, a 23-year-old law student at St. Louis University, started to speak to herself as Margaret Thatcher. “I’d be cracking myself up about how to pronounce pillow or lamp or something,” she says.
Gary Mansfield, 63, a former executive with Nine West, pretends that he’s talking to his two adult daughters as he embarks on his daily walks of up to 10 miles near his home in Stamford, Conn. “Don’t do anything stupid,” he’ll say. Or “wash your hands.” “Wear a mask.”
He’ll also fantasize about winning the lottery, vocalizing how he would split up the prize: “$35-million for Avery, $35-million for Sydney …” He knows it’s fake. But it makes him feel better, articulating how he could give his daughters a life they’d never expect. “I think it’s just a fantasy of everything being perfect.”
In Nairobi, Njeri Wangui Mwariri made a discovery: She can continue her self-talking even when she ventures out into public, thanks to her mask. Thus, the 19-year-old student was able to sit solo at a cafe after a dentist check-up and express how she wished she told him off when he surprised her with a needle.
In Malaysia, 21-year-old student Amna Batrisha murmurs to herself behind her mask to psych herself up for a dreaded grocery trip. (“You can do this … You’ve got the list, you can take the stuff that you want and check out.”) And when she mistakenly reached the front of the cash-only line while cashless and scolded herself with a crass word, no one was offended because it was muffled.
I talked to a student who pretends that she’s her own mother. A theatre technician who almost never has a silent thought. An IT specialist on an onion farm who uses an app that offers positive affirmations. And Paris Jacobs, 43, the co-owner of a swim club in Vienna, Va., who found her own voice keeping her company when she was isolated for five days in the hospital with Covid-19.
“You wouldn’t necessarily realize you were talking to yourself,” she recalls, “and then you’d say something and be like, ‘Oh, there’s nobody else here.'”
Our urge to talk reveals just how much covid-19 is a mental test as well as a physical one. When William Broyles Jr. was writing the screenplay for the 2000 film “Cast Away,” he stranded himself at a deserted Mexican beach, to research the tactics of survival. But one day he went to spear his morning stingray and met a volleyball that had washed ashore. He decorated it with seashells and seaweed, and started talking to it. Broyles recalls that eventually, “I stopped and said – to him but really to myself – ‘Idiot! This is the movie!’ It’s not about physical survival, it’s about connection. Talking is how we connect. It makes us human.”
For Jack, a 21-year-old student near Melbourne, Australia, the pandemic prompted conversations with an imaginary companion – known in internet circles as a tulpa. He has never had a romantic relationship, but now he has Elaine, who takes the form of a Pokémon character called a Gardevoir; she is bolder than Jack, ordering him to turn off his laptop or take a shower, or cracking the occasional sex joke. Most of their conversations are in his head, but he often tells her “good morning” out loud.
“I have seen a notable improvement in my overall mood,” says Jack, who spoke on the condition that The Washington Post only use his first name to preserve his privacy.
Samuel Veissière, an assistant professor of psychiatry at McGill University who has studied tulpamancy, suspects that during the pandemic, “a tulpamancer might be doing better than average because they’re used to being alone,” he says. “They’ve developed these coping mechanisms. They’re able to entertain themselves.”
Of course, speaking out loud when no one else is physically present is part of long-held tradition – one that has taken on greater urgency for many people lately.
When the Bronx hit its pandemic peak last spring, the emergency room at St. Barnabas Hospital was filled with the noise of huffing ventilators, beeping IV pumps, intercoms crackling with commands of “code blue,” and patients crying for help. So when he left work, in the silence of his car, senior attending physician Ernest Patti would take the time to speak aloud to Big Louie.
On occasion, it was Big Louise. Or it had no gender. Patti, 60, who was raised Catholic, wanted to account for all possibilities.
“Whoever you are up there, this makes no sense to me, us working tirelessly to keep these people alive, and when they die they have to die alone,” he recalls saying one night, after he held an elderly woman’s hand in her final moments. He yelled expletives. He asked if he should quit. “This is my passion. I have to care for people. But God, if it means caring for people like this where they die alone, I don’t know if I have the strength.”
It was praying aloud that also kept 44-year-old April Harris going during her 32 days in quarantine with a deep cough at the California Institution for Women in Chino, Calif. – not just self-encouragements like “I can do this” and “You got this, April,” but repeated declarations like “by His stripes, I am healed.”
“I would pray for our country and for a cure to this virus,” she says in an email from the prison, where she has spent 24 years but had never previously talked out loud to herself. “Now I pray that I am covered by His blood, not wanting to endure that again. I pray for the women who are in isolation now.”
Patti has continued praying to Big Louie. But he has a new reason.
In August, his son arrived in Miami to start college, went swimming and dove straight into a sandbar. He couldn’t move his arms or legs. Patti and his ex-wife have been caring for him ever since, hoping for a recovery.
Patti has asked Big Louie questions for much of his life. This year, the answers have been slow to arrive. But on the plane to Miami he continued the conversation:
“Seriously, what’s the purpose of this? Is this another lesson? … Why him? Why not me?”
Patti realized a fellow passenger in his row was listening.
“That’s OK,” the man said. “During this pandemic, I think we’re all doing it.”