Tongue Tied?: The Reason For Conversation Inhibition

bank cartoon

Recently I was at the bank and stood before a bank teller. I had just functionally communicated that I wanted to deposit and withdraw some money.

While I waited for the bank teller to complete the task, I noticed that her fingernails were not only artfully decorated but very long. Just a moment before, I vaguely noticed also that she was typing on a keyboard.

Since I wasn’t paying close attention when she was typing, I wasn’t sure how she was able to type because of her very long fingernails.

So I thought about asking her about it. 

I found myself thinking about it and rethinking about it–what I might say, how to phrase it, how my voice would sound, how to deliver it so it sounds “right”, and last but not least, how she might react to me.

The final result is I didn’t say anything.

What Held Me Back?

Mooch the cat
Mooch, my cat, didn’t get my tongue, but something else did.

Being tongue tied means that you DO know what you want to say yet are somehow blocked from saying it. It’s a kind of social inhibition.

As my experience above indicates, overthinking is often the culprit.

Sean Cooper, the Shyness and Social Anxiety Guy states, “When you try to rehearse conversations in your head, and you try to plan out how it’s going to go, and you try to think of the right thing to say to make the other person respond to you well, that’s going to make you immediately become disconnected from the other person.”

Let’s see, so in order to prevent overthinking from happening in the future, I’ll need to acknowledge it whenever I become aware of it, then stop such thinking. If I stop thinking, then it will make it easier to take action, i.e., start a conversation.

But overthinking is just one culprit. Let’s look deeper.

detective with magnifying glass
Have you uncovered the culprit or reason why you sometimes get tongue tied?

According to David Morin of SocialProNow, we feel uncomfortable making conversation because of the following reasons:

  • We don’t know what to say.
  • We’re afraid to say the wrong thing.
  • We have irrational feeling people just won’t like us.
  • We think we’ll bore people or be uninteresting.
  • We’re afraid others will question or criticize what we say.

As someone with social anxiety, I can vouch that the above reasons are insightful and accurate.

In the situation with the bank teller, the reason I didn’t start a conversation with her was because I have irrational feeling people just won’t like me. I also have a tendency to feel like a misfit or odd person out.

Although the reason may not always be because I have irrational feeling people just won’t like me, that’s the reason probably about 95% of the time. (On the other hand, I know I’m never afraid others will question or criticize what I say.)

painterly manicures
If you see someone with an interesting manicure, it’s a nice topic to start a conversation. This conversation starter likely works better if you’re female.

I didn’t think at all that broaching the topic of the bank teller’s long fingernails and how in the world she could type with them would be offensive to her.

But I did have irrational feeling that she just might not like me and possibly look at me in a weird way. I suppose I wasn’t sure if I could emotionally handle it if she gave me a weird look or if I came across awkward.

Now that I’m aware of the REASON behind my conversation inhibition, in the future I’ll be more likely to start a conversation in spite of some concern.

So this is the SOLUTION: Whenever I feel hesitant about saying something, I’ll just acknowledge in my head what it is that’s holding me back. For example, I might think to myself, “Well, I’m having an irrational fear that the other person doesn’t like me and that I might get a weird look or negative reaction when I say something.” By simply acknowledging my concern, anxiety will abate and then I can say what I actually really want to say.

Indeed, having pinpointed the cause of my fear and being able to acknowledge and accept it makes it almost completely solved.

Dealing With Human Fear

Having some social fear or inhibition more or less is actually a part of human condition.

As Peter Murphy recognizes in his book Conversation Ignition, “From the time human beings first begin meeting new people, usually at some point in childhood associated with schooling, it’s a commonly shared fact that we all feel awkward or fearful in first approaching someone new. What if they won’t participate in conversation with us?…”

But it doesn’t matter if we get rejected as long as we hold our own heads high.  “Finding the courage to be yourself regardless of what anyone else may say or think is an empowering first step in learning to be a great conversation starter,” Murphy adds.

Do you get tongue tied sometimes? What reason, do you think, is the cause?

10 Replies to “Tongue Tied?: The Reason For Conversation Inhibition

  1. Hi Jean,

    You’ve an interesting website. Yeah, starting a conversation with a stranger can be intimidating. I remember when I was young, I always cringed when my mum struck up conversation with total strangers. Somehow I felt we should not talk to strangers for fear of offending them or embarrassing ourselves.

    But now, I appreciate her initiative to talk to strangers. She’s now 85 and still has the habit of talking to strangers, for example, the diners on the next table etc.
    Love this old gal!

    I find that a good starting sentence to start a conversation begins with ‘I like’. ‘I like your beautiful finger nails!’. ‘I like your energy!’ ‘I like your hat.’


    1. Hello Song. 🙂 It’s nice to hear you find my website interesting.

      It seems to me some people are more natural at starting conversations whereas others have to learn to do that. It sounds like your mom was perhaps a natural at it. I think it’s a beneficial habit to start conversations.

      I like your suggestion of starting a conversation with “I like…” That’s simple enough to remember. I should really try that. “I like your beautiful fingernails. But how do you type with long nails like that?”

  2. yes, this happened to me many times.I wanted to ask something or to talk to somebody about something and because of the overthinking, i just didn’t.
    You know, for me sometimes when I want to ask something I just don’t because I am afraid this will create a chain reaction and I just can’t be bothered to have a long conversation.Strange, isn’t it?
    Anyway, i loved your post, well done and I will be back for sure.

    1. Hi, Cristina. Yes, sometimes it helps not to think. There’s a time for thinking such as when one is sitting alone and contemplating to come up with a solution to a problem. And there’s a time to not think and just observe and act without a second thought.


  3. Hi Jean! Thanks for this nice article. I always remember getting tongue tied or having a hard time talking or starting a conversation when we first moved here in Canada. My major reason for this was I’m afraid that people will not like me or will just criticize what I say, and I always over think these things so all the more that I wasnt able to speak or I would stutter even I know what to say.
    Then the manager at my first work told me that, I should not be shy or afraid to talk because she actually admire how I speak English clearly, every time she heard me talk to my cousin who’s also our co-worker. from then on I realized that I might really just be overthinking things.

    1. Hi Regz, thanks. Yes, sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint what’s holding us back from just saying what we have in the back of our minds to say, but I figured it out. For me, it’s pretty much that I fear looking awkward or getting a weird look or irrational feeling of being not liked. I speak English clearly too and can be rather articulate and even impressive when I speak, in fact. So it’s really more psychological rather than any particular reality-based reason. Instead of overthinking, I now know what my fears are and I can acknowledge it by thinking “I feel the other person might look at me weirdly” (if I start talking to her). Acknowledging this makes it easier to deal with it and get over inhibition and take action anyway.

  4. I think to a certain degree everybody gets tongue tied at some moment in their life. Some easier than others. One thing that you got definitely right and is most likely the biggest issue is the irrational fear of not being liked or fearing that others will dislike you for saying something.

    Strange though that other people often do not even thought about it. I deal with people on a daily basis. And I often ask why people wouldn’t have said something that needed to be said. And they tell me that they were afraid to tell me or someone else. I usually ask them how important the matter really was to them if they did not ask.

    I am a teacher, and sometimes parents will hold back questions that they should ask. And they do not ask, because they are afraid. I think people need to learn to overcome their fears, because what I have noticed is that sometimes people take drag things with them for a long time and never bring it out, when other people would have needed to know in order to make that little change.

    But yes, it is not always easy to say what you have on your tongue. Personally, I say things quite easily and usually think “aloud”, that means, there are only some occasions when I do not hold back what I think.

    You are brave to have brought this topic out and talked about it openly. That already helped, because you found reasons why you possibly struggle with it.

    Wish you luck,

    1. Yes, Oscar, indeed my issue is that I have irrational fear others may not like me (it’s just a sense that has no rational reason). However, I actually believe I’d be more likable if I did say whatever I’m thinking of saying, but just tend to overthink and also fear coming across awkward. 

      However, I would also say I’m paradoxically outspoken. I basically have socializing fear yet I’m not afraid at all to express my likes and dislikes, points of view, etc., and am straightforward.

      Anyway, I agree with you that everybody gets tongue tied sometimes, I’m sure. 

      As a teacher, too, you probably come across kids who show different temperaments, some outgoing, some more withdrawn. 

      Yes, now that I’ve figured out the reason behind my inhibition, it’s easier to overcome.


  5. Hi Boo! I like your article and the way you have expressed yourself. Just admitting your fears and inhibitions is to me courage enough. I also like that part in the end about not being afraid to be rejected, about the courage to be yourself and holding our head high. I am not a conversationalist myself, and I rarely start conversations. I talk to people only when they talk to me. Not because I am insecure or inhibited but it is just not my way of doing things. And I don’t feel bad about it at all. That is me, how I am. People have different character traits and it does not always mean insecurity or fear. So you are fine, hold your head high and love yourself.

    1. Thanks, Rebecca! Well, I’ve come to accept my natural self of being a loner. I don’t feel bad about it either. However, as the proverb goes “No man is an island” and we’re all social creatures. I think of learning to socially communicate better like learning to write better or some other skill. Some people have more of a talent in certain areas, like I do with writing more than with interacting with others. Still, it can be learned as long as one isn’t too hard on oneself.

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