Tag Archives: Narcissism

red concave bar 1

Looking for Listeners

                                Photo: Moira Clunie

The smartphone has a special role in our drift towards inner-direction. By its very nature it is primarily self-referential.  Who has called or texted or mentioned me?  Has my tweet been shared? Has my post been sufficiently “liked?” 

In any hierarchy of communication deficits, the availability of receptive and interested listeners must be near the top.  Good listeners are in relatively short supply while eager talkers are a dime a dozen.   What the composer Igor Stravinsky lamented about pipe organs applies to the overly loquacious: they can be “monsters” that never seem to take a breath. The challenge is finding those souls whose lives are sufficiently centered in their lives to be open to experiencing all that another has to say.

We pay to hear others perform music or theater pieces, maybe stand-up comedy or an occasional TED Talk. As Neil Postman famously noted, if our culture fails in some ways, we are at least ‘the best-entertained society on earth.’  If not to hear what is on Aunt Bertha’s mind, we will still make time for the biggest spectacles our media giants can produce. By contrast, we rarely expect to be enchanted by the everyday thoughts of others.

This means that the verbal and digital traffic that clutters our lives is mostly outbound. Many of us are on lifelong quests to find others who might want to consider our thoughts. By contrast the incoming lanes that can reach into our consciousness are mostly empty, or sometimes closed for lack of use.

Few teachers would perhaps acknowledge it, but one of the joys of having students is that they are a captive audience. Even if they are not exactly in the thrall of a teacher’s words, students will humor their instructors enough to allow them to believe it.


The ‘me decade’ never ended.  It’s becoming the ‘me century.’ 


This problem of a shortage of truly open ears extends to nearly every realm of human contact. Nearly all of us who write books receive modest returns as royalties. Theater and even motion picture producers usually know the dread of a nearly empty house. I’ve been the organizer of public meetings and town halls where a sense of doom sets in when the invited presenters show up to see a room of mostly empty chairs.  Most of us are simply too insistent that we be the recipient of our own attention. Figure in hours for digital grazing, and we hardly have time left to give ourselves over to others.

The heavies that contribute to a problem are represented in the self-mocking phrase, “Well, enough about you.” They include over-indulgent parents, work culture that easily robs employees of a sense of agency, dismissive judgments couched in mental health categories, and commercial messages that insist that we should treat ourselves as if we are ‘Number One.’

I’d reserve a special role in the shift away from other direction and toward inner-direction for the smartphone.  (If you know this blog, you knew this was coming.)  By its very nature it is primarily self-referential.  Who has called/texted/mentioned me?  Has my tweet been shared? Has my facebook post been sufficiently “liked?”

So if others like us are broadcasters more than receivers, we must arm ourselves to go into the world ready to absorb the self-referential barrages. It’s one reason that more of us sense the need to rebound from an evening spent listening to overactive talkers with enough solitude to help us rediscover the joys of the larger universe.

The Self-Referential Bore

Caravaggio's Narcissus  Source: wikimedia.org
Caravaggio’s Narcissus
Source: wikimedia.org

Given the interconnected lives that most of us lead, a preference for the personal “I” can show an embarrassing lapse of awareness about the material and social worlds that sustain us.

For some years Rod Hart at the University of Texas has been using software to “read” large quantities of presidential speeches to discover characteristic patterns of phrasing. One category simply codes how many times the speaker is self-referential, using “I” verses “we,” “you,” or “us.”  The overuse of “I” has always been a reasonably reliable indicator of how self-focused and self-absorbed a person is. By inference, we can wonder if such a person needs their communication partner to be anything more than a passive foil.   Richard Nixon scored high as a self-referential speaker, as did Gerald Ford.  Nixon was so self-focused that he would sometimes talk about himself in the third person, as in his comment to the California press that they “won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.”

Psychotherapists are especially tuned to hearing this kind of retreat into the self, often interpreting a string of self-referential statements as evidence that an individual is locked into their a very narrow and personal frame of reference. This is especially evident if a person has a partner but never uses the more inclusive “we,” or if the singular form is used as perhaps an unconscious way to distance the individual from family or friends. There are exceptions, but we expect such an individual to be less able to sympathize, identify with others, or listen with useful accuracy.

Some cultural wags have observed that societies such as ours, with its overriding emphasis are on the individual are by definition narcissistic. Contrasting Chinese or Japanese norms tend to favor first consideration for the collective good. So it’s a common complaint that in America personal needs often trump concerns for what would help a group or community. At its worst, this can lead to what the great economist John Kenneth Galbraith famously called “private wealth and public squalor.”

It strikes me that our focus on individuals and their happiness is both the glory and curse of American life. A local college advertises for students with the misplaced slogan, “It’s all about you.” A bank ad a few years ago proudly showed an obviously wealthy executive suitably ensconced in a high-floor office filled with mahogany and glass. The caption that went with this pitch for a setting up a “wealth management” account was the breathtakingly myopic, “You did it all yourself.”

Really? What were the ad’s copywriters smoking when they wrote this?

Only persons totally in love with themselves could be so blind to the many forms of support—parents, mentors, schools, service sector workers keeping our national infrastructure more or less in tact—who played their part in helping the rest of us enact out versions of the American Dream.

As we choose our words we need to ask whether we’ve earned the right to be exclusively self-referential. That privilege is surely evident if we are talking about our feelings and opinions.  We are the only ones that can own them.  But given the interconnected lives that most of us lead, a preference for the personal “I” can show an embarrassing lapse of awareness about the material and social worlds that sustain us.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu