Vandana Gopi* had been feeling the change within herself for some time.
She was aware she’d started going to the salon more often since she’d moved to Dubai from London 18 months ago. She realised she’d been getting her nails done and having regular facials for the first time ever, spending longer in front of the mirror each morning, making herself look as perfect as possible.
And Vandana, 32, had heard herself start to overplay her achievements. She’d name-drop big clients her PR firm was working with and hint she was leading major projects.
On social media, meanwhile, she had taken to posting messages that casually but carefully hinted how good life was: a small mention for a business-class flight here, a little reference to a five-star meal there.
But it was only when her sister, Shraddha*, visited from the UK three months ago that she realised her personality had undergone a shift.
‘We were getting a taxi to a Downtown restaurant,’ she recalls. ‘And the driver took a wrong turn somewhere – easy enough to do.
‘I remember seeing red and saying, “Well, thank you very much for making us late”. I was asking him how he could be so useless at his job. I said, “Do you want a tip? I’ll give you one – learn where you’re going in future.”
‘My sister sat in shock. As soon as we got out, she was on me: “Since when do you think it’s OK to talk to someone like that? I’ve never been more ashamed to be related to you.”’
But what made Vandana, of Dubai Marina, think it's OK to speak like that was very simple: she was suffering a particularly pronounced dose of Expat Egotism. Have you got it too? It isn’t exactly unique to the UAE. Indeed, it is a simple form of narcissism – a self-aggrandising belief that you are more important and talented than others – which experts reckon has been on the rise globally since the Seventies.
That, say leading psychologists Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell in their definitive 2009 tome The Narcissism Epidemic, was when the self-exploration advocated by the post-war generation started to morph into the self-obsession associated with generation X. The boom of the self-improvement industries in the Nineties, the growth of a culture that promotes instant gratification in the Noughties and the rise of social media during the past decade have all added to an age where vanity is barely even seen as an ugly word.
Since narcissism isn’t seen as a clinical condition, exact figures proving this increase are difficult to find. But in the US, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory – an annual survey of college students compiled since the early Eighties – suggests such tendencies doubled between 2002 and 2007 and have been increasing ever since. The website journal Psychology Today adds that cultural indicators – the increase of plastic surgery and the rise of the selfie, for example – is further proof of an age of self-obsession.
And here in the UAE, experts reckon, this is especially prominent.
Super-high standards of living, a service culture that panders to diva-like demands, the desire to be seen as a success, and a reliance on social media to stay in touch with back home are all causes of expat egotism, they say. ‘If you’ve fallen into the trap of me, me, me, it’s not a good place to be,’ says Carmen Benton, manager of LifeWorks personal development training centre in Umm Suqeim, Dubai.
Such behaviour, she says, can result in the breakdown of relationships as you become less concerned for others. It damages career prospects because you fail to listen to colleagues or see your own possible faults. And it can cause health issues related to stress – constantly worrying about how others perceive you takes its toll.
If you’re worried you may be starting to suffer Expat Egotism, we have a list of seven classic symptoms – and ways to remedy yourself...
Seven telltale signs that you have it
1 You obsess over your appearance
You want to look nice, obviously. Nothing wrong with that. And especially not in Dubai, a city that places great pride on image. But if you find yourself obsessing about white teeth, designer outfits and hair that never strays, perhaps you’re placing an importance on your appearance that’s not entirely healthy. ‘Pamper yourself by all means,’ says Ghada Zakaria, executive leadership coach with Authenticity Coaching and Consultancy in Al Barsha, Dubai. ‘But remember what’s inside needs attention too. No one ever found self-fulfilment having manicures three or four times a week.’
Try instead? Focus on your health. A couple of hours of exercise will not only help keep you looking young and vibrant but, because it increases your happy hormone, serotonin, it will leave you feeling great, too.
2 You check social media all the time
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram? These sites all promote self-promotion – and it’s a small step from that to self-aggrandisement. Indeed, a York University study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking concluded that those who use Facebook most tend to have narcissistic personalities.
The rule appears to be this: if you can no longer enjoy a restaurant meal/night out/holiday without posting about it online – and wanting likes for said post – you’re probably the wrong side of egotistical.
Try instead? Go a day without tweeting. If you must be online, why not check the news, views and culture sites? It’s possible you’ll find them more rewarding than seeing a person you don’t know has liked your latest food picture.
3 You speak to people like they’re nothing
A question: at what point, between moving to the UAE and right now, did the people who do this decide it was acceptable to talk to others – usually those who are in a lower socioeconomic bracket than them – like they were nothing? What went wrong?
Well, actually, says LifeWorks’ Carmen, it’s an easy trap for any of us to fall into. ‘The service culture here is so pandering and so willing to accept the customer is always right, that people start to believe it,’ she says. ‘And that ends with them talking in a way they would never dream of back home. If that’s you, take a long hard look at yourself and reconnect with your humanity.’
Try instead? Talk to everyone – even the taxi driver who doesn’t get you to a Downtown restaurant on time – like you would want to be spoken to yourself.
4 Your small (and big) talk revolves around yourself
‘Good conversation,’ so says Catherine Blyth in her book The Art Of Conversation, ‘is a team sport; pace and energy keep it alive.’
With narcissists, though? Not so much. Their conversation tends to be more a monologue with an interlocutor’s occasional supporting noise. And if you’re starting to recognise that in your own chat – if it always comes back to your work success/latest holiday/home improvements – it may be worth remembering Blyth’s number-one rule: ‘The key to good communication is listening’.
Try instead? Ask questions and take an interest in what other people have to say – you may find it enlightening.
5 You constantly pap yourself
You’re on a night out, you’re looking glam, you’re heading into a high-end restaurant. But what’s this? There’s no paparazzi here to snap your arrival?! Never mind. With a camera phone and an Instagram account, you can always be the star of the show.
Except should you be photographing yourself quite so often? Could this just be a vaguely futile attempt to encourage others to validate your existence through the medium of Instagram?
It could indeed, says Dubai-based lifecoach Helen Williams. ‘This behaviour allows people to say, “Look at me, I’m so important”,’ she notes. ‘What they don’t realise is that it also shows that you need to have your self-belief reinforced by other people.’
Try instead? Leave the camera switched off, or even at home. If it’s not all over Instagram, it still actually happened. Honest.
6 You rarely do anything that doesn’t directly benefit you
The UAE is a fast-paced country. Sometimes you need to live life in acceleration just to keep up. Ambition and aspiration are the average.
And that can mean we start to focus on only doing things that will benefit us: working longer hours to boost career prospects, making sure we’re seen at events, spending money on material goods to impress. And such self-focus leads to self-obsession. The solution may be in helping others, says Ghada Zakaria, the first Emirati woman to qualify as a life coach in the UAE. Charity work, volunteering and donating time have all been proven by study after study to boost happiness and fulfilment.
‘We are very lucky to live in a great country,’ says Ghada. ‘We should be paying some of our advantages forward.’
Try instead? There are countless charities and enterprises calling out for volunteers. Find a spare hour and get involved.
7 Your children are mini divas
‘You see it at the school gates,’ a mother told Friday earlier this year. ‘Mums using their children as status symbols. It’s sad but it’s so hard not to be sucked into competing.’
In our materialistic, self-important world more and more parents are spoiling their children – and that leads to mini divas. If your youngster has an insatiable appetite for new clothes and a belief they have a natural entitlement to whatever they desire, they’re getting it from somewhere. And that somewhere is probably you.
Try instead? ‘Be aware that your children are always logging – and mimicking – your behaviour,’ says Tanith Carey, the British author whose book Girls, Uninterrupted analyses the phenomenon of mini divas. ‘If you’re a shopaholic, then it’s highly likely your kids will be one too.’ So don’t behave how you wouldn’t want your child to.
* Names changed