real life

When my mum died, she made it about her: My oldest friend is a conversational narcissist.

Life is short, leisure time limited and, crucially, the f**ks you have left to give are dwindling. So why are we tolerating conversational narcissism?  

While you might not know the term, I bet you’re familiar with the concept: that person who can only talk about themselves and somehow - rather cleverly, it has to be said - manages to steer the conversation back to their own life.

Oh yes, they ask a smattering of questions about you along the way, but if anything, that’s the perfect segue back to them.

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You absolutely know one. Maybe you *are* one. Maybe we all are some days. And though I’ve only noticed the phenomenon in the last few years (s**t, was I one?), they’ve surely always been there. 

Off the top of my head, I can count at least six people who fall into this category. Which seems like a lot when they are acquaintances I see regularly, even if it’s only at school pick up or on the soccer field. 

And before you accuse me of not knowing how to have a conversation, yes, I realise people bring up examples of their own lives to connect, share and empathise with you. I do know this. 

I also know that when it becomes a “shift” response (spinning the chat back to them) instead of a “support” response (keeping the focus on the speaker and the topic about which they are talking), you’re likely dealing with a conversational narcissist.

Curious, I started Googling about a year ago. And omg, there were articles that spoke to me (and provided my shift and support terminology). 

Like finally realising why you’re feeling so irritable (PMS) or why the whole family is annoying you (loud eating), understanding this was a ‘thing’ that did indeed exist made it way easier to deal with. 

Oh yeah, and asking a mutual friend (three hours into a 12 hour lunch) whether she had also observed the behaviour (she had and oh, the relief to realise someone I loved and respected had noticed - and was equally floored by it - was immense). 

“The complete lack of awareness is astounding,” she declared recently. “I hate going into the office because it’s full of them!”

The (rather awkward) thing is, one of my longest-standing friends happens to be one. 

We haven’t lived in the same city for quite some time, but we talk every few months and have managed a number of catch ups in the past 10 years. She is kind, thoughtful and well-meaning. But I have to say, also lacks an ability to read social cues. 

She considers herself enlightened in the art of good conversation and life in general, so is this ironic or simply human nature? To me, it’s puzzling.  

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The day my mum died, this friend managed to manoeuvre the conversation back to her and how she felt when her own mum passed away.

Look, I get it - she was trying to empathise with me and thought an example from her own life would help. So yes, I realise it was done without malice, but she was “shifting” and I simply did not have the emotional energy that morning to make the expected sympathetic noises. 

I remember taking a deep breath and excusing myself to return to funeral planning.

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You know what they say at corporate sessions: ‘There’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth’

Because don’t worry, less than two weeks later when we caught up again, my situation - while absolutely discussed - had well and truly taken a backseat; if anything, it was the perfect springboard to talk about anything related to her. Impressive, really.

I like to think I’m conscious of ensuring a two-sided conversation. 

And yes, there are times it’ll be more weighted to one person because that’s life: we all experience different shit at different times and need to vent, workshop and cry about those issues. 

That’s friendship - listening, empathising and simply being there for *all* the times and not just the fun ones. But when your chats consistently and very obviously end up about one person, that, to me, is hogging the conversation. 

By now, some of you are getting irritated, right, and think I should call out the guilty parties on their behaviour? 

Yeah, that’s one option, but I’m not convinced it would change anything. And is it really my job to tell these people (so, you know, other adults) they’re crap conversationalists? Maybe by choosing to highlight it here, it actually *is* my duty. I don’t know.

For now, I choose to prioritise mutually beneficial friendships (read: those who know how a two-sides chat goes) and accept some people we come across won’t ‘fill my cup’. 

I’m lucky enough to have plenty of incredible people in my life, so managing the more, umm, self-absorbed people I know is do-able. 

And with age there certainly comes a more acute barometer for who you’re going to connect with and who you aren’t. 

Not everyone will like you; nor will you want to be friends with every person you cross paths with. Which is more than ok.

So for all the eternal listeners out there, the ones labelled ‘reserved’ because they don’t blather incessantly about themselves, the souls whose woes take second place in conversations - I get it. Don’t resort to competitive talking. Please. 

Instead, focus on finding your tribe, the ones who give you what you need - no, what you deserve - and then look forward to many years of sincere, stimulating and satisfying conversation. Because there’s only so many f**ks you have left to give.

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