But Enough About You
A few years ago, your Curmudgeon was witness to a remarkable conversation between two theatre actors who were working together for the first time. Over the course of a meal, they managed to mention as many of their credits as possible. That conversation went something like this:*
Marie: It’s such a pleasure to finally be working with you, Bruce. By the way, Cassandra Wayne insisted I say hello. She and I just closed The Seattle Story off-Broadway.
Bruce: So you know Cassandra! Cassandra is such a great person. We did the premiere of Welcome to My World together in Boston. She was my Madeline.
Marie: Boston! My God. I haven’t been there since I played Margot in the first national tour of Let’s Play Pretend. It was my first time being directed by Jules.
Bruce: How funny. I just had lunch with Jules last week. He cast me in Nightsville on the West End. Great production.
Marie: Jules is very good. You know, Cassandra was up for my part in the film I’m doing now, My Sister’s House.
Bruce: Was she? Last I heard she was doing The Chop Shop at Des Moines Rep. You know, that’s where I originated the role of Brockhurst in Heaven Knows. Such a great place to work.
Marie: Oh, I know. I’ve done fifteen shows there. I’d love to go back but I’m in rehearsals for Mamie Morgenstern’s Garden at the Wickman Center.
Bruce: Oh, I love that play. I did it in Gainesville.
Marie: At the Gainesville Playhouse?
Bruce: No, the Gainesville Rep.
Marie: Oh. I was going to say, because the Gainesville Playhouse is my old stomping ground.
Bruce: Isn’t that something? So you know Monty.
Marie: Monty and I used to date. That was before I got Play That Samba at the Davenport.
Bruce: My God. The Davenport. I’ll never forget it. I starred in The Trained Bird there.
And on they went, ad nauseum. Each time one of them spoke, he or she brought the conversation back to something about himself or herself. There wasn’t any competition between them, nor did this appear to be calculated in any way. Rather, it was this: So great was the desire to share more and more about themselves that it overshadowed any desire to learn anything about the other person.
This is what’s known as conversational narcissism, the tendency to want to discuss only oneself. And those who practice it—however unconsciously—often do so with the dexterity of a ninja, so as to avoid coming across as selfish, rude, self-involved, or uncultured, all of which, of course, they are.
The friend who shows empathy for your situation by saying, “Believe me, I can relate. Something similar happened to me . . .” and tears off into a self-centered narrative . . . the coworker who minimizes your story with a more impressive one (“You think you have it bad? At least you’re not in my situation . . . ”) . . . the neighbor who simply never pauses long enough for you to participate in the exchange—these are all conversational narcissists. And they are a scourge. Even if one is correct in assessing oneself as utterly fascinating, this style of verbal interaction is nevertheless bad form, not to mention vampiric.
We don’t often realize we’ve been their victims until the conversation is long past and we find ourselves wondering why we feel as if we’ve been mugged. That’s how adept some of these people are at making themselves the topic of every conversation, preying on those of us who are too well-mannered to raise objections.
Not that it would do much good. Point out that a conversational narcissist is being a conversational narcissist and he’ll either tell you you’re being too sensitive and no fun, or say he understands because he’s encountered conversational narcissism before and launch into a long story about the experience, a story that, by pure coincidence, happens to star him.
No, there are only two ways I know of to deal with such a person.
My favorite is to take a large iron skillet, approximately twelve inches in diameter, and smack the selfish boor right on the noggin with as much force as you can muster. Of course, this method raises other issues, such as potential legal liabilities, not to mention the frustration of having provided the C.N. with yet another story with which to captivate future unwilling listeners.
The second method—though less satisfying—is the safer choice. That is to let the fool ramble on. Arm yourself with encouraging words and phrases that don’t take much time to say, such as “Really?” “Amazing!” “And you say this actually happened?” “What did you say to him?” and use them liberally. Believe it or not, this is the quickest way out of the brambles. And then do your best never to encounter that person again. If you do, claim to have had a brain injury resulting in the inability to understand English. (I suppose you’d need to learn to say that in a foreign language. Here it is in Hungarian: Agyi sérüléseim miatt képtelen voltam megérteni az angol nyelvet. That should do the trick.)
It all reminds me of something else about me . . .
*Names and titles have been changed.