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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

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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

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