How To Tell If Someone Is A Conversational Narcissist
It shouldn’t be all about you.
It happens to the best of us: There you are, chatting with a friend or another parent when, maybe due to the unbridled excitement of conversing with someone other than your child, you talk about yourself. Nothing wrong with that. But then you talk about yourself some more. 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, a massive, isolating global health crisis, our collective social skills have taken a hit over the past few years. Slip-ups and awkwardness are guaranteed. But if you realize that you talk about yourself a lot or tend to steer the conversation only towards areas in which you’re knowledgable, well, you may be guilty of what’s called conversational narcissism. And you should take measures to avoid it.
A term credited to Boston College Sociology Professor Dr. Charles Derber, author of Bully Nation: How the American Establishment Creates a Bullying Society and Sociopathic Society: A People’s Sociology of the United States, “conversational narcissism” encompasses more than just talking about yourself too much. Derber describes conversational narcissism as “involv[ing] preferential use of the shift-response and underutilization of the support-response.”
In less academic terms, Derber describes some of its symptoms as having a constant need to bring a conversation back to you and your experience, an obliviousness to how long you’ve been dominating a conversation, a failure to ask questions or show engagement when someone else is speaking, and more or less being a condescending or dismissive know-it-all.
For reasons we’re all probably aware of, the conversation around what constitutes narcissism has ramped up considerably over the past few years. Suffice it to say, it’s become a buzzy word that, like so many buzzwords before it, is rife with over-prescription and misinterpretation. While most experts agree that narcissism is a fluid spectrum, they’re also very clear that there’s quite a big difference between what Dr. Derber is describing and a case of full-on Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
You can have empathy and self-awareness and still fall victim to being a little narcissistic in everyday conversation. Because of course you can. Nonetheless, it’s good to be aware of conversational narcissism as, at the very least, it’s rude behavior that can make you frustrating to be around.
“Everybody is guilty of it, but few recognize it,” says Debra Fine, speaker, executive coach, and author of The Fine Art of Small Talk. “People never think it’s them, but if you’ve been talking about your kids, your work, your trips, or whatever for more than 4-5 minutes without throwing the conversation ball back to other people, it’s you.”
It’s Not Too Late to Save the Conversation
Like any kind of diagnosis, awareness of a condition is often the first step towards treatment. Knowing we all have a tendency to be “me-centric” is a huge help in avoiding the traps of conversational narcissism.
So how do we put Dr. Derber’s definitions into more practical terms? Well, when it comes to instances of constantly bringing a conversation back to you and your point of view, it’s helpful to think of it in what Fine calls being either a “Matchmaker,” a “One-Upper,” or a “Monopolizer.”
“Being a Matchmaker is like this: When someone says, ‘You know, having a 2-year-old is exactly like they said. She’s crazy, she’s running around everywhere…’ And you reply, ‘Oh, I have the same problem! My 2-year-old runs around, I can’t keep her under control either…’ You’re just trying to match the other person’s experience,” says Fine.
It sounds like a good practice — after all, shouldn’t we strive to find common ground with people? — but it actually diminishes the other person’s experience and draws the focus back to you and your own solipsistic view.
The One-Upper is probably self-explanatory, but also a more glaring 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 goes, ‘It’s been really rough at work, they’re making so many demands on me right now.’ The narcissist would respond with, ‘That’s nothing, you should see what’s going on with my work…’,” says Fine. “It may seem as though that person is finding common ground and being relatable, but it comes across as trying to out-do 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 being condescending.
The final example, the Monopolizer, is when simple anecdotes become long, involved monologues, verbally keeping the focus on you and your story without allowing any air for interruptions, questions, or digressions. Fine suggests that any story that takes more than four minutes or more to tell is maybe something for a journal rather than a lively conversation.
Now, while these examples are helpful in putting conversational narcissism into concrete terms, they don’t always tell the whole story. In some of these cases, the person in question may in fact be self-centered and egotistical. But in many, they may just be socially awkward.
According to the National Social Anxiety Center, one of the ways people with social anxiety cope is by practicing what the organization refers to as “Scripting”: “This is when we are thinking of what to say next in a conversation, or formulating what to say even before the conversation begins.” Doing this takes you out of the moment, resulting in you being less engaged when someone else is speaking, more likely to miss cues to ask questions or follow-up, and more apt to bring things back to you and your carefully plotted next anecdote. The intention in these situations isn’t to be in the spotlight, but to overcome crippling anxiety—and yet, it causes you to inadvertently check off every box on Dr. Derber’s list.
The Key To Quitting The Behavior
Luckily, the cure for conversational narcissism is relatively simple. Relax, take a breath, and listen.
Let’s go back to the Matchmaker scenario as an example. Instead of responding to complaints about a 2-year-old’s behavior with war stories of your own, ask questions. “Do you think this is a phase, or has she acted like this before?” “What have you tried to do to calm her down?”
This — to borrow Fine’s term — throws the conversation ball back to the other person, while also giving you a chance to imply your own firsthand experience without being overbearing. If you find yourself being a One-Upper, show that you’re listening by inquiring about what’s going on at work that has this person so stressed. Ask them if there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The sense of “we’ve all been there” will come through, without it having to be stated in a way that could potentially rub someone the wrong way.
“I don’t think people are aware of what they do in conversation and yet they do burn bridges and they do put people off,” says Fine. We all want to be heard, and Fine suggests giving verbal clues that you’re listening—little things like saying, “What happened next?” or “Tell me more…” or “That had to be a difficult time for you…”
Listening, asking questions, and allowing yourself the freedom to not have a pre-planned anecdote for every occasion — yes, it’s ok to wing it — will not only help you avoid falling into conversational narcissism, but it may just make the general idea of social interaction much easier.