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Volume 23, Issue 44;   November 1, 2023: Exhibitionism and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I

Exhibitionism and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I


Exhibitionism is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Behavior considered exhibitionistic in this context is that which is intended to call the attention of others to the abuser. Here are six examples that emphasize exhibitionistic behavior.
Eduardo Escobar called safe at second

Eduardo Escobar called safe at second. The umpire is making an extreme hand gesture — more extreme than we typically find in the workplace. But gestures iike this, though rare, do nevertheless appear now and then.

This exploration of conversational narcissism began with "Self-Importance and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I," Point Lookout for October 4, 2023, with some definitions and examples. Briefly, conversational narcissism is the set of behaviors a conversation participant uses to direct the focus of a conversation from the topic at hand onto that participant or along directions favored by that participant. Conversational narcissism is a threat to organizational wellbeing because it distorts the outcomes of discussions, biasing them in ways preferred by individuals whose personal agendas might not align with organizational interests.

The methods used can be categorized as emphasizing some combination of self-importance, exploitation of others, exhibitionism, and impersonal relationships. This post begins an exploration of the narcissistic behaviors that are most closely associated with exhibitionism.

A bit of terminology

In the first The sense in which the term exhibitionism
applies to conversational narcissism
is what might be called showing
in everyday parlance
post of this series I introduced the term abuser as a shorthand for narcissistic conversation participant, because the term narcissist won't do — not all abusers are narcissists. In general, it's the behavior that is narcissistic, not the person exhibiting the behavior (though some who exhibit the behavior are narcissists).

In these posts, I describe someone as "having the talking stick" if he or she is the person whom the conversation participants acknowledge as the current speaker. (The term speaker won't do, because someone else might be speaking too.)

And a word about the term exhibitionism. Guided by the work of Vangelisti, et al., I've collected twelve different patterns abusers use and which are associated with exhibitionism. [Vangelisti 1990] The sense in which they use the term exhibitionism is what might be called showing off in everyday parlance. Briefly, this sense of exhibitionism is the collection of behaviors that abusers employ to capture and hold the attention of anyone within sight or hearing.

Six patterns of conversational narcissism that are associated with exhibitionism

In this post I describe six patterns abusers use to capture and hold the attention of the other conversation participants. They include using exaggerated hand or body motions, using exaggerated facial expressions, speaking in a loud tone of voice, using extreme language, laughing loudly, and dressing to attract attention.

Using exaggerated hand or body motions
For clarity of communication, gestures can sometimes surpass words. But abusers seek more than clarity — they seek to be the center of attention. For that purpose, not just any gesture will serve. The gestures abusers employ must stand out. For example, if using a gavel is called for, the abuser might use it with abandon, as if to crush the sound block. Or in the timekeeper role, the abuser might not be satisfied with calling "Time," preferring instead a slicing motion across the throat. To express exasperation, the abuser might bang the table repeatedly, alternating both fists.
Using exaggerated facial expressions
As with hand or body motions, the abuser's facial expressions must also be extreme if they are to serve to focus attention on the abuser. The Jean-Luc Picard face palm is an example. An overly broad smile can be effective in small groups or in teleconferences, if it is so broad as to communicate insincerity. But in meetings of 12 or more, it can be effective only if the abuser is positioned to be easily seen by all attendees.
Speaking in a loud tone of voice
A loud tone of voice can command the attention of all in face-to-face meetings or conversations, but the tone might not be striking enough in a videoconference.
Using extreme language
Extreme language of the first kind includes superlatives and black-and-white terms. Example: "If we adopt Josh's approach, we'll be bankrupt within 30 days — if we aren't imprisoned." Extreme language of the second kind includes terms generally regarded as raunchy, obscene, or generally improper. I won't provide examples. In either case, the abuser's tactic is to attract attention by violating whatever customs there are regarding linguistic moderation.
Laughing loudly
Although the voice volume associated with laughter does vary from person to person, voice volume of laughter is unlikely to draw attention unless the laughter is fake or inappropriately violates a social norm. On the other hand, fake laughter on its own does draw attention. One possible reason for this: humans are adept at detecting fake laughter. [Kwon 2017] When we hear it, even across the room, we're drawn to it.
Dressing to attract attention
Abusers who want to attract attention can choose from three categories of distinctive dress. Two categories actually have common names: over-dressed (more formal, elaborate, unique, or costly than the occasion calls for) and underdressed (less formal, elaborate, unique, or costly). Abusers at work tend to favor over-dressing, because it's usually associated with organizational power. The third category of distinctive dress is a catchall. Local traditional costumes, provocative or revealing clothing, and excessive jewelry or accessories are examples of using dress to attract attention.

Last words

Although auditors find abusers' behavior annoying and distracting, when the abuse is associated with exhibitionism in the workplace it can be especially corrosive. Unlike abusive behavior associated with self-importance or exploitation of others, exhibitionistic behaviors tend to be more clearly distinguished from non-abusive behaviors. Moreover, in the case of dressing to distract, abusers cannot "cease and desist" unless they have changes of clothes at the ready. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Asymmetric Group Debate  Next Issue

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Comprehensive list of all citations from all editions of Point Lookout
[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
[Kwon 2017]
Diana Kwon. "The Brain Can Distinguish between Real and Fake Laughter", Scientific American, May 1, 2017. Available here. Retrieved 11 October 2023. Back

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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.
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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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