Have you ever been one-upped? We all know at least one person that has something to say about every single thing. That one family member, friend, etc. that just MUST tell you why their experience is worse, more traumatic, funny, or whatever than yours is. It sounds like this:
“I really need to get new shoes. These are really worn out.”
“Yeah, me too! The ones I have on came from Zappos six years and I had to fight a feral cat in the parking lot just to get them to my car. They were worth it though. I ran the Boston marathon in them!” (Followed by a longer story about the Boston marathon that will parlay into something else).
Think back to the last time you had a conversation with someone else. Coworker, friend, spouse- it does not matter. Do you remember it? More importantly, do you remember the part that you turned the conversation? When you were the one upping conversational narcissist?
That part when your colleague said something like “I am so tired today. I didn’t sleep at all last night”. Then you responded with regaling a long tale about how you too are tired because your dog was sick, your husband snored, and the covers were too hot.
We all do it, to a degree.
Casually referred to as one-upping, but Sociologist Charles Deber coined it conversational narcissism. Most people have no intentions of one-upping in a conversation. It’s born out of a need to connect with the other person. We really want to have the “same-ness” in common when our coworker complains of being tired because we are tired too.
We believe that if we say things like “Same”, “Girl, me too because….”, and share a story that is similar, it makes us more connected. It doesn’t, really. It only creates distance and insincerity. Here’s why:
Responses that pivot the conversation back to you are shift responses. Shift responses are the exact opposite of creating a same-ness connection. They are dismissive and can be rude. They invalidate the other person. We use these responses subconsciously because we are uncomfortable to the one thing we are super comfortable with — ourselves.
I am guilty of doing this. My go-to response used to be “Oh yeah, I understand that because…”. The thing is, most of the time, I don’t understand. Not exactly anyway. The same situation can happen to two separate people and both people will experience it differnetly. I can say with certainty that my son being stillborn very brightly highlighted this for me. I still, nearly 2 years later, get responses like:
“I know how you feel because I lost my grandmother last year” or “I understand because I had a miscarriage once.”.
Even other parents who have experienced stillbirth or neonatal death can’t fully understand because, like I said, everyone experiences emotions differently. When these types of shift responses are used, I shut down in the conversation or become defensive. Instead of making me feel connected or cared about, I feel dismissed or invalidated.
How Do We Fix This?
On a basic level, we don’t. It is an individual-level issue with group-level consequences. However, I think there are four pivotal points we can all work on in our own lives to just simply be better.
Pay attention to how you are interacting in your life. Are you a conversational narcissist? A classic one-upper? Do you constantly find yourself responding with sentences that start with “I get it”, “I completely understand”, “That’s like this one time that…”.
If the answer is yes, try to change how you are communicating. Use a support response, or try asking focused questions. Ask “What kind of shoes are you considering?”, instead of trying so hard to have same-ness by regaling the tale of why you need new shoes, too.
With your words and how you are utilizing them. Words have power, even on social media. My favorite quote is a Maya Angelou quote that, in short, says people won’t remember what you said but they will remember how you made them feel. In a world where most of our interactions are text-based, words matter. Be intentional with yours.
Continually Work At It
The key in communication is that it should be an 80/20 split. Most of us do the opposite of that. We spend 80% of the time talking and only about 20% of the time listening. If you are genuinely invested it should be the reverse.
Learn To Empathize
When you start creating awareness of your own behavior patterns, being intentional, and focusing on your ability to communicate, you’ll be surprised at how much better you can empathize with others.
(A quick note- empathy is about understanding how another person feels. Empathy is NOT relaying that understanding by sharing a semi-related story about your life. No one ever understands anything unless they are listening which you can’t do if you constantly say, “Oh I totally get that because…”).
Think of social media platforms as the epitome of conversational narcissism. Designed to share and discuss ideas and the like, but instead is now the epicenter of sharing anything and everything you as an individual want to share with no need to follow up. Then factor in the power of social media. It dominates our time. We network, buy a couch, find local events, read the news, and see Aunt Janie from Oregon’s political rantings all from these platforms. The social currency of our modern lives is really attention (fight me about me). It is the perfect visual of how conversational narcissism works and how ingrained it is, too.
Because it’s so ingrained, we as a whole suffer in our relationships, with connection, and with communication. However, by increasing our self-awareness, intentionality, and empathy levels we can all become better listeners and better communicators.