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Volume 23, Issue 40;   October 4, 2023: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I

Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I


Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors that participants use to focus the exchange on their own self-interest rather than the shared objective. This post emphasizes the role of these behaviors in advancing the participant's sense of self-importance.
A blue peacock of India

A blue peacock of India, displaying its plumage. Such displays are typical of courtship behavior. It has long been believed that they serve as sexual attractors, as first proposed by Charles Darwin. But a more recent hypothesis is that the burden of producing and maintaining such plumage is evidence of physical fitness.

The fitness hypothesis might also apply to the human behavior described here as conversational narcissism. Demonstrating superiority in one-upmanship exchanges might be taken by others as an indicator of fitness, which is useful in the workplace for determining how to fill critical roles.

Conversational narcissism is a set of behaviors exhibited by participants in a conversation who want to focus the exchange onto themselves. [Derber 1983] [Vangelisti 1990] [Derber 2000] Conversational narcissists do this without showing significant interest in topics related to other participants.

Conversational narcissism can appear in any conversation, but it's of special interest to organizations. For the context of organizational interactions, conversational narcissism can elevate the risk of discussions producing invalid or suboptimal results, because the pattern can cause the conversation to focus on an individual and his or her needs in place of organizational interests.

In this post and posts to come, I describe the pattern and the behaviors people exhibit when they exploit conversations and participants for objectives that differ from the then-current focus.

Four themes of conversational narcissism

As Vangelisti, Knapp, and Daly have shown, we can describe narcissism itself, and the behaviors that comprise conversational narcissism, in terms of four themes — self-importance, exploitation, exhibitionism, and impersonal relationships. [Vangelisti 1990] In this post and the next, I explore the variety of narcissistic behaviors that indicate conversational narcissism is afoot, and which are associated with self-importance. In posts to come I'll address the behaviors that can be categorized as associated with, respectively, exploitation, exhibitionism, and impersonal relationships.

The patterns of conversational narcissism that are associated with a sense of self-importance

Note 1 In what follows, I use the term abuser to refer to the person exhibiting the narcissistic behavior. I'm compelled to use this term instead of a more oobvious choice, narcissist, because the conversation participant who's exhibiting a narcissistic behavior might not be a narcissist.

Note 2 In what follows, I describe someone as "having the talking stick" if he or she is the person who is acknowledged as the current speaker by the conversation participants.

With respect We can describe narcissism and the
behaviors that comprise conversational
narcissism, in terms of four themes:
self-importance, exploitation, exhibitionism,
and impersonal relationships
to a given conversational context, and possibly with respect to a broader context, abusers harbor a self-image they find unsatisfactory. To address their discomfort, they construct a false but grandiose image that they must validate by observing its effects on the other conversation participants. This exaggerated sense of self-importance leads them to employ tactics described in this post and the next.

Narcissistic questioning
Most people ask questions because they're seeking information or clarification. Narcissistic questioning is different. The abuser asks questions not to gain information, nor to elicit clarification, but to demonstrate superior knowledge about the topic of the question. Ideally, in the abuser's mind, the person questioned will be unable to respond, or might even request elucidation before framing a response.
Backdoor bragging
To indulge in backdoor bragging is to articulate a statement or question that contains, in a subordinate form, information intended to burnish the abuser's image, or otherwise indicate the importance or elevated stature of the abuser. Example: "It's painful for me to attend her meetings, because my own are so much more orderly and effective."
When the abuser acquires the talking stick, you had best settle in for the long haul. Abusers know that the time allocated to any given conversation is finite, and when the abuser isn't speaking, someone else will be speaking. So, when making contributions, abusers employing the filibuster tactic aim to consume as much conversation time as possible by including irrelevant detail, or by speaking slowly, or by any other means that comes to mind.
Dismissing others' contributions
By disparaging the contributions of other participants, abusers elevate their own contributions by comparison. If successful, the conversation participants will necessarily spend less time focused on the disparaged contributions, which makes more time available for considering the contributions of the abusers.
Creating pseudofacts from thin air
By repeatedly presenting opinions — or actual lies — as undisputed facts, the abuser can convert baseless assertions into facts in the minds of some of the other participants. Call these assertions pseudofacts. This strategy is most useful if the pseudofacts support the abuser's claims that contributions of others are unworthy of serious consideration.

Last words

The five patterns described above are not alone. Next time I examine eight more that are associated with self-importance. First in this series   Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II  Next Issue

101 Tips for Effective MeetingsDo you spend your days scurrying from meeting to meeting? Do you ever wonder if all these meetings are really necessary? (They aren't) Or whether there isn't some better way to get this work done? (There is) Read 101 Tips for Effective Meetings to learn how to make meetings much more productive and less stressful — and a lot more rare. Order Now!


Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[Derber 1983]
Charles Derber. The pursuit of attention: power and individualism in everyday life Reprint Edition. Oxford University Press, 1983. Order from Amazon.com. Back
[Vangelisti 1990]
Anita L. Vangelisti, Mark L. Knapp, and John A. Daly. "Conversational narcissism." Communications Monographs 57:4 (1990), pp. 251-274. Available here. Retrieved 16 September 2023. Back
[Derber 2000]
Charles Derber. The pursuit of attention: Power and ego in everyday life (second edition). Order from Amazon.com Oxford University Press, 2000. Back

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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

What a videoconference looks like when all participants have their cameras offComing December 6: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: III
Having off-putting interactions is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are seven behavioral patterns that relate to off-putting interactions and how abusers use them to control conversations. Available here and by RSS on December 6.
Lifeboats on board the FS Scandinavia, May 2006And on December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways requires, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.

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