Are You a Conversational Narcissist?

I know that I am at times. Loving one another in our conversations with one another can be a challenge for most of us, and so when I came across this post on the blog “The Art of Manliness,” I had to stop and check it out. The post is called “The Art of Conversation: How to Avoid Conversational Narcissism.” While I see no indication that “The Art of Manliness” blog is written from a Christian perspective (and so I can not vouch for everything that they speak about, or even their particular view of “manliness”), the post gives a helpful description and examination of something that we have all experienced. It is well worth the five minutes it will take to read it.

The writers of the post have based it off of a book by a sociologist named Charles Derber. They say about the book,

In The Pursuit of Attention, sociologist Charles Derber shares the fascinating results of a study done on face-to-face interactions, in which researchers watched 1,500 conversations unfold and recorded how people traded and vied for attention. Dr. Derber discovered that despite good intentions, and often without being aware of it, most people struggle with what he has termed “conversational narcissism.”

As the writers go on to say, conversational narcissism is when people “seek to turn the attention of others to themselves” in a conversation. They say that conversations are supposed to be cooperative endeavors, where each person gives and receives the attention of the group for a time. They say that a good conversation is a group effort. We all work together to produce an enjoyable conversation (and as Christians, we would say to glorify God and build one another up in Christ). They go on to say:

That’s why it’s so important that conversations are cooperative instead of competitive. But many people (and Dr. Derber argues, Americans especially, because of our culture of individual initiative, self-interest, and self-reliance) make conversations into competitions. They want to see if they can get the edge on the other people in the group by turning the attention to themselves as much as possible. This is accomplished through the subtle tactics of conversational narcissism.

Why shouldn’t Christians be conversational narcissists? There are two biblical reasons I can think of off the top of my head (and maybe you can think of some more).

1) It is foolish.

Since I have struggled with the desire to gain attention from people in the conversations that I have with others, a particular verse that the Lord has used in my life is Proverbs 18:2: “A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind.” This verse shows us that the fool chooses to focus on himself, and enjoys talking about himself and what he thinks. Oh! How often that can describe me! But what does the fool miss out on? He misses out on the understanding that he could gain from listening to others. Other people can give us perspective on our lives and have wisdom that they can share with us, and when we focus on ourselves in a conversation, we ignore the insights of others to our own detriment.

2) It violates God’s command to love our neighbor.

As those who have trusted in Christ to rescue us from the slavery and punishment of sin, we understand that God’s purpose in our life is to conform us to the image of Christ. Part of what this means is becoming more like Christ in the way we love our neighbor. Paul makes this point in Philippians 2:3 when he says “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind consider one another more important than yourselves.” Paul then goes on in verses 5-11 to speak of how Christ humbled Himself by going to the cross to die for us. In other words, Christ’s humble death on the cross is the model, the template for how we ought to love our neighbor by meeting their needs even at our own expense.

How does this apply to the way we talk with one another? It means that when we have a conversation, we ought to deny our desire to constantly be the center of attention. It means taking an interest in the other person by asking lots of questions and actively listening to their responses.

It also means that we should look for how we can most serve the other person in the conversation. We can ask questions of ourselves like “How can I build up this person in this conversation?” “How can I involve Christ in this conversation?” “What needs are being evidenced by the other person in this conversation?” Doing this doesn’t mean we can never talk about things that interest us, or that we can never be the center of attention – after all, a good conversation is something that we all share in together. It simply means that we deny the impulse to constantly dominate the conversation at the expense of the other people involved in it.

I confess that I often struggle with this in my own life. It can be really hard to love people in our conversations with them. As I think of the way I have failed to love others and show how great God is in my conversations, I am so thankful that in Christ, God sees me as having perfectly obeyed His commands to love Him and other people. Not only that, but He has put His Spirit in my heart and is working to transform me to be more like Christ. In light of that, let us put to death our conversational narcissism and love one another with our speech to the glory of God (and forgive one another and be patient with each other when we fail to do so :))!

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