My sis-in-law, Hannah, put me on to this interesting article from The Art of Manliness about conversational narcissism.
My parents always encouraged us to ask questions of people, even before we were in our teens. Not really having a gift for small-talk, it’s always been a challenge. Since then, I feel like I have sometimes gotten much worse at listening, especially when I am in company with someone who is truly generous with their interest.
While I was aware that competition for attention is generally an unhelpful attitude, I hadn’t actually identified the second narcissistic marker they mention – withholding questions or attention, which they call passive conversational narcissism.
I quibble with them there – when faced with someone who is habitually narcissistic in their conversation, one of the only polite responses is to withhold your questions. That isn’t conversational narcissism in reply, it’s a small reminder to them that there are other people present who would enjoy talking about other things.
Secondly, the less you know someone, the harder it is to ask valuable questions, something we can all understand. It takes a certain amount of effort to establish common ground. I wouldn’t call that narcissism. That’s just the difficulty of making conversation with someone you don’t know well. I believe actual passive conversational narcissism comes in when people do know you well, but can’t be bothered to do more than talk about themselves.
And if the pattern of communication you have made with someone is based on competition for attention, rather than being interested in someone else’s lives and thoughts, there is no reward for common courtesy even should one party make an effort. A return to politeness by one simply satisfies the other, and that person continues on without change. Real improvement can only occur if both parties put aside their desire to be foremost.
For the most part, it’s a juvenile frame of mind we all go through and (hopefully) grow out of by our early or late teens. Some people never pass through it at all. Most of us did, though, and this article is an excellent reminder we all need from time to time on how to treat others with consideration.