A header illustration featuring a cyan volume soundwave within a white cloud, against a wiggly patterned background in the same cyan-and-white color scheme.
A header illustration featuring a cyan volume soundwave within a white cloud, against a wiggly patterned background in the same cyan-and-white color scheme.

Illustration by Sidra Dahhan

From a People Person: the crippling urge to talk about yourself

Ever had the time pass so quickly because you were telling a story? Or sat through a friend’s rant trying so hard not to zone out? Or, you’ve surely felt very motivated to slap someone for not letting you complete your sentence?

Apr 30, 2023

A friend came to me the other day, and asked, really concerned — “Tiesta, do you think I’m good at listening? Do you feel like when you talk, I’m already thinking of how to reply, and not really listening to you?”
I did not tell them so, but they were spot on.
It is not even just my friend. With so many young, bright minds on the same small island all having something to say, finishing your sentences is a constant uphill battle that most of us lose, admit it.
The age of listening, if there even was one, is long gone. Even with the focus on yoga and mindfulness and listening circles (which are terrifying, by the way, you talk and no one interrupts you even once, it’s absolutely insane), listening is a skill not many possess. Listening is always a compromise — either you care about the person, so you decide to give them the microphone for a little while, or you’re simply catching your breath between monologues, and the mike was stolen from you.
As humans, we have the special ability of acquired or chosen deafness. We can deliberately ignore someone talking right before us and even talk over them comfortably. As social animals that assert a large part of their identity through communication, not listening to someone is deliberately demeaning them in a social setting and as an individual. I am not, however, saying every time we don’t listen, we mean it consciously and maliciously. Most times, our minds are already somewhere else, and it could have been anyone talking, and they wouldn’t have caught our attention.
There is also a misconception contributing to this epidemic of speakers — and it is that participation = speaking. Not only is this untrue in most friendly settings, but it completely ignores the importance of active listening and how crucially we need listeners’ participation in a group so that the speakers can speak. Listening is a form of generosity really, because unless someone’s listening to you, you’re just talking into a void. The numerous other benefits of listening, according to Glanville’s study, include increased tolerance and understanding of people around us, acknowledgment of diversity, and trust. In a unique and interesting case, a nurse got better at building relationships with her patients after losing her voice. She wrote this article about how patients appreciated her non-verbal, calm, silent empathetic approach, and I think the same applies to people at NYUAD too. Everyone appreciates good body language and active listening just as much, if not more, than words.
You might say this is all well and good, but, as all of us know from having attended lectures for most of our lives, listening can be really boring. Especially at university, once you start listening, there really might be no escape from the ‘conversation’ until you know everything there is to know about the other person. In fact, Mark Goulston, author of the book Just Listen, writes how listening overloads our brain while speaking relieves it. That is why, even cognitively, while we are talking, we ‘feel lighter,’ while listening gives us a headache on various fronts — because we run the risk of not knowing what to do with the information, especially when we’re listening to someone complain or describe their problems (which, personally, happens in every second conversation I have) and feel the additional pressure not only to make them feel heard but also to ‘fix’ them. That’s why we listen only to speak sometimes, so we can finally get the chance to puke out all this stressful information cramming our brains.
In contrast, you know what is the complete opposite of boring? Talking about yourself, your life, your interests, you. So in a sense, we’re speaking of two separate issues here — listening only to speak, and conversational narcissism.
Let me explain — talkaholics (yes, it is a real word), talk because they are looking for connections; by talking about themselves, they want to feel validated. They want attention, praise, acceptance, love. But in trying to do so, they often do more harm than good because they get excited after every sentence you say and begin talking about their own experience, and then you never get to say what you were originally going to say, and thus talkaholics are terrible listeners to be in a conversation with.
Of course, not all talk of yourself is narcissistic, sometimes we need to discuss aspects of our lives to make sense of them, or we’re at an interview or a party where people would like to know us, and we need to talk about ourselves. There’s also an ingrained level of narcissism in our natures, spend an average 60 percent of our conversations talking about ourselves according to the Scientific American, and 80 if it is on social media. Furthermore, a Harvard study found that self-disclosure, aka talking about ourselves, activates motivation and reward systems in the brain, namely the nucleus accumbens and the ventral tegmental area. Eating your favorite meal and talking about yourself activates the same part of your brain, and releases dopamine to make you happy. No wonder you love it.
So don’t worry, you are not a conversational narcissist if your favorite topic to talk about is yourself. You are, however, completely and totally one if you — A. actively create opportunities to talk about yourself, B. overshare even when you would be better off keeping quiet, and C. find it unbearably boring if someone else is talking about themselves. There’s no shortage of such conversational narcissists. You’ll find many here who started by introducing themselves during Marhaba week and just never stopped talking about themselves since.
But if you take the sensible, empathetic listener route — when you do decide to talk, it will be more intentional, and people will notice and pay attention to what you say more than they would if the blabbermouth is blabbering another random fact in their constant stream of thoughts again. You would also prefer substantive conversation over small talk. Here’s a quiz you should take, it will tell you how much of a talkaholic you are and how much work needs to be done.
I mean, when even teachers, whose entire job is focussed around talking and the imparting of knowledge, are being told to listen more in order to be more effective at gauging their students’ learning, then I’m sure you can learn to listen as well. Because even when we do our best to listen, we still won’t understand anyone exactly the way they intend us to, as we only hear what we expect to hear, and understand everything through the lens of our individual, personal, sociocultural backgrounds.
We cannot help these various biological, social, and individual hurdles between us and active listening; the least we can do is shut our mouths and try.
Tiesta Dangwal is Deputy Features Editor. Email them at feedback@thegazelle.org
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