Is there a name for this particular interpersonal behavior?
November 23, 2016 10:00 AM   Subscribe

Is there a name for when people consistently and almost compulsively diminish the experiences, achievements or difficulties or sorrows of another person in comparison to their own? What is the best way to respond to this kind of behavior? Why do people engage in it?

I was in a relationship in the past where my partner basically seemed to view all conversations as a winnable game. If I told her that I had just had a cupcake for lunch, she would say that there was a cupcake truck next to her office and she had a cupcake everyday, to use a particularly inane example. This applied to more serious matters too. If I talked about depression and anxiety, she would, without directly saying that my problem was less serious than her problem, sort of bring in some sort of story or proof that implied it. If I talked about my experiences with racism (we are both women of color), she would talk about worse experiences she had had. Sometimes, she would initially sympathize with and validate my experience and then just move on to talking about her issue in a way that made it clear she believed her problem was worse.

Though I didn't realize it at the time (this relationship occupied several years of my late teens and early 20s and I was very emotionally immature and kind of just accepted that everyone behaved like this, since this was my first relationship), when I look back on this relationship now, I realize that this pattern existed and I am curious as to whether or not there is a name for this kind of behavior and any ideas as to why people engage in it. Is it insecurity? In retrospect, I think this behavior was harmful to my self-esteem during a very impressionable time and I'm not sure why someone would act in such a way with someone they loved. I'm curious if there is some sort of motive or impulse underlying this kind of behavior that I did not notice and what might be the best way to respond to it, if I encounter it in future relationships. Within the context of this particular relationship, I remember that it often left me a bit tongue-tied and confused.
posted by armadillo1224 to Human Relations (27 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
posted by blackzinfandel at 10:07 AM on November 23, 2016 [9 favorites]

posted by vegartanipla at 10:07 AM on November 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

My friends and I call this "The Pain Olympics". But yes, one-upping.
posted by julthumbscrew at 10:08 AM on November 23, 2016 [8 favorites]

You could say 'it's not a competition, I was looking more for 'sorry that happened to you, sounds terrible' and see what they say. Some people can't help themselves. It's insecurity.
posted by fixedgear at 10:11 AM on November 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Sometimes it's also a ham-fisted attempt to empathize that comes off as unintentionally competitive. I've heard.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 10:13 AM on November 23, 2016 [42 favorites]

Didn't there used to be a hole SNL character based on this?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:15 AM on November 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

one-upmanship, but I also like the phrase "If I had an elephant, s/he would have a box to put it in".

I think it is insecurity, but also that it can be completely subconcious and instinctive (I know I've caught myself doing it). So if it's someone you love or care about, actually saying something like 'this isn't a competition, I just wanted support' or 'I find it difficult to talk to you about these things because you always seem to want to prove you've had a better/worse/more interesting experience' - they may actually be helped by having their attention drawn to it.

On the other hand, I have found that tag-teaming with a friend to see who can get the person to make the most ridiculous claims via encouraged exaggeration is a fun way to make dealing with them bearable, if they're an acquaintance and you're incredibly mean spirited like me. YMMV.
posted by AFII at 10:16 AM on November 23, 2016 [15 favorites]

See Monty Python's "Four Yorkshiremen"
posted by cosmicbandito at 10:16 AM on November 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

See also: "Topper" from Dilbert. Catchphrase: "That's nothing!"
posted by Wild_Eep at 10:19 AM on November 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

Didn't there used to be a hole SNL character based on this?

Yes, Kristen Wiig as Penelope.
posted by Squeak Attack at 10:21 AM on November 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

I always called it social relativity: I enhance myself insofar as I diminish you.
posted by ubiquity at 10:22 AM on November 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is my mother-in-law. If we are chatting and I say her granddaughter (my daughter) has done something good at school, she will say 'Oh, I was never much good at school.' I'm afraid I have no techniques for dealing with it other than to plow on.
posted by Coda Tronca at 10:40 AM on November 23, 2016

I've been participating in a Nonviolent Communication practice group for about a year now. One of the main goals is to practice empathic listening, both to oneself and to others. We use a variety of exercises in group to practice, but one that I particularly like is called something like "Ways to Respond Non-Empathically":

1. We sit in a circle, a stack of cards is distributed through the group, one per person, except the speaker.
2. The speaker makes a statement, as if they're in a conversation where they're seeking empathy or connection, i.e. "My mom passed away last week" (but your cupcake example could work just as well.)
3. We go around the group, offering responses based on the type of response listed on our card.
- - -
Exercise in Action:

(Speaker) "My mom passed away last week"
(1st person / One-upping card) "That's nothing. When I was 10, both my parents died in a car crash."

(Speaker) "My mom passed away last week"
(2nd person / Spiritualizing card) "Let's pray for her!"

(Speaker) "My mom passed away last week"
(3rd person / Storytelling card) "That reminds me of this time when my dog died. I was really sad for a couple weeks. But then I got a new one!"

And so on... (some other cards: Explaining, Correcting, Minimizing, Diagnosing, Giving Advice, Analyzing, Consoling, Sympathizing.
- - -

Two things I come back to every time we try this exercise:
1. We respond in these ways all the time! And we're really good at it! (What's your go-to?)
2. It's much harder to practice empathy. In NVC, at least as I understand it so far, an empathic response would be one in which the listener tries to get in touch with how the speaker is feeling and what needs might be generating those feelings. The exercise (as I've practiced it) acknowledges that, sometimes, we really are looking for Advice, or some Consoling, or even One-Upping (I appreciate this when I tell about something embarrassing I've done), but that we more often make an assumption (or knee-jerk reaction) about what our Speaker might actually be looking for.
posted by cavedweller at 10:43 AM on November 23, 2016 [45 favorites]

The best way to respond to this kind of behavior is to drop those people like a hot rock.
posted by Bruce H. at 10:44 AM on November 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Relevant SNL Penelope Thanksgiving (SLSNL)
posted by brentajones at 10:50 AM on November 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Penelope Thanksgiving transcript

"My relatives came over on the April Flower, soooo... I guess they got here one month before yours did. "
posted by filthy light thief at 10:58 AM on November 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Yes, part of the issue is the "I can top that!" competitive aspect, which can feel like - and usually is - a put-down of your experiences in favor of hers. But here's the thing... it's not always meant as a put-down, it can be a really awkward person trying to relate. I have a friend, granted, not one I like a whole lot, who does this. But she's a good person and is not trying to be obnoxious - in fact, I get the impression she's trying to be a good friend and helpful. But. She loves loves loves giving advice, and the only thing worse than getting advice from her is suffering through the awkward 2 minutes while she establishes her credentials to show how her past experiences give her the relevant expertise to give me valid advice.
So yes, it's shitty to be on the receiving end of, but I've experienced similar behavior for pretty disparate reasons - sometimes yes, the person is a real jerk, and other times, it's more of a roll my eyes and "bless your heart" that person is even more socially awkward than I am, poor them.
posted by aimedwander at 11:03 AM on November 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

As to the why, you said it yourself "my partner basically seemed to view all conversations as a winnable game," with the bonus that you are deemed the loser in the exchange. These people can be self-centered, as they treat everything in relationship to themselves, and they may be insecure, as they put you down to elevate themselves.

And how to deal with it: depends on why the other person is doing it. As cavedweller wrote, "sometimes, we really are looking for Advice, or some Consoling, or even One-Upping," or as aimedwander point out, they could be trying to establish their credentials as to why you should believe them when they are giving you advice. Try to discern the purpose and react accordingly, which may mean leaving this person because they cannot break from the one-upsmanship.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:07 AM on November 23, 2016

I have a good friend who means well, but who will also turn any commiseration into an opportunity to digress for a half-hour, initially about something vaguely related but soon drifting off into details and further digressions of banality. I've had to come to the conclusion that, while we share a lot of traits and understanding, they are essentially self-absorbed and I should not count on them for personal conversations. It's not malicious or really negative in any way, just boring and blowhardy. I associate one-upmanship with my 20-30s when people in my circle were establishing themselves in the world, though it still pops up from time to time.
posted by rhizome at 11:13 AM on November 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have known many a people like this. It's a huge pet peeve of mine. I notice it a lot. As I describe them, "If I have a headache, they have a brain tumor."

Some people are just insecure, as are we all. Some people are socially awkward and have difficulty with conversation, especially if the response the conversation calls for is a gesture of comfort, like an expression of sympathy or compassion. Then others are really just poor conversationalists in general and are blindly ignorant to the fact that they dominate every verbal encounter with their me-me-me-ness.

Gah. The latter are the absolute worst.
posted by bologna on wry at 12:37 PM on November 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you want to learn more about one-upmanship, a standard reference is Stephen Potter's One-Upmanship.
posted by clawsoon at 2:57 PM on November 23, 2016

This discussion seems to be describing mild forms of invalidation, the intensity of which may just depend on one's point of view. See Nasty People by Jay Carter.
posted by Rash at 7:20 PM on November 23, 2016

My friend group had a person in it just like this. His nickname was Hero, because whatever you had done, he'd done it bigger and better (in fact for a while there, I thought that was his actual name as it was what everyone called him!). Clearly a person who just owned their oneupmanship. I think for some people it's just insecurity.
posted by Jubey at 7:22 PM on November 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

In addition to one-upmanship, I also call it needy. All the attention must be on them at all times, therefore they have to be the most hard done by / most amazing person.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:39 PM on November 23, 2016

On a U.K. reality show, someone said: "if you've been to Tenerife, then he's been to Elevenerife", so I like to think that Elevenerife is now a synonym for oneupmanship.
posted by goshling at 5:28 PM on November 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Many years ago, I was telling my BFF about a woman I met who was like this, and she said "oh my god, I know a woman who is SO MUCH MORE LIKE THAT!"
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 3:25 PM on November 26, 2016 [5 favorites]

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