Do you find that people tend to talk about themselves, first and foremost?
Or maybe you’ve unintentionally upset someone by sharing a personal experience when they were trying to share their story with you?
Sociologist Charles Derber has given this behavior a name – conversational narcissism.
Though it is typically a subtle and unconscious behavior, conversational narcissism is the desire to take over a conversation, do most of the talking, and shift the attention of the conversation to oneself.
Derber believes it to be a, “key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America.”
A conversation is much like a game of catch. The person with the ball throws it to the other and then they throw the ball back.
A good conversation will typically work the same way. One person will contribute and then the person they are talking to will contribute back. The two parties throw their metaphorical ball back and forth.
But humans are wired to talk about themselves or even third parties that aren’t present more than the person they are playing catch with .
The reason is that when a person hears a story, their mind starts looking for experiences they’ve had that can help contextualize what they are hearing.
The problem is that our own experiences and contextualization may not be relevant to the other person or their experiences.
We have different emotional landscapes. And to say something like, “I understand.” is to make a great leap and assumption about how that person feels and perceives their own experience.
It can be downright insulting and hurtful, depending on the severity of the thing being talked about.
Surprisingly, talking about oneself triggers the same parts of the brain responsible for pleasure and reward .
The brain experiences the same kind of pleasurable sensations from talking about oneself as it does from eating food or having sex.
So it makes sense that we would naturally gravitate toward this kind of behavior, not only with the pleasure and reward part of our brain firing off, but the desire to be a good and supportive person to the people we care about.
The good news is that conversational narcissism is a behavior that we can work to curb within ourselves. To change the behavior, we must first be able to identify it.
Examples Of Conversational Narcissism In Practice
Conversational narcissism is about a person bringing the conversation back around to give the person more of an opportunity to talk about themselves.
But what does that look like?
Each of the following examples highlights ways in which a person may dominate a conversation by bringing it back to themselves, their feelings, and their experiences.
John’s aunt raised him from the time he was a little boy. She passes away. Reaching out for support, he tells his friend Adam, “Hey, I’m really down right now. My aunt passed away.”
Adam, wanting to be supportive, looks to find common ground with John by relating with a loss of his own, “I understand what you mean. When my dad passed away, I felt like everything in my world stopped…”
“I just got a promotion at work!” Amber exclaims to Jennifer. “I’m going to be project managing instead of just working within the project!”
“That’s great!” Jennifer replies. “I wish I had that kind of luck at my own job. My boss is being unbearable and I can’t seem to do anything right lately. I think I might need to start looking for a new job.”
“So what do you do for a living?” Jason asks Stacy.
“Oh, I work as a saleswoman at a car dealership.”
“Really? Car dealerships are so shady. I tried to buy a car from this place and all they did was give me a run around on the terms and payments. And then when we finally did get that worked out, the car turned out to be a lemon!”
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How To Curb Conversational Narcissism And Stop Talking About Yourself
Looking at the different examples, we can see where the person being talked to is drawing the conversation back to them, rather than giving their conversation partner the space they need to finish out their thoughts and feelings.
In Example 1, Adam is trying to be a good friend by finding common ground with John about the loss of his aunt.
With John being in an emotionally difficult place, he may interpret his friend’s actions as glossing over his own pain or as though Adam is unavailable to hear him.
Adam can certainly think back to his own losses to better conceptualize his friend’s pain, but a better approach is for him to say something like, “I’m sorry to hear about your loss. Do you want to talk about it?” And just be there for his friend.
In Example 2, Amber is excited about her promotion and the change in her work.
Jennifer, who is having a difficult time at her own job, inadvertently brings the conversation back to herself by using the opportunity to vent out her own frustrations, thus overshadowing Amber’s happiness and accomplishment.
The obvious problem with this behavior is that Jennifer is unconsciously telling Amber that she doesn’t really care about Amber’s excitement and views her own problems as more important.
A better approach would be for Jennifer to acknowledge and celebrate her friend’s accomplishment. If she needs to vent about her own job, it would be better for her to wait for a different time altogether to do it.
In Example 3, Jason is only listening to Stacy in order to find a suitable opportunity to talk about himself.
His response to her chosen vocation is self-centered because it is all about him and his bad experience with buying a car at a questionable dealership.
The easiest way for Jason to correct his approach is to set his own negative experience aside and focus on Stacy’s experiences.
He could easily ask more enabling questions to give her more space to talk about her career. Questions like: “Why did you decide to go into that line of work?” “What’s it like working at a car dealership?” “What’s your favorite thing about your work?”
The key to curbing one’s own conversational narcissism is to be able to identify your own patterns and behaviors in your conversations.
Are there times when you upset someone because they didn’t feel like you were listening to them? Or that you were overshadowing their experience?
Have you ever left a conversation having not really talked about the other person in any great detail?
Do you often monopolize a conversation with story after story about your experiences?
It’s totally fine to draw from your own experiences for context and additional information, but it’s generally a good idea to avoid talking about your own experiences in-depth.
The exception being when you are talking to a partner or best friend and you each willingly give the other time to offload their problems – on a relatively equal basis.
How To Deal With People Who Dominate Conversations
Talking to a conversational narcissist is a whole different matter.
You may find yourself unable to get a word in edgewise as they constantly try to pull the conversation back to themselves!
The most important thing to understand about conversational narcissism is that most people don’t realize that they’re doing it.
It’s just a natural consequence of the way we converse and how our society deals with attention getting.
A direct conversation about the behavior is often the best way to confront it.
If a person keeps cutting you off or shifts the focus back onto them, assert yourself and ask them if they realize that they’re bringing the conversation back to themselves instead of having a mutual conversation with you.
The person who doesn’t realize they are doing it but is just trying to be a good friend will hopefully hear that statement and make adjustments in their behavior.
On the other hand, you may find that they don’t actually care or don’t think what you’re saying is important, and you’ll know not to bother to have those conversations with them or expect them to care.
You can’t force somebody to care or change that doesn’t want to. There’s no point in wasting valuable emotional energy on trying to change them.