Beware the Conversation Weasel

I'm way too cute for it not to be all about me.

In 2011, The Art of Manliness published a sweet piece on Conversational Narcissism.  It’s an interesting read, and the tenets will be familiar to many i.e. “Last month I met up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in forever…. Having both read and written about how to be an effective and charismatic conversationalist, I followed the old dictum of listening more than talking and asking the other person engaging questions about themselves. This is supposed to charm your conversation partner. I guess it worked because my friend talked about himself for an hour straight and didn’t ask me a single question.

Sound a little familiar?  What’s neat about the article is that sociologist Charles Derber (whose book The Pursuit of Attention inspires much of the piece) has deconstructed some of the ways people masterfully – and subtly – monopolize the conversation back to ego numero uno.

Take the following two examples:

Example 1:

James:   I’m thinking about buying a new car.
Rob:      Oh yeah?  What models have you looked at?

Example 2:

James:    I’m thinking about buying a new car.
Rob:        Oh yeah?  I’m thinking about buying a new car too.
James:    Really?
Rob:        Yup, I just test drove a Mustang yesterday and it was awesome.

Woah!!  Did you catch that weaselly move in Example 2?  Rob, henceforth “Conversation Weasel”, has sneakily moved the attention away from James and placed it squarely on himself, in a verbal strategy Derber calls “shift-response” (as opposed to the polite and engaging “support-response” demonstrated in Example 1).  The post goes on to elaborate on a number of fascinating ways Conversation Weasel can leave the listener high and dry while running away madly with the conversation football.

The author offers a nice little insight into the why of this, by stating: “In a time where a lot of the old social supports people relied upon have disappeared, people have become starved for attention. They bring this hunger to their conversations, which they see as competitions in which the winner is able to keep the attention on themselves as much as possible. And this is turning the skill of conversation-making into a lost art.”

P.S. This whole discussion seems rather evocative of the conch shell symbolism in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In this book, a group of shipwrecked boys decide that “he who holds the conch” has the authority to speak without interruption, and that anyone within the group has the right to the conch.  The conch in this case helps to ensure a degree of egalitarianism and collectivism to how group decisions are discussed and made.  However, as the story unfolds, group structure breaks down, the rules of engagement disintegrate, the conch is shattered, and anarchy reigns supreme.

Now.. I’m not saying that Conversation Weasel sets out to create anarchy, but it’s mighty tricky to build something together when we’re all grabbing for the conch.

3 thoughts on “Beware the Conversation Weasel

  1. Interesting – when I started to read your example 2, it occurred to me that the interpretation your presented may have been gender-specific, i.e., when a male responds to another male by sharing a similar personal situation, it is presented as weaseling the conversation towards the responding male. But this is precisely how femaies tend to respond, and the response is appreciated by the original female. As,_Women_Are_From_Venus summarizes, “Women feel validated and gratified by being offered sympathy”, i.e., when the listener shows that they understand because they are going through or have been through a similar situtation. It would not be interpreted as redirecting attention from the original story, but rather as supporting the original story by validating it through sharing of similar story. I find this very intriguing 🙂

    • Hey Maggie, thanks for the comment! That’s a very thought-provoking take on things.. I think it can really be situation-dependent. There can be a lot of situations where stories that relate, demonstrate empathy, etc., can go a long way to show support for the topic – and person – at hand. That said, it seems that regardless of gender there can be situations where someone isn’t necessarily offering empathy but instead looking for ways to offer “pretend empathy” in a way to get the conversation re-directed – male and female alike! I.e. “Oh you think that’s bad.. wait til you hear about what happened to me!”.

      Perhaps a good barometer as to whether you are in a conversational weasel moment or not is probably how you feel during the conversation (i.e. supported/energized vs. grumpy/irritated).

      As an aside, there are quite a few comments on the original article that suggest it would be great if women also take the time to read the article, even though it’s published on a guy-oriented website. Guess Mars and Venus are interested in communicating in their own planetary way. :o)

  2. Pingback: S&F Beware the Conversation Weasel, repurposed | simonandfinn

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