It happens to the best of us: there you are, chatting with a friend or other parent when, perhaps because of the unbridled excitement of talking to someone other than your child, you talk about yourself. There is nothing wrong with that. But then you talk a little more about yourself. And when the other person finally gets a chance to speak, wouldn’t you know it, you have a personal anecdote that relates to what they’re saying.
Thanks to reasons as varied as smartphones, the loneliness of remote work, and, oh, the huge, isolating global health crisis, our collective social skills have taken a hit over the past few years. Mistakes and awkwardness are guaranteed. But if you find that you talk a lot about yourself or tend to steer the conversation only to areas where you know, you may be guilty of what’s called conversational narcissism. And you should take steps to avoid it.
A term credited to Boston College sociology professor Dr. Charles Derber, the author A Nation of Thugs: How the American Establishment Creates a Violent and Sociopathic Society: A Sociology of the People of the United States, conversational narcissism involves more than talking too much about yourself. Derber describes conversational narcissism as involv[ing] preferential use of displacement response and underutilization of support response.
In less academic terms, Derber describes some of his symptoms as a constant need to bring the conversation back to you and your experience, being unaware of how long you’ve been dominating the conversation, failing to ask questions or show engagement when someone else is speaking, and a more or less condescending or dismissive know-it-all .
For reasons that everyone is probably aware of, the conversation about what constitutes narcissism has increased significantly in the last few years. Suffice it to say that it has become a buzzword that, like many phrases before it, is rife with overuse and misinterpretation. While most experts agree that narcissism is a fluid spectrum, they are also very clear that there is quite a difference between what Dr. Derber describes and a case of full-blown narcissistic personality disorder.
You can have empathy and self-awareness and still fall victim to being slightly narcissistic in everyday conversation. Because of course you can. Regardless, it’s good to be aware of conversational narcissism as, at the very least, his rude behavior that can be frustrating.
Everyone is guilty of it, but few people recognize it, says Debra Fine, speaker, executive coach and author Nice little story art. People never think it’s them, but if you talk about your kids, your job, your travels, or anything for more than 4-5 minutes without dropping the conversation ball to other people, it’s you.
It’s not too late to save the conversation
As with any type of diagnosis, awareness of the condition is often the first step toward treatment. Knowing that we all tend to be me-focused is a big help in avoiding the pitfalls of conversational narcissism.
How then to put the definitions of Dr. Derbers into more practical terms? Well, when it comes to instances of the conversation constantly coming back to you and your point of view, it’s helpful to think of it in terms of what Fine calls either a matchmaker, a one-up, or a monopolizer.
Being a matchmaker is like this: When someone says: You know, having a two-year-old is exactly what they said. She’s crazy, running around everywhere, and you say: Oh, I have the same problem! My 2-year-old is running around, I can’t control her, or you’re just trying to compare yourself to other people’s experiences, says Fine.
That it sounds as a good practice, shouldn’t we strive to find a common language with people? but it actually diminishes the other person’s experience and puts the focus back on you and your own solipsistic view.
One-Upper is probably self-explanatory, but it’s also a more obvious form of overt self-centeredness. One of the symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is a lack of empathy, and this comes through loud and clear when you are guilty of this behavior.
If someone leaves, it was really rough at work, now they make so many demands on me. The narcissist would respond with, “It’s nothing, you should see what’s going on with my business,” says Fine. It may look like the person is finding common ground and connected, but it looks like they’re trying to outdo the other person. The One-Upper, Fine suggests, is also prone to offering unsolicited advice (something every parent recognizes and recoils from) and can often come across as condescending.
The last example, the Monopolizer, is when simple anecdotes become long, involving monologues, verbally keeping the focus on you and your story, leaving no room for interruptions, questions, or digressions. Fine suggests that any story that takes more than four minutes or more might be something for a diary rather than a lively conversation.
Now, while these examples are helpful in fleshing out conversational narcissism, they don’t always tell the whole story. In some of these cases, the person concerned may be self-centered and egotistical. But in many, they can just be socially awkward.
According to the National Center for Social Anxiety Disorder, one way people with social anxiety cope is by practicing what the organization calls scripting: this is when we think about what to say next in a conversation or formulate what to say even before. the conversation begins. This takes you out of the moment, making you less engaged when someone else is speaking, more likely to miss cues to ask a question or follow up, and more ready to bring things back to you and your carefully plotted next anecdote. The intention in these situations is not to be the center of attention, but rather to overcome nagging anxiety, and yet, it causes you to inadvertently check every box on Dr. Derbers’ list.
The key to quitting the behavior
Fortunately, the cure for conversational narcissism is relatively simple. Relax, breathe and listen.
Let’s go back to the Matchmaker scenario as an example. Instead of responding to complaints about your two-year-old’s behavior with your own war stories, ask questions. Do you think this is a phase, or has she acted like this before? What did you try to calm her down?
This to borrow Phineas term puts the conversational ball back on the other person while also giving you a chance to imply your first-hand experience without being overbearing. If you consider yourself to be a One-Upper, show that you are listening by asking what is going on at work that is causing this person so much stress. Ask them if there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The feeling that we’ve all been there will come across without having to state it in a way that could potentially turn someone off.
“I don’t think people are aware of what they’re doing in conversation, and yet they burn bridges and turn people away,” says Fine. We all want to be heard, and Fine suggests giving verbal cues to listen for little things like saying, What happened next? or Tell me more or That must have been a tough time for you
Listening, asking questions, and allowing yourself the freedom to not have a pre-planned anecdote for every occasion, yes, it’s okay to keep it, will not only help you avoid falling into conversational narcissism, but may just make the general idea of social interaction easier .
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