Have you ever experienced a personal or phone conversation with someone after which you realized that the conversation was not a conversation at all? You think about what was said: what you heard the other person say and what you said, and you realized that you did not have a conversation but simply listened to a monologue, a long and detailed soliloquy about that person, his or her children or grandchildren, and what’s been going on in their lives. Perhaps you heard something about their political opinions or an especially good meal they had in a local restaurant or a bargain that they got in a local retail establishment. Or maybe something about that new car that they had just purchased or the new addition on the house or the new roof just put on or the new living room furniture.
During all this time you never heard a question addressed to you. You never experienced, heard or felt any interest in you, your home, your children, or what’s been going on in your life. Absolutely no questions were addressed to you. And if they perhaps did finally ask something, the correspondent never paused to hear your response so you could not continue. Or maybe if you were given an opportunity to respond, somehow your response was never connected to the friend’s life by their next response. You asked yourself when the visit or phone call ended – what happened there? I never discerned any interest in me, but did I maybe do that same thing? Did I ever ask a question about this person’s loved ones, opinions about anything at all, even the weather? Thankfully, you recall that you had. You did ask questions about loved ones, you did ask questions about feelings or impressions, or health and you did listen intently to the answer.
Maybe this person already knew all about you. Could that be? Or perhaps this person didn’t care to learn anything more about you than they already knew. If this was the case, was this person really a relative or friend? Are relatives and friends supposed to be this way? Or more likely, you were not even considered – this exchange, if that’s what could be called, was all about them. You didn’t matter, you didn’t exist.
But the feelings, the concerns and questions remain. Was this a conversation I just had? And if not, what was it? And if not, why not? What drives people to sit with you or talk on the phone and ramble on and on about themselves and their incredibly exciting lives while never exhibiting the slightest interest in you, your family or home or what you think about anything.
Well, what you just had was an exchange with a “conversational narcissist”, a term coined by Boston College sociologist Charles Derber in his book “The Pursuit of Attention”. These are the people who never ask you a question and if perchance you are provided an opportunity to interject something about yourself, they turn it away from you and toward them so they can continue talking about themselves.
Conversational narcissists are smart – they know what they are doing. They turn the conversations back to them in all kinds of ways. Have you ever had or heard a conversation that went like this? You – “I’m thinking of taking a road trip this summer”. Them, rather than asking something like, “Really, how exciting, where are you thinking of going?”, you get – “That’s great….I took a road trip last summer, blah, blah, and I’m thinking of taking another one, blah, blah. This time I’m thinking of going….blah, blah” You’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about.
Or, you get a more passive response like this. You – “I’m thinking of taking a road trip this summer”. Other person – “Really, how exciting, where are you thinking of going?”. And then when you respond and get to the details you might get a few “Uh-huh”s and “Hmm’s”, maybe some yawns, but no comments or questions, all indicating that the other person is not really interested in your response or is not really listening. So eventually you stop talking and the other person starts in again about themselves. The conversational narcissist has won.
A good conversationalist practices support-responses which can take three forms – the first is the background acknowledgement mentioned above such as “yeah”, “uh-Huh”, “hmm,” “sure”. Or he or she can offer acknowledgments that indicate real active listening, like, “That’s great”, Wish I’d done that”, or “That’s not right”. Best of all of course are supportive questions that show that you are not only listening but are really interested in hearing more, e.g. “Why did you feel that way?” or “What are you going to do now?”. These support responses are generally offered by people who generally care about the other person. But what is wrong with the person so tied up, so repressed, so uncomfortable, or so self-centered that they cannot participate in a real conversation?
Is it simply a strong and pervasive conviction of oneself’s own importance, preeminence, superior erudition or confidence that induces a person to talk endlessly about himself or herself? Does this person really have absolutely no interest in you or your life? Or has this person simply no idea of what a conversation is, no idea of how to be polite, how to ask a question, no idea of how to make the other person feel valued or validated.
Or is this person, this relative, acquaintance or friend just so lacking in confidence and unsure of himself of herself that they must prattle on and on about the trivialities and endless details concerning a routine, barren and boring life in order to give it some semblance of meaning and significance? Is this long monologue an attempt to fill the void in which they live, to give meaning to a meaningless life?
Maybe these individuals truly think that their existence, their lives, the challenges they face, their accomplishments, are of such importance that anything in another person’s life is truly transcended and overwhelmed by theirs and therefore not worth inquiring about or considering.
Or perhaps it’s just pride, arrogance or plain old lack of respect bourne by some people that obliges them to think only of themselves and never of others and for whom a conversation is always a monologue and never a dialogue. Or maybe it’s just a singular lack of curiosity that precludes questions from some.
Regardless of whether it is an exalted notion of one’s own self importance resulting in a total lack of interest in others, or it is just the opposite, an inferiority complex that has focused this person’s attention on covering up this sad lack of accomplishment with a torrent of words and meaningless details about a barren life, it’s really painful to experience.
Then there are those people, those friends, relatives and acquaintances, whose reminiscences, whose observations, whose insights, and whose accomplishments are of such consequence to me that you want to listen to every word and every detail of a conversation. And interrupting with a question might seem inappropriate, unless it’s a question probing for greater detail or depth. These people are like the professor, the pastor, or the philosopher, whose education, whose knowledge or whose convictions you truly respect, and whose words, statements and observations are so persuasive that you can do little more that sit, rapt with admiration and riveted attention and listen to wisdom, not only entertained but actually learning something of value.
This takes us to perhaps the best kind of conversation – when two people who have extensive knowledge about a topic and are willing and eager to share information and opinion, to politely argue for their points of view, discuss a topic removed from themselves – maybe a book, an author, an idea, a theory, or an opinion. These are great conversations, when you really feel that you are leaning something and that, wow, perhaps you are giving the other person something valuable and important as well.
What am I saying here, why am I writing this? I guess that I have had some really bad conversations and I look back and ask myself what could I have done to make them better. I want to ask questions, to listen, to understand, and to reflect on someone else’s views. And I want the same for me. There are few social exchanges worse than a bad conversation and few better than a really good one. I long for more of the former and fewer of the latter.