It’s our second date and we’re sitting outside at a lobster shack on a sunny August morning. Mr. N continues to talk about his job, his family, his ex- girlfriends, his childhood friends, and his dog. I’m nodding and listening, wondering if he’ll take a breath so I can comment, let alone interject, something – anything — about my life.
Now Mr. N is chatting up the waiter, telling him about the way HE prepares lobster at home. I can tell the waiter wants to get to his other customers. But I chill for the moment because the day is beautiful and the lobster is good…so good that I take a too big chew and start to choke.
Mr. N is so wrapped up in the details of his cooking story that he doesn’t notice my dilemma. I start to have trouble breathing. I’m struggling, kicking the legs of Mr. N’s chair. It’s so noisy midst the din of the busy restaurant, and Mr. N is so intent on his conversation, that he doesn’t notice the kicking. I start to lose consciousness as I hear, “Only then do you add melted butter.”
Gasping for breath, I suddenly sit up – in bed – and realize I just had a nightmare. The cause: an endless stream of dates with conversational narcissists. The cure: To Be Determined.
I can’t claim ownership of this apt term. Sociologist Charles Derber described the condition in which a self-oriented person repeatedly seeks to turn attention to himself in The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life. I just downloaded the kindle version of Derber’s book and a quick scan already produced some relevant research.
Derber’s studies of dinner conversations found that “drawing others out is a special skill associated with nurturance and mothering.” He writes, “It is also part of a feminine style which holds and attracts men. Most conversational studies suggest that listening is an essentially female skill.”
Speaking of dinner conversation, I’m reminded we haven’t had lunch. Let’s have an October treat: pumpkin risotto.
I think many women would agree that members of their own sex are better than men at both listening and drawing others out. I’d like to know if there are more recent studies that address this. (Derber’s book was first published in 1983 with a second edition in 2000.)
What has been your experience in conversations with the opposite sex? Have you been subjected to conversational narcissistic behavior in your dating life?
Of course, conversational narcissists are everywhere, not just in romantic encounters. They’re in the workplace, in your posse of girlfriends, in your latest Meetup group. They’re the people – men AND women — who don’t breathe between sentences. There’s no break between thoughts/words…just a constant stream of…. not consciousness but perhaps obliviousness – to other people’s needs. And they don’t seem to want to get to know you. Or why wouldn’t they ask some questions and give you an opportunity to talk?
As I review my dating history, it is clear that I have gone out with more than my fair share of members of this charming group. Most recently, I went out with Mr. B, a tall IT guy. During our pre-meeting phone chat, Mr. B told me about his family history, career trajectory, food allergies, and some medical issues.
During our first meeting, Mr. B revisited many of these topics. A menu review led to an in-depth discussion of his food allergies. On the second and last date, he provided excruciating detail about his former girlfriend’s mental instability. When he eventually diverged into a recap of his career and noted an interest in technical writing, I attempted to talk about my own writing. At that moment, Mr. B chose to check his phone. When his gaze returned to me, his eyes were glazed over. That was all I needed to confirm my first impression. Check please.
Perhaps the most egregious example of conversational narcissism that I encountered was with Mr. J, a budding or perhaps full-fledged alcoholic. I did not realize this was his problem at first. I thought he was just thirsty. For water. The afternoon of the day after binge drinking.
After a promising although lopsided phone conversation (75% about him), we met for a Sunday afternoon date. The venue: a cute indoor shopping complex (not a mall) in a historic Maryland town. Chemistry assessment: 100%. We strolled through the antique and tchotchke shops with Mr. J stealing kisses throughout the afternoon. When we sat down for an afternoon snack (and he gulped down tons of water – see above), we talked about our lives, but again the conversation was lopsided: 75% about him. Still, there was that chemistry/connection to counter it and the date lasted a good 5 hours.
A bizarre ‘monologue’ conversation late the next night turned ugly. It was clear Mr. J had been drinking. I spoke up about my concerns regarding the skewed conversation and he took immediate offense, went on a harangue, and ended up hanging up on me.
Over the next two days, there was a bizarre exchange of emails with Mr. J angrily demonstrating arrogance, meanness, and a whopping dose of narcissism. I noticed a correlation between his long-winded conversations and long-winded emails. All this after 1 date!
Since that extreme, unpleasant, and unusual episode almost a year ago, I have briefly dated a number of conversational narcissists. I haven’t said, “Look I can’t date you because you talk too much about yourself” but I am tempted. I’m searching for the right language to tell these guys about their problem. I wonder if they would be shocked. Would they believe my assessment? Would they change?
My brother told me one hopeful story of a woman who said to her date, “I like you but I don’t want to date someone who doesn’t seem to be interested in me.” He replied, “ I don’t want to be that guy,” and took her words to heart. They’re married now.
Maybe the answer is, if you really like a man and what he stands for, and you have good chemistry, speak up about his conversational narcissism. Unless he has a drinking problem, there’s a chance your words might be heard.
Until next week, happy dating or not dating!