Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 23, Issue 46;   November 15, 2023: Exhibitionism and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II

Exhibitionism and Conversational Narcissism at Work: II


Exhibitionism is one of four themes of conversational narcissism. Here are six patterns of behavior that are exhibitionistic in the sense that they're intended not to advance the conversation, but rather to call the attention of others to the abuser.
One human being comforting another

In most conversations, at any given time, one person does receive more attention than the others. Inequality of attention among conversation participants is not sufficient evidence that the conversation is displaying a narcissistic pattern. Another (more) significant indicator is the extent of effort exerted by the person who received the group's attention to somehow intentionally manipulate the group into providing that attention.

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.

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

A bit of terminology

Following the pattern of previous posts in this series, I begin with some introductory information, repeated here for convenience. If you recall those earlier posts, you can skip this next bit.

In the first 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's narcissistic, not the person exhibiting the behavior (though some who exhibit the behavior are narcissists).

In these Inequality of attention directed at conversation
participants is not sufficient evidence that the
conversation is caught in a narcissistic pattern.
A more significant indicator is the presence of
manipulative behavior that led to the inequality.
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 12 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 gain and hold the attention of anyone within sight or hearing.

Six more patterns of conversational narcissism that are associated with exhibitionism

In an earlier post, I described six behavior patterns that abusers could employ to capture and hold the attention of conversation participants, and which are associated with exhibitionism. In this post I describe six more such patterns. They include pointing to oneself when speaking, primping or preening, making noise to attract attention, touching others, positioning oneself in a group focal point, and varying vocal tone.

Pointing to oneself when speaking
Some forms of such pointing gestures communicate messages equivalent to chest thumping in gorillas. Gorillas use the behavior, it is thought, to communicate their power and dominance. A workplace example of pointing to oneself in human males is raising both forearms and pointing thumbs at the upper chest.
Primping or preening
To primp or preen in the workplace is to attend to one's appearance excessively. The problem is not that the primping occurs in public view — it need not occur there, and rarely does. What makes this behavior problematic is the effect it produces. It draws attention to the abuser, distorting the flow of the conversation.
Making noise to attract attention
In this context, noise refers to sounds other than verbal vocalizations. Examples include loud laughter, cheers, clapping, finger snapping, or pounding the table or a desk. Attention-grabbing noise enables the abuser to steer the conversation in a favored direction (or away from a disfavored direction).
Touching others
Touch can be a delicate topic, because of gender boundaries. Still, touching others is a tool of demanding attention even if the touch doesn't involve gender taboos. Back-slapping, shoulder-grabbing, and even extending handshakes beyond the "shaking" phase are all tactics that demand attention. Touch is especially effective for demanding attention in workplace cultures in which it's rare to touch others beyond the standard handshake or elbow bump.
Positioning oneself in a group focal point
In face-to-face conversations, the geographical center of the group is advantageous to those who seek to be the center of attention. Abusers favor this position for that reason. In videoconferences, the center of the group depends on the nature of the data connection. For example, if several important participants are gathered at one site using a single camera, the abuser likely favors that site. If all participants have the same type of connection, with all sites having similar connections, the abuser likely will favor the "host role" if the connection offers one.
Varying vocal tone
Varying vocal tone, pace, and volume can draw and maintain attention. Pace and volume have widespread accepted meanings, but tone of voice is less universally understood. Examples of tone include confident, informal, casual, confidential, sarcastic, respectful, humorous, questioning, didactic, factual, and reminiscing. There are dozens more.

Last words

The presence of one or more of these patterns, independent of context, doesn't prove that conversational narcissism is afoot. Stronger evidence lies among the steps taken by conversation participants to introduce these patterns. That evidence would be in the form of an abuser who employs these patterns in a systematic way to capture the attention of the conversation participants, and then uses them to direct the conversation. The abuser need not enunciate a clear conversational objective. Rather, the abuser's goal is control. In a sense, exercising the power to set the objective is the objective. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Off-Putting and Conversational Narcissism at Work: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info


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

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

This article in its entirety was written by a 
          human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

This article in its entirety was written by a human being. No machine intelligence was involved in any way.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Meetings:

Don't start meetings on the hourMastering Meeting Madness
If you lead an organization, and people are mired in meeting madness, you can end it. Here are a few tips that can free everyone to finally get some work done.
A Rough-Legged Hawk surveys its domainTake Any Seat: II
In meetings, where you sit in the room influences your effectiveness, both in the formal part of the meeting and in the milling-abouts that occur around breaks. You can take any seat, but if you make your choice strategically, you can better maintain your autonomy and power.
Thumb upDecisions, Decisions: I
Most of us have participated in group decision making. The process can be frustrating and painful, but it can also be thrilling. What processes do groups use to make decisions? How do we choose the right process for the job?
A hearing in the U.S. Senate, in which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is responding to questions about appropriations.What Makes a Good Question?
In group discussion or group problem solving, many of us focus on being the first one to provide the answer. The right answer can be good; but often, the right question can be better.
A business meetingStart the Meeting with a Check-In
Check-ins give meeting attendees a chance to express satisfaction or surface concerns about how things are going. They're a valuable aid to groups that want to stay on course, or get back on course when needed.

See also Effective Meetings and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

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.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenogMhuqCxAnbfLvzbner@ChacigAthhhYwzZDgxshoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.