Conversational Narcissism

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”                      Epictetus

Sunday I took myself out for a late breakfast at a restaurant near where I am camped in San Diego County. The Trails is becoming a favorite of mine. The menu is good and even though it is often crowded and there is a wait, as a single I get to sit at the first come first serve counter. I love sitting there. I never know who is going to be sitting next to me.

The first time I went I met a young man who shared with me all of his favorites on the menu. We had a delightful conversation. Since then I have seen him again. As I walked in he was walking out. Yesterday I met Dan, an older man, an author, and quite the conversationalist. I spent almost two hours chatting with him, learning about his unique and interesting life. For two whole hours, I left my cell phone ignored on the counter, and when it did ring I simply set it to message. I don’t do that often enough these days. It is definitely something I would like to do again and a bit more often.

Lately, I have had some sites cross my Facebook page regarding the topic of Conversational Narcissism. When I reposted it I was amazed at the responses I received. It appears many of us saw a little bit of ourselves in the related post: The Mistake I Made With My Grieving Friend. This article and further articles I have researched on this topic have made me very aware of my human fallacy when attempting to support and listen to my friends and others.

“Conversational Narcissism was coined by sociologist Charles Derber and describes the tendency to turn a conversation back to yourself. Conversational narcissists tend to keep the focus on themselves, so you’re getting attention but not giving any away. It invalidates the other person and what they’re trying to share. The problem is, talking about ourselves is natural, so it’s hard to notice when you’re overdoing it.” (Marissa Lalibert)

I have experienced this with Jim’s death, my own experiences with cancer and currently with the loss of Elsie the Cat. Many times the conversation was turned around to the person who was attempting to listen and support me. There are times that this made me feel unacknowledged and uncomfortable. Never, please never tell someone to move on. Need I say more.

Part of being human is recognizing my own frailties and learning how to change and grow from this recognition. I recognize that I have also been the one turning the conversation to myself. I hope that it happens less now. I am more aware of this conversational tendency and I can catch myself, take a deep breath and turn the conversation back to the person who is needing my support and love.

In my twenties and thirties, I studied medicine and spirituality with the Native American culture. I valued the “Talking Stick”. The Talking Stick is a tool used in many Native American traditions when a council is called. It allows all council members to present their point of view. It is passed from person to person as they speak and only the person holding the stick is allowed to talk during that time period. Using an object, any object is a visible reminder to those of us not holding the stick to be quiet and listen, really listen. The person holding the stick is able to complete a thought or idea. The speaker feels his opinion is respected and valued and considered.

The Society of Friends, more commonly known as The Quakers also practice this art of listening in their Silent Meetings for Worship. “During worship, a message may come to us. Friends have found that messages may be for our personal reflection or for sharing on another occasion. Or they may be led to stand and speak. Friends value spoken messages that come from the heart and are prompted by the Spirit, and we also value the silence we share together. Following a spoken message, we return to the silence to examine ourselves in the Light of that message. Meeting for worship ends when one Friend, designated in advance, shakes hands with his or her neighbors. Then everyone shakes hands. No two meetings are ever the same.”

Back to Dan at the restaurant on Sunday. He was a delightful man with a very interesting past. The longer I sat there, I realized he never asked me anything about myself. For almost two full hours Dan spoke of himself and his life experiences. Dan never even asked me my name. Although I enjoyed hearing of his life and the history of Los Angeles, where he grew up, and what he had achieved in his life, he never once asked me about myself. What was I doing there? Where did I live? The usual conversation openers when people meet for the first time were not present.

In certain circumstances, maybe Conversational Narcissism is OK. I learned a lot from Dan. He was a storyteller and wove the stories of his life in an interesting and ear-catching way. I had a delightful two-hour conversation with him. I did not feel devalued or left out. Even recognizing that he never asked me anything about myself, the two hours were delightful. I had no expectations just a good breakfast companion.

I also think that what we see as a one-sided conversation, maybe contributed to loneliness. Dan lived alone, I live alone. Sometimes when I am around others I will tend to talk more than when I shared my life with Jim and even Miss Elsie the Cat. Yes, I do get tired of my own company. Yes, there are ideas I want to share. I do try to catch myself when I feel like I am talking too much. I believe I do better at this today than when I was younger.

I am sitting in a coffee house as I write this. My ears are a little more tuned into conversations around me. The art of conversation is hard. Unless we have taken classes in the art of conversation, all of us struggle just a little with the whole idea of communicating with others. I was not taught how to converse as I was growing up. You just did it. Sometimes it was successful and others, well, not so much.

As we approach the holiday and we gather with family and friends, our conversational awareness will be tested. The family often is the ultimate test of conversation. They can be the most critical and the most supportive. As I approach Christmas day I hope that I can remember to take a deep breath and truly listen to the joy of others in the celebration of this day.