The Narcissism of Communication

All communication is narcissistic. By writing something that I intend for others to read, I am saying that my idea–the one expressed in this, the prior, and next sentences–is good enough, clever enough, interesting enough, that people should pay attention to it. By making any effort to communicate with anyone, I’m saying that I’m worthy of their time.

Even a passing “Hello” to someone is a subtle insistence that it’ll matter to them that I’ve said it. A wave, too, is a statement that you’ll care that I waved to you. And it’s hard to doubt that public speaking is an overt argument that the people amassed in the room will be interested in what you have to say.

Now, it’s worth clarifying what is meant by “narcissism.” Though it is often understood as excessive self-love, especially admiration for your physical appearance, that is not my intent. Instead, I mean simply to imply a level of admiration for one’s self, ideas, and potential contribution. It’s not always excessive, and in many cases is directly in proportion to the healthy amount of self-admiration that a person needs to go on living.

For though it’s narcissistic for me to wave and say “hello” to my neighbor, they likely expect that my respect for our relationship and regard for them means that I will do so. Because of the history and mutual respect in the relationship, they’d likely and reasonably think there was something wrong if I were to not do so.

And here is another point, refusal to communicate can be as narcissistic as communication itself. If I intentionally neglect to say hello to my neighbors, that can be a silent statement that my self-regard makes me too important to say hello to them. Perhaps this is because of my new job, car, or my understanding that they lied to me about something. Whatever the reason, it’s unquestionably a statement meant to signify–even more than my telling them would–that I don’t want to talk to them.

This is, however, different from not saying “hello” to someone out of shyness. Shyness is–as people tend to forget–an intense humbleness that insists that not only have I nothing to contribute, but I’m of so little importance that you needn’t regard me.

As with shyness, so too is there a form of writing devoid of narcissism. Journaling, when done for the self alone, and with no intent the it should ever be public, is essentially literary shyness. An assertion that though you may be writing, you don’t think it’s good enough to others to pay attention to.

Blogging is, in this way, a form that is not necessarily narcissistic. Some people keep blogs with the honest intent that no one will read them (though they are, I would say, the vast minority). But if one writes, as I am, with the intent that what I write be read, I am thereby insisting that I am worthy of people’s time an attention. (This is the point I made, more narrowly, in “On Being an Egomaniac.”)

To say that communication is an act of narcissism is not to be against it. Communication is vitally important for people to reach a better understanding of those they share an address, workplace, city, state, nation, or planet with. Belief that communication is vital to understand each other can be reason enough to feel that the need to speak up and be heard. But that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of narcissism.

3 responses to “The Narcissism of Communication”

  1. Hi David,
    Your description of narcissism, in this post, sounds to me like healthy self esteem.
    And there’s nothing wrong with that!

  2. That’s an interesting point, Leslie. There is a way in which I’m using strange words–egomania, narcissism–to encapsulate incredibly normal things. (Though perhaps that’s the whole reason I find the exercise interesting.)

    In large part it’s just definitional. I am, in many way, trying to define narcissism down so that it’s the same as self-esteem. Like a few dictionaries, I consider the concepts roughly interchangeable.

    But then the whole point is the moderately inflated ego necessary to feel that you should communicate with people. Two people can stand next to each other and not say anything and still have healthy self-esteems. There’s some desire to offer something, or hope to gain something, that leads them to break the silence. Maybe it’s just the thought that they’re more interesting than silence. But there’s a something which I decided, perhaps inaccurately, to call narcissism.

    I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. The world would be a better place if more strangers started having meaningful conversations. But I think whenever people seek to communicate it is because they think themselves better than the alternative. The vast majority of the time they’re right, but that doesn’t mean the first thought didn’t occur.

  3. What I like about the way you explore words is that you take words we assume we really know the meaning of, and make an examination of them from a more subtle view point.
    “Narcissism” generally holds a negative connotation. “Selfish”, too, generally holds a negative meaning.
    Yet being ‘selfish’, or taking care of ones self, seems altruistic in its way…
    “Altruistic”…another good word to tumble…

    How did you come to be so intellectually curious about the human condition so early in your life? You never cease to amaze me…