After a long break from social media (essentially Facebook) I’m back, but on Instagram. The photo-sharing site feels more manageable than Facebook, though a few of my interactions give me unpleasant flashbacks.
Let’s take Thomas. On social media (and on the phone and in person) Thomas has a clever-clever response to everything. It annoyed me until I realised, this is what I used to do, and still do if I don’t catch myself: wander around people’s status updates or threads, and leave clever comments, sometimes nothing more. What this does, in effect, is make the other person’s story about me. When other social-media users see my comment and like it, or respond “Good one!”, the original user’s story has been co-opted.
This is a form of “narcissistic conversation”, and my desire to shame Thomas for it, was to avoid the shame I felt for having done that very thing to so many people. Narcissistic conversation has been a big part of my last year. I’m more attuned to it because on the larger arena, we’re listening to each other so much better (recognising voices of minorities and the less privileged), and at the same time reacting so strongly to events and ideas, that we’re barely listening to anybody about anything.
On the smaller arena, bad listening has always been a problem, but it seems to be getting worse. As I look over my interactions of 2017, I see how some people never ever ask about my life, not even after I solicit, and they joyfully share, details of theirs. Others ask, but seem almost pained as I speak, switching the story back to themselves at the first breath I draw. One person has the habit of interjecting with a machine-gun-like “yup yup yup yup” that makes me cut myself short because I feel as if I’m taking up his precious time with my banalities.
Even when bad listeners pause long enough to hear you, there are elaborate rituals to invalidate you. It’s a common ploy to lie in wait to criticise your choices or recommendations, whether a film, city, restaurant, lifestyle, or opinion. This doesn’t mean everyone should love everything you do, but it’s easy to spot the difference between genuine disagreement with an understanding of your context, and an insecure person hitting back at you with glee, because they feel diminished when they don’t know everything.
The character George in Edward Albee’s 1962 play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? described a “declension” that perfectly sums up the norm of conversation as competition: “Good, better, best, bested.” The word he used, declension, means both the variation of form of nouns or adjectives, and a moral deterioration. When conversation becomes competition, we lessen our world.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be messy — if you can’t make mistakes and cross lines with your friends, then what use friendship? I allowed Thomas months of messiness, during which I felt deeply unheard, and frequently put down or hit out at. When it got too much, I was messy myself in how I set my boundaries. But people with low awareness of their narcissicism, do not take kindly to boundary setting, whether neat or messy, and they will drop you.
Luckily, you can test for narcissistic conversation long before being shut out. After you talk to a person, do you feel happy and energised, or drained and disregarded? If it’s the latter, is being dropped by them such a bad thing? Protecting yourself from narcissicism is empowering, but never forget to keep a close watch on the most cunning and insiduous narcissist of all — the one inside.
Gautam Raja is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles, US.