November 14, 2009 10:01 AM   Subscribe

Does anyone have any experience with self-absorption/egocentricity? I've been noticing the fact that whenever I'm talking with others, I tend to bring the conversation around to myself. I keep telling myself not to talk about myself, but people ask questions and when they do I tend to fall for it every time. How do you make conversations with others and build friendships without talking about yourself?

I usually start with open-ended questions and try and find out as much as I can about the other person, but the conversation inevitably turns toward myself as you can't just interrogate someone or else they'll think you're really strange. This is probably a silly question. From a psychological perspective they say that egocentricity is a stage that we all go through while growing up. For whatever reason it seems that I haven't made it through this stage quite yet. The other part of conversation that I struggle with is that when I'm speaking with someone, I tend to listen so intently to what the person is saying that I have a hard time processing what they're actually getting at. Does anyone else experience this? I'm not sure whether I'm trying to think of the next thing that I want to ask the person or whether I'm just trying too hard and unable to relax. Any suggestions from people who have struggled with these issues would be greatly appreciated.
posted by Garden to Human Relations (23 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
For me, it's always give and take. Remember that you need to take an active role as a listener. Keep things in mind that might be relevant, but truly listen for what the other person wants you to contribute when you listen, instead of just waiting for cues to push the conversation back on yourself.

Lots of people are guilty of this to some degree, myself included. But I find myself mentally shutting off the "takeover" side of things because I'll literally railroad the conversation if I don't. So I tell myself I'll only engage on their terms and offer my reaction and advice to their conversation such that they'll contribute more of their story or discussion about what's going on in their lives.

My friend just got a promotion. We were talking about it, and it stayed about him, his promotion, and what he'd be doing. I didn't take the first opportunity to say to myself "well, promotion is work-related, I'll tell him about today at the office and take over from there." Instead, I listened intently and focused just on what he was talking about, using the natural ebb and flow of conversation to contribute just enough to get my questions out there and to learn more about the subject he was talking about.

That's probably the principal piece of advice—take a conversation as an opportunity to learn. Ask the questions that will help you learn more about what the other person has to say. Remember that people truly love and respect a great listener, and want nothing more than someone who isn't just waiting for their turn to speak. If you really hang on what your friends are saying like you say, you should be coming up with a series of natural questions to follow up and learn more. Don't *overthink* it, but listen, process, and start thinking of additional questions to ask to learn more.

Also don't forget that half the time, you can be on the other side of this. Your friends want to learn more about recent events with you, and they'll ask follow up questions themselves. Things bounce around--try to read if they have a story to tell and you need to stay focused on them, or if you're just batting back and forth and go from there, but you're probably overthinking a bit.

It's good to be self-aware. No one likes the person who drones on endlessly about themselves while only contributing enough to a conversation to get back to themselves. But it's easy to not be this person by listening and asking engaged questions. Offer your contributions, but let the conversation roll back to the other person. And don't over-analyze. If in doubt, slow down and quiet down, but let it come naturally!
posted by disillusioned at 10:14 AM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Remove the focus on yourself and answer the question by addressing the topic and then returning to the questioner.

Sample Question: "Hey, Garden, do you like movies?"

Bad: "Oh yes I love movies. I have this really deep love for movies. It's as if I was just made for seeing movies. Last week I saw four movies. I really liked The Box, it reminded me of the time I got this weird package in the mail that had no return address. I said to my husband..."

Good: "Yes, I love movies. I saw The Box last week, and I thought it was really interesting how Kelly shot some of the night-time scenes in what I think was digital, it really made the scary parts pop. Have you seen it?"
posted by rokusan at 10:22 AM on November 14, 2009

Note: The Box is an awful, awful, awful film. Just an example.
posted by rokusan at 10:22 AM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Avoid the words "I" and "my" in your responses.

When my family gets together with others and I listen to the wives talk it is always about the kids. It is an endless futile cycle of , "My Johnny does this....." and "My Jimmy does that..." People aren't listening to one another. Get rid of the "I" and "My" for a bit and guess what? you're listening!
posted by teg4rvn at 10:28 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think that one key is being aware of the "you had to be there" factor. Would the thing you are about to say still be interesting if it was about an anonymous stranger that nobody in the room had ever met? If so, tell the story, if not, it is only interesting to you because it is about you.

Another thing to consider is the difference between orienting and interlocking behavior in conversation. Something is orienting if it is directing the attention of participants in the conversation to something outside the interaction that may be mutually interesting. Something is interlocking if it is tied to the interpersonal dynamics of the exchange.

Orienting behavior draws attention away from the interaction at hand, and is characterized by the presence of alternatives or choices - the conversation could flow in various directions as the whims of the participants express themselves. Interlocking behavior is dictated by the logic of the interaction and is characterized by the lack of choices - it is as if the conversation is on a train track and there is no way to change direction. Of course any statement made in a conversation has its orienting and interlocking roles, but being conscious on both levels simultaneously helps avoid many conversational traps.
posted by idiopath at 10:39 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, it takes practice. There are some other reasons than pure self-centeredness that it could be happening, too (although it can give off the impression of self-centeredness):

Maybe you love listening to other people's stories so telling your own stories is a way of 'giving back'. Maybe you're so interested in people and psychology and everything and it's just that the only experiences you've had to share happen to involve you. Maybe you just have a very good associative memory, so that every story people tell reminds you of another story or a news article you read. I think disillusioned and rokusan have some solid points about how to do it, but I just wanted to add that poor filters / talking about yourself a lot isn't always about self-centeredness (unless you're sooo bored the whole time they're talking just waiting to get to talk about yourself).
posted by Lady Li at 10:56 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I doubt most egocentric people know they are egocentric, so you are already way ahead of the curve here.
posted by massysett at 10:57 AM on November 14, 2009 [2 favorites]

Don't create a categorical rule against talking about yourself. If the other person asks you a question and you keep trying to steer the conversation away from you you'll look weird and make the other person uncomfortable. They'll probably start to get some of the same anxiety you have about appearing egocentric, or wonder what's up with the interrogation... etc. A conversation isn't going to get anywhere if one person is always talking about themselves -- whether it be you or the other person. Reciprocation is good.

A good barometer I use is to ask myself how I expect the other person to respond. If I expect the reaction to be nothing more than a springboard for me to keep talking ("That's interesting;" "I'm not really a football fan;" "I've never seen that movie;" "Wow, really?") I'm probably talking too much about myself. If I can identify something in my statement/opinion/story for the other person to genuinely respond to I'm probably okay ("I love that movie!" "I read an article about that the other day," "The weatherman said tomorrow's supposed to be nice"). If I a statement to be really stimulating and it falls flat, I know to move on.

I used to worry about the exact same thing; it took me a few years to realize I was really overthinking everything. If you're concerned you talk too much about yourself, you probably don't do it too frequently anyway.
posted by lilac girl at 11:00 AM on November 14, 2009

Everyone's a little self-absorbed but I think the fact that you actually care enough to ask this question means you are not a major offender.

Trust me, a truly egocentric person does not give a shit about such things. I'd say you maybe just have a little social anxiety.

Talking about yourself a little is not a bad thing as long as you listen when the other person is talking (which you do). People who only ask questions seem a little weird and invasive to me.
posted by Jess the Mess at 11:27 AM on November 14, 2009

Play conversation tennis!
posted by beepbeepboopboop at 11:38 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think that the trick may be learning in general to ask good give-and-take questions of the other person in the conversation. Not so much removing yourself as the subject of the conversation but learning to increase the focus on the other person and whatever they might want to talk about. It might also help to break up the intensity of your listening and help you follow the other person's tack, if you are mentally trying to generate questions rather than what you're going to say yourself.
posted by XMLicious at 11:41 AM on November 14, 2009

I do this occasionally, and I do get the feeling people are put off by it. But I swear, it is not for ego purposes. If someone tells a story about something, I'll share some similar experience I've had. Not because I'm one upping or diminishing, simply because I want to share the experience with them. (But I do notice that the people who most often react to this badly are competitive people, who really didn't want to conversationally share. They just wanted to brag...)

The way around that, I think, is to try to figure what their reason for telling the story is, and react in the most generous way.
posted by gjc at 11:46 AM on November 14, 2009

I do this because of the ADD (also the focus thing you say, where you can't listen because you're trying too hard to listen--heh).

Anyway, if I start to feel too annoying I just shut up and start listening to other people's conversations for a while.
posted by kathrineg at 11:51 AM on November 14, 2009

I worry about this too with myself too. I encourage you to entertain the possibility that you are actually quite interesting and that people genuinely want to hear what you have to say. So I say, don't beat yourself up too much about it - but to get the focus off you, follow rokusan a bit there, and explicitly ask people for their opinion or reaction to what you are saying, or if they have had similar experiences. Easy phrases like "do you know I mean?" or "have you ever seen anything like that?" sound rhetorical, but if you pause a bit, it's a door for the other person to contribute and, most importantly, relate.

Also, maybe if you are like me, you often have something that you want to say in the middle of someone else's story. Like some middle part of what they are saying is a great segue into something you really want to say.... if you do end up cutting them off, make an effort to remember where they were, and when you are finished, apologize, and remind them where they were and that you wanted to hear the rest.
posted by molecicco at 11:51 AM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

A conversation doesn't have to be about you or them. Think of third parties to talk about, things, or events - past, ongoing, upcoming. You can also just DO things with people without talking - make things, go to amusement parks, hike, go to movies, museums, etc. This is good because you can then talk about what you did.
posted by lorrer at 12:27 PM on November 14, 2009

I wouldn't worry too much about it. I usually mention something about myself during every conversation, but that is what keeps the conversation going. Usually the other person will say something about themselves, and we'll just bounce around from there. I've noticed that if I intentionally try not to talk about myself (I've had your same worry before) that the conversation becomes stale.

One thing I would suggest is to try to branch off of things they said, if you're worried it's too much you. So you might (hypothetically) say, "Oh, I spent a year in Spain! It's awesome! Have you ever been?" And if they say no you can ask if they've ever been out of the country or what their favorite place is, just go with the flow that way. If they say yes, you've successfully got them sharing things about themselves again.
posted by biochemist at 12:51 PM on November 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

The fact that you're becoming conscious of this will probably give you all the boost you need to start evening things out.

Also, remember this -- people don't mind if you're talking about yourself or your life as long as you are being a genuinely entertaining and inclusive conversationalist. If you sound like you've probably told a story a hundred times already, or what you have to say (about yourself) isn't fitting for the situation, then of course they won't appreciate what you have to say, but if you can engage someone at the right level, then it really doesn't end up mattering what you talk about.

Some people are conversationally awkward and will keep turning the conversation toward you out of fear of having the attention turned onto themselves. The important thing is for you to really try and get a feel for people and sense what is appropriate.

The more glasses of wine you've had at a party, the worse you will be at this.
posted by hermitosis at 1:57 PM on November 14, 2009

It's a question of hamfistedness and equal(ish) mic time. If we're talking about hitch-hiking, and then all of a sudden you start interjecting with a story about how your ex-girlfriend won't stop calling because she thinks you still have the keys to her moped, then I am going to hate you. Not because you're talking about yourself, but because you're changing the flow of the conversation from where it's heading to naturally to where you want it to be. Also, if you tell a really really really long story, and then as soon as someone else starts talking, you basically bust into another really really really long story, that's not cool either. Find a way to direct the convo back to the other person and make them talk a bit.
posted by 23skidoo at 2:30 PM on November 14, 2009

Have you by any chance read Dale Carnegie recently?

I found reading "How to Win Freiends... etc." made me incredibly self conscious about my conversational habits. There was a This American Life where Paul Feig had a mortifying (but humorous) attack of self consciousness after reading the book in middle school.

Conversation is a two way street. You want to learn about the other person, and they want to learn about you. It's okay to talk about yourself - particularly in the form of amusing anecdotes. As long as you're engaged and interested in what the other person is saying it's totally normal.
posted by ladypants at 2:33 PM on November 14, 2009

I couldn't have written it more succinctly than beepbeepboopboop.

Talking about yourself is not bad. All our experiences are seen from our own perspective, and they're the only real "original material" we have to talk about.

I think the main thing is to listen to the other person when they are talking. Actually listen. When you know the other person has said what they want to, then you go ahead and say what you have to say, related to the topic at hand. There's nothing wrong with a brief pause between one person finishing an anecdote, and another person "taking the reins" for a bit, so to speak. A good conversation is about give and take.

What I can't stand is the person who INSTANTLY interjects when you start talking, with their own comments, purely focused on themself. In Dilbert terms, it is the Topper.

Real, recent example:
Diag: Y'know, the moment I started to respect nurses so much was the moment I saw my Dad in ICU after his heart surgery....
Topper: When *I* was in ICU, I had 3 nurses. They were all great. blah blah blah blah, me me me

I was planning to go on about WHY I respected that nurse so much, which is actually a very deep personal thing for me, to the point that talking about it actually brings a tear to my eye. It is a big deal for me to bring that moment up in conversation. If that Topper had let me finish, they would have seen me open up way more than I usually do.

Toppers are probably the main reason I DON'T open up much in public. When I am topped like that, I just stop talking. The other party is obviously not interested in what I have to say, so there's no point talking.
posted by Diag at 3:00 PM on November 14, 2009

A conversation doesn't have to be about you or them. Think of third parties to talk about, things, or events - past, ongoing, upcoming. -lorrer

YES. There are three separate annoying conversational things we're talking about here - one is the person who monopolizes the floor, two is the "topper", three is "every story I tell is a story about ME rather than about some event or idea".

I know I guy of the third type, and it is just painful to talk to him even though he's a really nice guy. Every conversation on any topic ends up being an occasion for him to tell us about himself (topic: music, his contribution: "I'm really a person who like music, so.."), or tell us about what other people have said about him (topic: scary moments; his contribution: "my friend Joe always says that about me, that I'm really a good person to have around during a scary moment..."). So - in conversation, keep track of whether the conversation is about third parties, and if it is, try to keep your contributions focused on third parties.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:30 PM on November 14, 2009

Does anyone have any experience with self-absorption/egocentricity? I've been noticing the fact that whenever I'm talking with others, I tend to bring the conversation around to myself. I keep telling myself not to talk about myself, but people ask questions and when they do I tend to fall for it every time. How do you make conversations with others and build friendships without talking about yourself?

I question your premise that it's somehow inappropriate to talk about yourself in a conversation. You should talk about yourself. I've had some conversations with people where afterwards I went away thinking, "Huh, I didn't find out anything about this person." I wish they had talked about themselves more.

The conventional wisdom is that this is supposed to mean that they somehow succeeded in the conversation by allowing me to feel that I was the center of attention. But this is an oddly one-sided way to go about things, since both people can't put the spotlight on the other the whole time. Yes, as mentioned above, it is possible for two people to have a conversation without talking about either of the two of them -- there's nothing inherently wrong with this, of course, but it would be silly to go out of your way to artificially structure conversations like this out of some sense of obligation to avoid ever discussing yourself.

Anyway, once I realize I haven't learned much about the person I was talking with, I'll assume they were probably try to put into practice the common advice to ask the other person about themselves in a conversation. This can be problematic if that person is significantly more extroverted or has a more aggressively interrogatory style than me, which can lead to an awkward feeling of imbalance that's hard to escape once the dynamic is established. The better strategy is, as biochemist suggests, to let the conversation naturally bounce back and forth between the two of you without worrying too much about score-keeping or self-absorption. (Worrying about coming across as too self-absorbed is its own kind of self-absorption.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 4:05 PM on November 14, 2009

It's totally appropriate to talk about yourself for part of the time in a conversation. I find myself incredibly boring so I am always asking people questions about themselves, and that actually kind of freaks some people out. (This is not helped by my occasional journalism habit.)

Think of it like playing a game of catch: you both throw, and you both catch, and you just keep it going back and forth.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:58 PM on November 14, 2009

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