We all have that friend who manages to turn every conversation into a story about themselves. It doesn’t matter what you are talking about.
Death of a family member? They also had a family member who died one time.
Having a hard time finding a new babysitter? They can totally relate and you’d better take a seat, because you’re about hear a diatribe of every babysitter drama they’ve ever had.
Looking to buy a new jacket? Hey! Guess who else needs a new jacket?
These people are the absolute worst because, honestly, there’s nothing as frustrating as talking with someone who won’t let you hold the floor for more than a second. This horrible habit of redirecting conversation has a term in the sociology world: conversational narcissism. And, spoiler alert: anytime something is referred to as “narcissistic,” it’s not a good thing.
So how do you handle a friend who behaves this way? Or what if that friend is — gulp — you?
Well, the good news is that being a conversational narcissist doesn’t necessarily equate to being a complete jerk. According to author and sociologist Charles Derber, this attention grabbing behavior is simply a response to the weak social support system in America. “People feel they must compete heavily for attention,” Derber says, “and in social situations, that results in steering conversation away from others and toward themselves.”
It’s also a way that we try to empathize with people we care about. You see, when a friend tells you that they’re going through something, it’s normal for your brain to search for relatable experiences that give emotional context to what you are hearing. But just because your brain is like “Oh, you totally get how she feels about her aunt dying because your dog died when you were six years old” — well, that doesn’t mean you should open your mouth and say it.
Confession time: I struggle with this. I am that friend who can accidentally hijack a conversation and annoy everyone around me. But if we are being honest, everyone has felt that itch. You know the one. Where you can hardly wait for the other person to shut up so you can jump in and share what’s on your brain? Yeah, we are all guilty of pretending to listen intently, when what we are really focusing on is what we were about to say next.
And science says it’s actually pretty normal. People enjoy talking about themselves, and for good reason. A recent study out of Harvard revealed that humans enjoy talking about themselves in the same way they enjoy pleasurable feelings associated with sex, cocaine, and good food. Combine that physiological enjoyment of self-talk with a desire to empathize with our friends, and what you end up with closely resembles a Toby Keith song. “I wanna talk about meeeee!”
But let’s go back to this whole “narcissist” thing, because even if it’s an unintentional behavior, and we are physiologically inclined to do it, conversational narcissism isn’t about to earn you any friends.
So how can we avoid it? Well, journalist and author, Celeste Headlee, has a pretty good idea. In her popular TED Talk “How a great conversation is like a game of catch,” Headlee explains that a healthy conversation should closely resemble — well, you probably guessed it — playing catch. Meaning, you need to catch as much as you throw.
“You’re going to talk 50% percent and listen 50% percent,” she explains, “and we don’t generally have that balance in our conversations.”
Well, that makes a lot of sense. And it’s probably easy for most of us to do. But what about when your brain is going 100 miles per hour, reminding you of every awesome story ever, and you are bursting at the seams to interject and share?
Headlee has an answer for that, as well. She recommends that you use those stories in your head to glean deeper understanding of what your friends are saying…and then shut up and listen.
“You…don’t want to open up your mouth and start talking about every similar experience that you have,” she says.
For a conversational narcissist, it appears the answer is pretty simple: Take the time to shut your trap and listen more. Keep in mind that conversation should resemble a game of catch.
And nobody likes a ball hog.