Conversational Narcissism

"I was saying," continued the Rocket, "I was saying --- what was
I saying?"
"You were talking about yourself," replied the Roman Candle.
"Of course; I knew I was discussing some interesting subject when I was so rudely interrupted..."

-- Oscar Wilde, "The Remarkable Rocket"

"Without attention being exchanged and distributed, there is no social life," the sociologist Charles Derber wrote in his influential study The Pursuit of Attention. "A unique social resource, attention is created anew in each encounter and allocated in ways deeply affecting interactions."

Derber observed that the social support system in America is relatively weak, and this leads people to compete mightily for attention. In social situations, they tend to steer the conversation away from others and toward themselves. "Conversational narcissism is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America," he wrote. "It occurs in informal conversations among friends, family and coworkers. The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life..."

What Derber describes as "conversational narcissism" often occurs subtly rather than overtly, because even the dim-witted among us know that it's rude not to show interest in others, and prudent to avoid being judged an egotist.

Derber distinguishes the "shift-response" from the "support-response." The difference between the two is evident in these examples:

John: I'm feeling really starved.
Mary: Oh, I just ate. (shift-response)

John: I'm feeling really starved.
Mary: When was the last time you ate? (support-response)

John: God, I'm feeling so angry at Bob.
Mary: Yeah, I've been feeling the same way toward him. (shift-response)

John: God, I'm feeling so angry at Bob.
Mary: Why, what's been going on between the two of you?

"Conversational narcissism involves preferential use of the shift-response and underutilization of the support-response," Derber notes. Excessive use of the shift-response is actually not common because it is patently egocentric and disruptive. According to Derber, a "more acceptable -- and more pervasive -- approach is one where a conversationalist makes temporary responsive concessions to others' topics before intervening to turn the focus back to himself. The self-oriented conversationalist mixes shift-responses with support-responses, leaving the impression that he has interest in others as well as himself."

The example Derber gives below illustrates this point:

Jim: You know, I've been wanting to get a car for so long.
Bill: Yeah. (support-response)

Jim: Maybe when I get the job this summer, I'll finally buy one. But they're so expensive.
Bill: I was just thinking about how much I spend on my car. I think over $1500 a year. You know I had to lay out over $750 for insurance. And $250 for that fender job. (shift-response)

Jim: Yeah, it's absurd. (support-response)
Bill: I'm sick of cars. I've been thinking of getting a bicycle and getting around in a healthy way...

Jim: I love bikes. But I'm just really feeling a need for a car now. I want to be able to drive up the coast whenever I want. (shift-response)
Bill: Uh huh...(support-response)

Jim: I could really get into a convertible.
Bill: Oh, you can go anywhere on a bike. I'm going to borrow John's bike and go way up north next weekend. You know, a couple of weekends ago Sue and I rented bikes and rode down toward the Cape...(shift-response)

At first glance such a discussion might appear to be reciprocal, but in fact both conversationalists at different points try to steer the conversation back into the orbit
of self.

The dynamic of conversational narcissism is of course more complex than these few examples suggest. Derber sees class and gender influencing people's propensity to gab or to listen. An influential or powerful person will naturally demand a captive audience (unlike, say, the lowly philosopher, to whom no one need pay any attention). Even today, a "good," "feminine" woman is expected to be generous with support-responses, and listen to assertive men, even if they have nothing particularly illuminating to say. The therapist-client relationship is built on the tacit understanding that the therapist will listen empathetically and keenly to the patient, offering only support-responses, while the patient is given free rein to discuss any aspect of his life.

The ideal conversation would occur when neither party seeks to monopolize it, and when the direction is governed not by individual will or emotional neediness but by the flow of ideas. In such a circumstance, people would only speak to up the intellectual ante -- not in any competitive or adversarial way, but in a spirit of wanting to nourish the intellectual rigor of the conversation.

As Derber points out, the ideal is very hard to attain, because people often enter into conversations seeking to receive attention rather than to give it. This norm is unlikely ever to change in a society that is increasingly impersonal and atomistic, and conditioned to award attention to those with status rather to those who might actually have something interesting to say.

Further Reading

Nancy Chodorow, The Social Reproduction of Mothering (1977)

R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience (1967)

Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism (1978)

David Reisman et al., The Lonely Crowd (1950)

Richard Sennett, The Fall of Public Man (1977)