It's all about her.
March 29, 2012 12:46 PM   Subscribe

No matter what problem I try to discuss with a friend, she always turns the conversation to a similar problem SHE'S had. Any way I can make her stop?

I have a bit of a problem with a friend. Most of the time we have a great relationship- she is kind, caring, would do anything for me. Love her. But there is something she does quite often that really bothers me.

Whenever I am telling her about a problem I'm having/situation I'm going through, she will often cut me off mid-sentence with "The same thing happened to me!" and then proceed to tell me about HER problem. She does this to everyone, actually- sometimes she will just talk over the person who was talking until they shut up and she can tell her story with everyone listening. It happens with big things and little things- the other day a mutual friend was talking about a Barbie doll she had as a little girl, and my friend cut her off mid-sentence with an exclamation about HER childhood Barbies and the other friend was forced to shut up until my friend was finished talking. This happens a lot. I actually get embarrassed when she does this.

This behavior puzzles me, because in every other way she is very considerate of others and cannot tolerate rude behavior. She goes out of her way to be kind and tactful and never wants to hurt people's feelings. I don't think she has a big ego and thinks HER story is more important- because the rest of the time, her behavior doesn't demonstrate a big ego at all. I think she is just truly unaware of what she's doing- just clueless. I guess I'm used to it, but I have seen others obviously taken aback when she does this- but she doesn't notice.

I'm hesitant to come out and tell her about this bad habit of hers. She is very sensitive and I'm afraid this would hurt our friendship. Other than this problem, we get along great- but this is really getting on my nerves.

Is there a way I can let her know what she's doing without actually having to say it? Or, if I must say it, is there a way I can say it that won't offend her? This friendship is important to me, and this habit of hers isn't something I'd ever "dump" her over, so I'd like to somehow make her stop doing this. Any advice?
posted by shelayna to Human Relations (40 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Can't you say, when she starts to interrupt you, "ok but can you wait a little bit to tell me? I really need your advice about this so let me finish telling you what's going on."

You don't need to address her habit of doing it, you just need her perspective about this one thing right now.
posted by headnsouth at 12:51 PM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

A lot of people see this kind of response as a way of registering that they understand what you're going through (the implicit message being: "I know just how you feel, because something similar happened to me and it made me feel really bad, too"). You seem to be seeing it as a kind of one-upmanship ("oh, you had a bad thing happen? Well, I had this MUCH WORSE thing happen!") but it may just be that you have very different communication styles.
posted by yoink at 12:52 PM on March 29, 2012 [20 favorites]

"the other friend was forced to shut up"

No they weren't. They let themselves be shut up, and so do you.

Cut her off in return. "Hold on. Just wait 'til I'm done telling my story, then you can tell yours."
posted by mhoye at 12:53 PM on March 29, 2012 [22 favorites]

I really need your advice about this so let me finish telling you what's going on

Do you need her advice? What is the response that you're actually hoping to get in these exchanges? Is it "here's what I'd do if I were you" or is it "oh, you poor thing, that's awful!"? If it's the latter, then it may well be that that is, actually, what your friend is trying to communicate.
posted by yoink at 12:54 PM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Miss Manners has suggested in situations like this, when you see her steamrolling others, to step in and say, sweetly, "just a moment, Katie, I'd really love to hear the end of Jessica's story," and then turn expectantly toward Jessica.
posted by phunniemee at 12:55 PM on March 29, 2012 [9 favorites]

Ah crap, I do this. It's because I was taught that immediately aligning with someone by showing that something similar happened to you = good way to make friends. Gentle reminders help. "Hey, you just interrupted me, and I wasn't done telling you what I needed to tell you. I'd love to hear about what you experienced, but can I say what I want to say first?", as do more direct ones: "Dude, way to be rude! :P Here I was thinking I'd get to tell you all about X problem and you make it about you. Do you want talk about this with me or not?"
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 12:55 PM on March 29, 2012 [17 favorites]

I used to do this. My wife told me to quit doing it. Until that point I had no idea that:

a. I was doing this.

b. It was bugging the shit out of her, and most likely a lot of other people.

Let her know in a tactful manner.
posted by Quack at 12:55 PM on March 29, 2012 [14 favorites]

Just raise your voice a little and keep talking. If she doesn't get the hint, hold up your index finger and say "wait, I'm not finished." If she then keeps talking you say "You know, that's very rude. You need to stop it. Do you even realize you do that?"

Do you know if she has ADD? Is she otherwise impulsive? I think this is a pretty common thing. I do it to some degree, though once I figured out that I did it I've taken steps to stop myself. You'll actually be doing her a favor if you point it out.
posted by bondcliff at 12:56 PM on March 29, 2012

Yoink, I agree with you, and I should have mentioned that in my post- I think she IS trying to be helpful- but all she's really doing is making the other people feel like what they're saying isn't really all that important. Plus, I for one feel stupid starting a sentence and then cut off with my mouth still open, so to speak.
posted by shelayna at 12:57 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I definitely have to be careful about doing this. I'm never trying to be like "Hey check out MY PROBLEM", what I'm trying to say is "Oh, I've been there, too, and here is how I feel about/dealt with it"
posted by GilloD at 12:59 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh god, is this me? I actually went to look at your profile to see if you could possibly be someone I know. I do this sometimes, and frequently do not even realize I'm doing it until later on when I'm replaying the conversation in my head and I'm like OH MY GOD I SUCK. I would really like people to tell me to back off when I do this, because I honestly have NO IDEA I'm doing it. (I am trying to work on it.)
posted by rabbitrabbit at 1:01 PM on March 29, 2012 [14 favorites]

For a lot of people this is well-meaning, but such a huge habit that they don't even see it happening.

It feels rude, and it's best to try to be as gentle as possible, but you do have to call her attention to it. "Friend, you're always cutting people off to tell your story instead of listening to theirs. I really need you to listen this time."

Alternately, instead of sitting there with your mouth open, stand up and walk away. When she asks what you're doing, tell her this isn't a competition and you'll come back in a few minutes when she's done.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:01 PM on March 29, 2012

I do this, though not to the extent of continuing to go on about it. It's a New York thing. I was looking for some proof of this, I thought it would be in here but it's not. I try not to do it since I'm not in NY anymore and I know other people find it rude, but it's a way of showing sympathy and understanding. To let someone tell a story and not relate to it in any personal way would seem...unfeeling to me. Since you say your friend is otherwise a kind person, there's a good chance she's just trying to relate and getting carried away once she starts the story. (Even if she's not from New York.) When she does it you could say - in a nice, even jokey way, "Hey, just a minute, I'm talking here!" or something. Just re-direct it back to you.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:02 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Stop telling her stuff.

OR risk hurting her feelings and tell her human to human that it bothers you. Her sensitivity shouldn't be a block to you telling her how her rude behavior makes you feel. Otherwise your friendship is on the decline anyway because you'll be less likely to ever confide anything to her for fear of her interrupting and making it about her. The only way for her to improve this problem behavior is for someone to be an adult and TALK TO HER ABOUT IT.

I mean, those are the options if you want to do anything about it.
posted by inturnaround at 1:03 PM on March 29, 2012

Just talk to her. You're good friends, right? "Hey X, how do you feel about constructive criticism. You're an awesome friend and person, but you have this thing that come across as very rude. [Describe]. I just wanted to let you know so that you're aware of it"
posted by pyro979 at 1:03 PM on March 29, 2012

Aw man. I used to be your friend. If she's coming from the same place I was, you're right: she's kind and considerate and never wants to hurt anyone's feelings, and she doesn't have a big ego. In fact, she is probably deeply insecure and craves others' approval and recognition and attention. And yeah, she wants to appear empathetic and show that she can relate to you.

She most likely has no idea how she comes across, and would be cringingly embarrassed if she knew.

I like the suggestions above: gently interrupt her and ask her to let you finish your story. Then say "Oh hey, what were you going to say a minute ago?" If she seems taken aback or doesn't react well to this, tell her that sometimes you feel she's more interested in getting herself heard than she is in having a discussion.

She'll eventually realize how often she interrupts people and will stop doing it.

Please avoid saying things like "you ALWAYS do this" or "this isn't a competition" or "you need to stop that".
posted by Specklet at 1:05 PM on March 29, 2012 [14 favorites]

I have a friend who does exactly what your friend does, and the only way I've gotten him to stop is in the moment, as headnsouth says. Just say, each time she does it, "I wasn't finished with what I needed to tell you; please let me finish," firmly and politely.
I think a lot of people do this because they are trying to show that they empathize with the issue. It's a clumsy way of doing so, but is usually done by someone who means well and just wants to communicate "dude, you are not alone! Happened to me too!" She likely means well, so go with a gentle and firm approach.
posted by bedhead at 1:05 PM on March 29, 2012

Urgh, don't make a thing of it. I do this too. I know I do it and I'm sorry and sometimes I just don't realize I've done it till later.

My vote is for the immediate, "hey man give me a second to finish my story" or the Miss Manners approved "Just a moment, I wanted to hear ___'s story."

If you make a thing of it, all "I have to tell you this terrible thing you do that embarrasses everyone" you'll just make her hide away from you in shame.
posted by AmandaA at 1:07 PM on March 29, 2012 [5 favorites]

Yeah, she's expressing empathy. Take it as a sincere expression of what it is, but don't let it derail you if you. Say, "hey, I want to finish my story", finish, and then ask her about her story. On the other hand, if you're not interested in what she's saying either, then… maybe there's a deeper problem.
posted by hattifattener at 1:11 PM on March 29, 2012

Thank you all for the great advice. I agree that it's better that I don't give her "the big speech", but instead just deal with it each time it happens. I like Bondcliff's suggestion of speaking louder, and if that doesn't work, raising a finger and saying "Wait, I'm not finished." Maybe if I do this often enough (and I will definitely get the opportunity!), I can sort of "train" her to stop doing this. Thanks again, folks!
posted by shelayna at 1:27 PM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Another thing is that people who see interrupting as a natural and good part of conversation won't mind being interrupted sometimes themselves. (At least I certainly don't.) So as long as you don't make it a big deal, she shouldn't be offended at all if you just stop her and keep going.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:30 PM on March 29, 2012 [7 favorites]

FWIW, the speaking louder thing is super passive aggressive in person and not cool. Don't be patronizing. It's not like she's a child for doing this. She just has a habit she doesn't know she needs to break. I'd do the 3-2-1 escalate: first time she does it, explain that it bugs you and set the boundary; second time, remind her that interrupting you to tell her own story really frustrates you because it makes you feel unheard; third and final time, tell her, "Hey, it doesn't sound like you really want to listen to what I have to say right now. Let's talk another time." and you redirect until you feel like she's gonna respect your request.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 1:33 PM on March 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

I do this. I hate that I do this. Sometimes I don't notice that I'm doing this. When I notice, I either finish my sentence, apologize for interrupting, and ask them to please continue, or (if I notice as I'm doing it) I close my mouth, maintain eye contact, and just let them pick up again.

When I don't notice I'm doing it, people who won't interrupt me back end up stuck listening to me for too long a period, longer than I'd want to listen, frankly. Whereas people who say "Let me finish" get to finish, and since I'm the rude one who interrupted, I'm just grateful they let me know, and I don't get offended. Plus, it taught me to say "Let me finish" to other people when they interrupt me; it is a two-way street, after all.

So yes, interrupt right back. They'll learn over time.
posted by davejay at 1:35 PM on March 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

Art of Manliness discussed this recently via Charles Derber's The Pursuit of Attention.
posted by asuprenant at 1:50 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

My dad's response to this behavior is always a laughing "Maybe it sounded like I was done talking!" followed by a grin. He can pull it off and somehow not sound like an asshole.
posted by troika at 1:51 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh I totally do this. If I'm just sitting back and letting someone talk about their problems I feel like they want some sign that I'm a part of the conversation, and if I'm aware they don't want a solution, so commiseration seems the next logical step. And if they've gone into full monologue mode then the only way to contribute is to interrupt. (And if they don't want any participation from me then I interrupt because I'm getting bored and hoping to turn it back into a conversation.)

I'm relieved at all the other commentors who admit to doing the same, we are legion!

Nthing that you should raise a finger (preferably index) and ask to finish. People have done it to me and I am never insulted and reign back the interruptions.
posted by Dynex at 1:54 PM on March 29, 2012

I also do this! It's honestly mostly because I am excited and interested in the conversation and/or want to show empathy. I am working on it. But if you were to say, "hold that thought! Let me tell you the rest," I would, and I would not be offended.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 2:17 PM on March 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

Aagh yes, I am pretty sure I do this sometimes too. The thing is, the implicit rules regarding sharing confidences are actually pretty complex. It is something of a faux-pas not to reciprocate at all when someone offers you personal information, and often it's difficult to get the balance right and you over-compensate. I agree that the kindest thing is often just to butt back in, either with details of your story if it's you she's interrupting, or by saying something like 'Wait a second, how did X's story end?'
posted by Acheman at 2:32 PM on March 29, 2012 [3 favorites]

Exactly what Yoink and Quack and Countess Sandwich said. I also do this, though I kinda figured it out on my own a while back and try insanely hard not to now. I would bet money that it's her version of expressing understanding and empathy. If you think your friendship is up to the challenge, you'd be doing her a favor by discussing this with her.
posted by LowellLarson at 2:35 PM on March 29, 2012

I'm guilty.

I was honestly completely unaware of this behaviour until someone pointed it out to me a few years ago. Unfortunately this was a former coworker who let the pressure build until he couldn't tolerate me as a person... we'd been friends!. He only told me after he was out of my life and I asked via email why he'd avoided me entirely for the last two months of working with me, despite it being a very communication and team-work driven position. Unfortunately, he was less understanding than you and told me I was a sheltered, self-centered, "One-upper", which is far from my intent.

I really think that it's better if you tell her in person, even if she is a bit sensitive to such criticism. I think it would be helpful to do so before your passive aggressive "training" gets tiresome and you are left feeling like you can't be friends any longer. I would never have known this about myself if I hadn't been told explicitly, and been really able to consider that and observe myself moving forward.

The problem is, I still do it. My awareness is better, and I'll often find myself apologising for jumping in, and wondering later if I could have talked less about myself. I do try to ask a lot of questions in conversation, but inevitably I slip and end up making it "about me", even though my intent is to relate. The fact that I still have trouble with it even though I know it's a deficit in my social skill set indicates to me that casually saying things like "please allow me to finish" or speaking over her aren't going to work. I'd say that's more likely to make her feel badly, towards herself or you. Be direct.

Also, thanks for the reminder. I'm getting together with a casual acquaintance tomorrow, whom I'd like to make friends with, and not turn off with my terrible social skills.
posted by sunshinesky at 2:38 PM on March 29, 2012

I’ve just realized recently that I think I do this. I think yoink was on to something; I am not a competitive person at all and I often don’t even see things that others interpret as competitive. I tell my story to show that I can relate to what the other person is saying. Only recently did it occur to me that someone would take it as one upsmanship. I frankly don’t even understand this idea, but I’m trying to stop doing it.

I’ve become convinced that most of the world’s problems are based in the clash between competitive people and non-competitive people, and the misunderstandings that are rampant between them.
posted by bongo_x at 2:47 PM on March 29, 2012 [4 favorites]

My dad was the king of this. I finally just started saying "Dad, this is about me and my broken leg. We can talk about your sprained ankle after I finish telling you about the broken leg."
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:05 PM on March 29, 2012

Like rabbitrabbit, I was actually literally worried that you were talking about me. You're not because I didn't talk about Barbies recently, but you have totally described me. I try very hard to be kind and considerate, but I have an interrupting problem and I know it, and frequently the interruptions take the form of me telling a similar story because I'm trying to relate.

I don't mind at all if someone says, "hang on a sec, let me finish?" - in fact I actually appreciate it, because I don't want to be rude! I would definitely just correct her gently when she does it - she's probably used to it from her other friends already.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:13 PM on March 29, 2012

Also, since this is a habit, even if she realizes it's a problem and wants to stop doing it, she'll probably need frequent reminders, especially at first. I know I do!
posted by insectosaurus at 6:16 PM on March 29, 2012

Oh man, I am that person. I was actually thinking in the shower today about how I should write an about how to make myself stop. I think bringing it up in a really nice way if you're really a great friend is what you should do. I know I do it, and although I try to be aware of it, I still do it sometimes - if I've had a drink or two, it gets much worse. I wouldn't make it a big thing like others said, but maybe just pull her aside or talk to her via email and just say:

"dude, I think you're awesome, you're so nice and I'm glad we're friends, but i've noticed more and more that you kind of interrupt people when you're talking. I know you only mean to add to the conversation, but it can come off as pretty rude. I know you're not a rude person, so I wanted to just let you know. if you ever want me to point out a specific instance, let me know and i'll pinch you or tap you on the arm."
posted by kpht at 7:00 PM on March 29, 2012

I, too, had to check and make sure this wasn't about me. How utterly mortifying that would have been.

Someone upthread asked about whether or not your friend has ADD -- does she? People with ADD often have trouble controlling their impulses... and it can be even harder to control in a conversation when you hear something you want to respond to and you know you're going to forget what you want to say if you don't say it right away, so you blurt it out, and then you're the jerk who interrupts people.

Nthing the suggestions to gently steer the conversation back to you when you are interrupted. Personally, I'd be annoyed as hell by someone holding up a finger to silence me, because it comes off as schoolmarmish. But that's totally a personal quirk, so do whatever works for you.

(Sidenote: Holy shit, if you want to see some amazing Interruption Olympics, get me and my very good friend A. together for a conversation. We both have ADD, big time, and we've joked that we need to have an agenda for when we next speak because every. single. time we get together, we get so far off-track from our intended topic that we both totally forget what we had intended to discuss. Luckily, we're amused by it, or perhaps comically chagrined. But other people probably want to light us on fire.)
posted by palomar at 8:03 PM on March 29, 2012

I'm chuckling a bit that so many of us (myself included) recognize that we do this as well. I think it's like yoink said, people want to connect and often the way we do that in conversations is to listen to someone's tale of woe and then immediately relate our own. It's a way of saying, "I totally get where you're coming from!" but with some people it just becomes one-upsmanship which is annoying as hell.

You just need to figure out which friends are safe to vent with.

I have some friends who are Supreme One-Upsmanship People; those are people I've learned not to complain to. My new annoying coworker, my sprained ankle, my kid's stupid teacher, etc. I don't mention those topics because they will always out-do me in their "I've had it worse" version. Instead, I stick to non-whiny topics because their behavior drives me nuts.

Out of all the people I talk to, I really only have bitchfests with my mom and sister; I know better than to do it with my friends (because I know I have the tendency to want to relate my own annoying story, and no doubt my friends want to smack me when I do. But my mom and sister love me too much to smack me and can tell me to be quiet and let them finish without hurting my feelings, and vice versa).

It's about knowing your audience. And their limitations.
posted by kinetic at 2:49 AM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

Back when I was in college, I was doing this to a friend, and he said to me, "You know, in RA training, they told us that it's really common when someone's telling you a story to immediately reflect back your own similar story to show empathy, but it's a bad idea -- it has the effect of taking the focus off the person talking and back onto you." He said it in the moment, and I could tell he was sort of upset with me, and, in the moment, it felt crappy, because I hadn't been meaning to make it all about me.

But I am deeply grateful to him for saying something when he did and in the way he did. Especially that it was 1) in the moment, and 2) recognized that I wasn't trying to be a jerk, I was just kind of oblivious.
posted by endless_forms at 8:35 AM on March 30, 2012 [2 favorites]

A way to recognize if it's all about her or reflected empathy is to see how she starts off. Is it more "That's nothing! When I broke my ankle..." Or more "I know how you feel! When my ankle got broken..."

My suggestion is to figure that out, and see if knowing that helps the friendship.
posted by corb at 11:37 PM on March 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

If I ever tell someone a similar story to the one they are telling me, it is entirely to relate. The thing I don't do... is interrupt. That's the difference between empathy and "all eyes on me." Also phrasing. Although if she seems to listen, skips the advice, and starts spewing her story; call her out on it. Don't be mean, just be honest. Introduce the topic carefully. She's your friend, you should have an idea how she will react. If she's sensitive, be sensitive. She most likely doesn't know she does it but really, this is such a common flaw! It occurs in varying degrees in people but is very common in females, for sure. In fact, that is the reason I do not have many female friends. Us females can be self-centered. Yet not all of us are, or are all the time. We're all self-centered to some degree, wouldn't you say?

I have had a slew of one-sided friendships. Like others have mentioned, is it one-upping, or is it an attempt to be empathetic? I have friends who can blab and blab about their problems, their issues, their whatever... but after I listen, and listen, and listen, then give advice, they don't bother giving me the same courtesy. So I cut them off. haha I had a friend who would talk nonstop about herself. If we went on a walk and she said "we'll talk." It was about her, you betcha. Much elaboration would go into her life events and maybe 2% would go into mine. If you can discern the fine line between, you will know whether she's a friend to keep or a friend to distance yourself from.
posted by Chelsaroo650 at 4:26 PM on April 1, 2012

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