Humans are innately social beings that have largely relied on community and cooperation to survive. Our communications with others fuel this social nature. In a hyper-connected world, we love to talk. More specifically, people love to talk about themselves. It’s our most comfortable, well-known topic, as we know more about ourselves than we do about anything else. But this can go to the extreme and make everyday conversations insufferable for one party. Everyone has experienced a peer taking control of a basic conversation, making it entirely one-sided. Often, a simple “How are you?” becomes an opportunity for the respondent to unleash all of their recent thoughts and experiences.
As explained by sociologist Charles Derber, a conversational narcissist is a type of “show off,” who always manages to turn the attention of others towards themselves. They do this during informal conversations with family, friends and other peers. They display little to no curiosity about you or your part of the conversation. A conversational narcissist craves attention and affirmation, while showing little interest in what their conversational partner is actually saying.
But it’s not always this deliberate. Sharp U-turns steering the conversation back towards yourself are painfully obvious. These make conversational partners feel ignored and talked-over; blatant narcissism pushes people away. Hence the fact that conversational narcissism can manifest itself as a more subtle phenomenon, that people may not even recognize in themselves.
A shift response in a conversation is an attempt to set the stage for the other person to change the topic and bring the attention to themselves. For example, responding to, “Wow, I’m so tired. I barely slept last night,” with, “Really? I slept poorly too, I have so much work to do this week that I just don’t have time for sleep,” is a shift response that completely disregards the initial statement. The transition of “Really?” prefaces the response, disguising it as a continuation of the same topic before digressing into comments about the speaker instead. This seems to imply malicious intent from the shift-response user, but it is not always this simple. A shift response may only be an effort to continue the conversation, by adding your own relevant experiences. The good-natured intentions of this kind of shift response end up lost if the conversation does not eventually make its way back to the original speaker. While shift responses may not be intentionally dismissive, they make the average person seem uninterested in what their conversational partner has to say, a prime example of conversational narcissism.
If you’re looking for ways to be a better conversational partner, a support response will help in avoiding dominating a conversation. A support response acknowledges the initial speaker’s words entirely, instead of brushing by them to turn the conversation towards oneself. In the example from before, responding to, “Wow, I’m so tired. I barely slept last night,” instead with something along the lines of, “Really? I slept poorly too. What do you think was keeping you awake?” still brings in the respondent’s relevant experiences, while also keeping the focus of the conversation on the original speaker. There is a natural flow of ideas without one person completely taking control.
Conversations are a give and take. It’s one thing to want to hear what another person has to say, but an entirely different situation if you only want other people to hear your voice. Always needing to have a better story, or constantly looking to steal the thunder of someone else, or even assuming other people do not have anything interesting to share are some signs of conversational narcissism to be on the lookout for. In a healthy conversation, everyone contributes; it’s a cooperative effort, not a competitive game. If you’re afraid of being a conversational narcissist without knowing it, ask yourself, “Am I trying to be interested or interesting?”