A couple of months back a friend sent me an article about the dangers of practicing “conversational narcissism” around those who are grieving. She said “isn’t this such a great term? It explains so much about what feels wrong about talking about yourself around someone who’s grieving.”
I was a bit more cautious, as usual. “Well—”
See, I had seen a couple of articles with this term going around lately. And I was particularly nervous about this particular term, and the absolutist advice that went with it in these easy-to-digest articles.
My Reservations about Relational Tips
As I started to discuss last week, a lot of small communication acts can have a lot of different meanings, and so I get nervous when articles give them big loaded terms and make it seem like every time you’re going through a rough time and someone else pivots to talk about their experience that we ought to use a big flashy shame-y term like “conversational narcissism” for it.
In the remainder of this article I will use this term as an example of why I get nervous about too easily adopting such terms and applying them too widely. I’m writing this just after the start of a New Year, which is a time when self-help gets its strongest boost, so I thought it was timely to approach this topic just now. (But I hope the advice is useful year-round.)
NOTE: My doctorate is in communication, so I’m mostly trying to stick to that lane here—but I tend to be nervous about the oversimplification of other areas as well. Please note as well that I have not had a chance to read the original material by the sociologist who coined the term–I’m just responding to the popularization of the term.
Why Terms like Conversational Narcissism Are So Seductive
So yes, back to my friend asking me about the article talking about conversational narcissism, and why the term is so popular.
I totally see some reasons it makes so much sense to accept this advice without asking more questions or digging deeper, no matter how smart you are. Things move fast these days, and relationships are hard. Figuring out how to deal with people going through rough times can be particularly hard.
To make it just that much harder, our culture is often allergic to negative emotions. And so some people absolutely can get really dismissive around people that are trying to express their hurt and pain and grief. And often those people turn the conversation back to themselves.
Small Acts Really Can Build Up
I do want to acknowledge that can be problems surrounding talking about yourself when people are trying to share their problems with you.
If this kind of move is seen as a sign of poor listening and in turn is associated with a lack of caring, talking about yourself regularly when someone else needs support is absolutely a problem that can damage relationships, especially if it’s taken as a sign of disconfirming communication—communication that makes someone feel less respected/valued/cared for.
And if a pattern of this kind of thing builds up, whether from one person or from a wide range of people, it can seriously lead to low self-esteem for a person who in turn can experience actual trauma from it, whether it was intended or not.
But Let’s Not Get Too Hasty with Our Generalizations
But, but, but…talking about yourself when someone else wants support isn’t a problem in all cases. Nor does it have to be considered as one.
I’ve taught interpersonal communication for years now to a wide variety of college students, and every time I talk about different types of social support, I ask the students what they find most supportive when they’re going through tough times.
And you know what? It varies. Student to student, class to class, school to school, situation to situation.
When Talking about Your Problems Marks You as Safe
This semester, shortly after I came across the article about conversational narcissism, we were discussing social support in one of my sections. And one of my students—let’s call this student Chris—made a wise comment. Chris talked about how she often sought out social support in difficult times from those that had been through similar things. When she said it, there were many nods from around the classroom.
The student said she felt that way because she knew the other person could empathize with them. When that condition was present, she had no problem with the other person sharing their story. In fact, she found the person sharing their similar story as something that created the feeling of that person being a safe person to confide in.
It’s Just Not that Cut and Dried
So yeah, based on this wise comment, on the research I’ve read, on other stories I’ve heard, and on my personal experiences, I have a problem with taking a term like conversational narcissism and thinking that every time we speak about ourselves when someone else is going through a hard time that it’s a problem. Because sometimes someone talking about their own similar difficult experience can actually make someone going through a difficult time feel less alone.
In other words, sometimes it can be the opposite of disconfirming communication: confirming communication. That’s right—there are times when telling our own stories may actually improve our connection to others.
Granted, it’s often best to feel out the situation, to listen carefully first, and get a sense—and even ask—what the other person feels they need for support before you jump to your own story. Please don’t take my reservations as an opposing absolute, by any means! J
The Unpredictability of Relationships
The scary thing, of course, is that there’s not always a way to predict whether this strategy—of offering one’s own story—will “work” in a given situation or not. People are unpredictable, especially when going through difficult times.
The better we know someone, the more we know their patterns, the more we’ve talked about how to support one another, the easier it is—but the thing is that there’s no perfect user’s manual to relationships in the moment.
There Are No Silver Bullets.
I repeat: There are no silver bullets.
I can totally see the temptation of following self-help-type relational advice too carefully, though.
It’s More Work to Dig Deeper—But Creates Better Relationships
It’s sooo much easier to apply the label of “conversational narcissism” to ALL situations in which we shift the conversation to ourselves than it is to dig a little deeper.
To take the context of the relationship into account. To look at what might be going on in terms of stress and shame and trust in that particular situation.
Here’s one big problem with this absolutist approach: Taken to an extreme, this label, applied too quickly, could be used to push off the right of the other person to be human, especially in relationships with little power differential.
In, say, a close friendship or a romantic relationship, it’s common that one person will be going through a rougher time than the other, but ultimately, it’s important that the other person have the right to also ask for support as well as offering it.
It also doesn’t take much imagination to get to a situation in which the use of this term could be used against someone with low self-esteem as a form of abuse, to try to convince them that they had no right to have an opinion or their own problems.
The Potential for “Pain Olympics” Problems
And this is where things get particularly sketchy for me. See, we all have needs for social support—sometimes more than others. And it’s true as a general rule that we need to give someone with really challenging problems lots of space and voice to air their concerns.
But too often—for good reasons grounded in things like stress and shame—the question of who had the worst hurts really can become a competition. And too often it doesn’t have to be.
Too often those in deep pain insist that we have to share their pain completely to be supportive. And that’s also not true.
To Really Support People, “One Size Fits All” Rarely Applies
There’s a reason we in communication studies have long lists of terms for different kinds of support.
See, sometimes we need to fully feel those feels and talk and get it all out there.
But sometimes we need to be distracted, whether by someone else’s story or something else. Sometimes we need to feel close to someone else, or get good advice out of their story.
Sometimes we need an act of service to be done for us to feel loved.
And sometimes when we’re seeing things only as negative we need to be challenged on our perceptions of the world by someone we trust.
And sometimes we need to feel better by listening to someone else’s problems.
A New Year’s Challenge
So yes, it’s a complex world, friends. And relationships are complex. Requiring a wide range of tools in our toolbox, and careful analysis before we jump into using a particular one.
See, it’s so much easier if you have a few absolute rules to apply to the world than it is to acknowledge that we may need a bigger toolbox to address tricky relational situations.
And that we could use all the tools in even that larger toolbox and the other person may still not react the way we’d hoped.
So here’s my challenge to you. I’m offering it at the start of a new year, but it is really applicable year round.
Resist quick fixes, friends. Especially when they come in shiny label-filled packaging.
(And don’t get me wrong—I love terms that help us name things. But as I’ve been saying, it can be seductive to apply labels too quickly or to the wrong things.)
One Final Word
Yes, of course some people are conversational narcissists. We’ve all known them. But keep in mind that it takes an actual ongoing pattern of interactions to truly see that that’s the case.
And please please please let’s save that term (and others like it)—especially such big diagnostic terms—for people who genuinely fit the pattern over time.