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Are Americans Narcissistic?
Announcer: This is an All Ears English podcast Episode 1018: “Are Americans Narcissistic?”
Announcer: Welcome to the All Ears English Podcast, downloaded more than 50 million times. We believe in Connection NOT Perfection ™, with your American hosts Lindsay McMahon, the ‘English Adventurer’, and Michelle Kaplan, the ‘New York Radio Girl,’ coming to you from Boston and New York City, U.S.A.
Announcer: And to get your transcripts delivered by email every week, go to AllEarsEnglish.com/subscribe.
Announcer: Today, we dive into a thought-provoking question. What patterns can we see across cultures when it comes to how we see ourselves? How can you use this information to be more effective when you do business across cultures? Find out today.
Michelle: Hey (hi) Lindsay, how’s it going?
Lindsay: Hey (hi) Michelle, it’s going pretty well. We’re here in mid-September already, it’s so crazy. I can’t believe it. Can you believe that?
Michelle: I can’t. Time is flying by, that’s crazy.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes). Have you been doing any reading lately, like reading articles online or anything interesting out there in the news?
Michelle: Well, that’s really funny that you should ask that because I happened to just read this interesting article from Vox.com. And the author is Sean Elling, and it was from July 19th, 2018, so, pretty new, and it’s called “How the West Became a Self-Obsessed Culture.”
Lindsay: Ohh my God, that is quite a title right there. That’s going to draw some clicks. Right? Because people are going to want to know, you know? Selfobsessed. Interesting. Okay, I want to know more.
Michelle: Yeah (yes), yeah (yes). So, I wanted to talk about it today because I thought that it could be really interesting for us. It could be interesting for our listeners, you know, just this discussion of culture, right? So many times we talk about American culture and this kind of goes into it a little bit deeper. So, do you want to hear about it?
Lindsay: Yeah (yes), I want to hear. Let’s see. Let’s see what it’s about. Let us know.
Michelle: Alright. So, basically, it starts out talking about there is some study that talks about Americans and how they call it “collective narcissism”, that Americans are basically collective narcissists. So, what’s a narcissist, Lindsay?
Lindsay: That is such a strong word, “narcissist”. Well, when I think of narcissists I think of someone who’s very self-obsessed, self-concerned and focuses entirely on them, on themselves.
Michelle: Yeah (yes).
Lindsay: But kind of to a pathological extent, right? So, that’s a really strong word to use in this study.
Michelle: For sure, for sure, for sure. And you know, it talks about individual and collective narcissism. So, individual is, you know, just yourself. I mean, it makes me think of our president, actually.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes), yeah (yes), that’s a whole another topic, ohh my gosh. Don’t get me started on him. [laughter]
Michelle: I won’t, I won’t, but that’s just the first person who came to mind.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes).
Michelle: And collective is more about a group. Right? It kind of mentions how as a group we are narcissistic. Do you think this is a stereotype, Lindsay?
Lindsay: Definitely, yeah (yes). I think any time that we predict someone’s behavior based on, you know, certain ideas, it’s a stereotype, right? We assume we know what the person’s going to do. So, yeah (yes), for sure. And any time we’re also, I think later in today’s episode we’re going to talk about East Asian cultures versus Western cultures, which is also a huge oversimplification. So, we’ll point out when we feel a little uncomfortable that things are a little over-simplified. Right, Michelle? We’ll voice that, for sure. But it’s interesting to pull this in, to get into the psyche a little bit of American culture, so that we can understand it a little bit better for our listeners who might be living here. For sure, yeah (yes).
Michelle: Definitely, definitely. So, yeah (yes), So, that was the beginning of the article, but then I got into this really interesting interview with an author whose name is Will Storr, and he wrote a book called Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us.
Lindsay: Okay. I want to know more.
Michelle: Yeah (yes), yeah (yes). I know. Like, I definitely want to read that book.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes), for sure.
Michelle: Yeah (yes), so, basically, this author says that, in general, the West is more individualistic. Which has it’s, you know, there are good things about it and there are also cons. Right? Because he mentions that it’s good to be, like, you know, have a positive feeling about, like, goals and dreams and all these things like that, but he mentions that, like, because of this5
individualistic attitude we tend to think that things have a lot more, the result of what happens has a lot more to do with us, than it may really.
Like, we think we affect the outcome of everything more than we really do.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes), and that’s in a positive and a negative way. Like, if the outcome is negative, we think that, and if the outcome is positive, we think that too? Is that he is trying to say?
Michelle: I’m not positive, but… I’m not positive.
Michelle: I think just, like, that, in general, we think we affect things more than we do. So, I think that’s what he was saying.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes), yeah (yes).
Michelle: Yeah (yes), what do you think about that?
Lindsay: Well, I mean, yeah (yes), I mean, for sure. Again, I feel a litt.le nervous just because it feels like a huge dichotomy, right? Just, like, splitting the world in half and saying, “This person does this and that person does that.” But you know, culture is, you know, even within the U.S. we have our own individual cultures. Right? We’ve talked about this on the show where, you know, this can also be individual, can depend on the family you grew up in, your gender, all of this stuff. But yeah (yes), I think, historically, studies have shown, you know, where this individual… I think it’s like the concept of locus of control that we studied in graduate school, this idea of, like, where do you think control comes from? And I think studies have found, I can’t cite a specific study, but I remember reading in graduate school on this theme that the locus of control in, at least in American culture, tends to be more often within the person, whereas in other cultures it tends to be outside. Right? Nature or just, you know, history, for example. So, there is something to this, but I also want to just point out that it is super, super dichotomous and an oversimplification if we’re just talking about East and West. Right?
Michelle: Oh yeah (yes), of course, of course, yeah (yes). So, definitely keep that in mind. But it is interesting, like, the people that have studied culture and6
what they say about it. I mean, I wish that I did more of this, actually, like, these kinds of studies; it’s a very interesting field.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes). I mean, for your graduate program, right? Like, I’m surprised that you guys didn’t do more of these studies, right? With teaching English as a second language, for sure. This is interesting stuff.
Michelle: We did a lot of stuff like that, but, I mean, like, I always felt that, like, sociolinguistics was very interesting and things like that.
Lindsay: Ohh my God.
Michelle: Yeah (yes), that was a really interesting one for me. But no, we definitely did a lot of this, but now that I’m removed from it for a few years I wish I had the chance to do more.
Lindsay: Well yeah (yes), there’s a lot out there. So, what did they find? So, you mention this fish tank study. Right? So, this is what was cited in the article, right? And when, do we know when it happened, this study? We don’t know exactly.
Michelle: I think in the early 2000s, I think.
Lindsay: Okay, so it’s more recent.
Michelle: Basically, another thing that came up in the article was a study about a fish tank. Okay? So, basically, they had East Asian people and Westerners look at a fish tank for a while and then they asked them what they saw. The people from the West saw a fish. Okay? Even though there were many fish. Okay?
Michelle: But the people from East Asia, they saw the tank. Okay?
Michelle: They would kind of like talk about what they saw a little bit more. So, the Westerners said, when the people doing the study, they asked, like, what did they observe about the fish or what was their feeling about it, they said that, like, that there was, like, this, like, larger fish and they thought7
that that was, like, the leader of the group. Right? That was, like, the important one. But the people from East Asia felt bad for the big fish.
They felt that it wasn’t a part of, like, the overall group, the larger group.
Lindsay: That’s interesting. I feel like I would have said the same thing. I would have said that that fish has been excluded from the group, that fish has been, like, pushed out of the group. Because there’s also, you know, there’s culture, and then there’s also kind of our, kind of what we’re born with, which is kind of the ancient brain stem, which signals the importance of being included, being included in the group. Even now, like, when I get pushed out of some group or something, I feel like almost in danger kind of, on a certain level. Do you know what I’m saying? Like, I feel like this is also a very, like, evolutionary thing.
Lindsay: It’s baked into everyone’s mind, this idea of not wanting to be excluded from a group.
Michelle: Right. Well, it makes me think of literally that phrase that ‘Would you rather be a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond?’ Lindsay: Or a big fish in a small? What is it again? Would you rather be?
Michelle: A big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big pond. Have you ever heard of that?
Lindsay: Yeah (yes), what would you rather be?
Michelle: That’s a really good question. Well, I think that a lot of people talk about this when they’re thinking about what college to go to. I remember that’s when I heard it a lot.
Michelle: Okay, so guys, basically, if you’re a big fish in a small pond, it means that, like, you probably, it may be you go to a school that’s, like, has a small population and so that means that, like, what you do is going to stand out more. Right? Because there are fewer students, so you can, like, be, like, you know, get, you know, maybe everything you do will be more on the stage. Whereas if you’re a small fish in a big pond, you probably went to,8
like, a state school like I did. I went to the University of Maryland and so, like, I was one of thousands and thousands and thousands of students. So, I was a small fish in a big pond.
Lindsay: Interesting, but it’s also part of growth, right? Like, moving into… Maybe in the beginning, like, I think of it also like in high school, maybe you’re a big fish in a small pond, like, maybe you’re the star football player, right?
But then you go to a big school, or you go into the world, and all of a sudden, you’re a small fish in a big pond. And it’s good because you can grow, like, you push yourself to grow. Right?
Michelle: For sure. Yeah (yes), yeah (yes), that’s true. I think that there are, you know, positives and negatives to each one. I mean, it’s nice to, like, stand out and, you know, I mean, it could be if that’s what you want, but yeah (yes), I think that if you have more people to compete with you maybe have to… I don’t know, I don’t know if you have to work harder or just in a different kind of way, it’s a different mindset.
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Lindsay: Yeah (yes), interesting. So, let’s get back to this concept, though. I mean, so, we want to remind our listeners to check out this book. Right? First of all, I mean, what’s the name of the book, Michelle?
Michelle: The name of the book is Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us. And another thing that he talked about is that it’s not… We kind of blame it on the selfie, like, we blame it on, like, social media and all of these things, and, like, yeah (yes), it’s all social media.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes).
Michelle: But this author, yeah (yes), talks about how, no, it’s kind of also ingrained in society.9
Michelle: Comes from a long time ago.
Lindsay: Okay, so, he’s saying that it was already there, this characteristic was already there in our culture at least, and then the selfie came along as a way to push that forward as a medium for it.
Lindsay: Social media.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes), yeah (yes). It would have been something else if it wasn’t Facebook. It would have been something else, is what he’s saying. Right?
Michelle: Right, right, exactly. These are, like, tools to, like, they’re, like, they gave us what we already wanted.
Michelle: Like, a way to showcase, right? Yeah (yes), I thought that was interesting as well because I think that it’s easy to just kind of put things on social media, it’s all social media’s fault. You know?
Lindsay: Yeah (yes).
Michelle: We’re the ones who take the pictures; we’re the ones who, like, feed into that. Right?
Lindsay: Yeah (yes). This also reminds me a lot of our self-improvement culture.
We talked about this with Jessica on the show a couple of weeks ago, but this, like, huge industry that we have in the U.S. toward self-improvement.
Right? Self-improvement. I mean, obviously the fitness industry is massive here, but not just that, just this idea of, like, becoming a better person, like, getting, you know, getting better at everything. That’s an obsession that we have here, and I always wonder if that’s the same case around the world, in other cultures. And I have a feeling that that also comes from this piece of the… I feel like “narcissism” is a bit of a strong word to use here, but self-centeredness or the locus of control being on the inside.10
Like, I can control everything by changing myself and everything comes from within, instead of forces outside of me, like my history, my family, nature. You know?
Lindsay: That’s kind of what I think it comes down to, which I find fascinating.
Michelle: Right, right. I mean, Lindsay, have you ever had, like, felt like something happened to you where you felt like you were really in control of it, but you realized that you weren’t?
Lindsay: I mean, completely. That’s kind of also… In addition, that’s why I feel like it’s kind of over-simplifying it. Because I feel like that’s also part of growing up and getting smarter, even in American culture. Right? Maybe when we’re a teenager, yeah (yes), we think we’re the center of the world, we think we can control everything, and then we have a few failures in life, right? And then we realize, or even, like, in the romantic dating world, right, we realize we’re not in control of other people, or even what happens, to some extent. But, I mean, it’s so true, like, we’re taught that from the beginning, like, the first lesson you teach a kid when they’re, like, five years old… When does a kid learn to tie his shoe? Like, five? I don’t know, four?
Michelle: That’s a good question, I don’t know if my nephew can do that and he’s five. Maybe five, six. I don’t know.
Lindsay: Right. Yeah (yes), so, the first thing that you hear from others is always like, “Ohh, you did it all by yourself.”
Michelle: Yeah (yes).
Lindsay: That’s the praise we get in this culture, and I don’t know that it’s necessarily the same around the world. I would love to hear from our listeners and hear, “Is that a phrase that you guys hear in your family when you learn to tie your shoe?” Because over here it’s always, “You did that all by yourself.” Right?
Michelle: That’s true. I think that’s a really, really good example, Lindsay. I think, yeah (yes), so many times I’ve just, yeah (yes), with little kids doing it by yourself, or, like, or, like, people seem to… I mean, generally speaking, I feel that people get praised for doing things on their own, and maybe don’t value the group mentality as much.
Lindsay: Huge, yeah (yes), yeah (yes). So, this is interesting. I think we don’t want to put too much emphasis on this because I think humans are complicated, complex beings and there’s so much more to us than just if we’re from the West or we’re from Asia or from some other part of the world, right? But then, of course, our culture also influences us, so we need that balance of perspective, I think.
Michelle: Yeah (yes).
Lindsay: Michelle, are there some phrases that we can throw out for listeners that kind of show this pattern of thinking in this culture?
Michelle: Sure. Number one, so, I have “out for number one”, if you’re out for number one. Right?
Lindsay: Looking out for number one.
Michelle: Yeah (yes), looking out for number one. Right? Also we always say “stand out in the crowd”. Have you heard that one, Lindsay?
Lindsay: Ohh, yeah (yes). Ohh, absolutely. This is always said to us, you know, you want to stand out in a crowd, you want to look different, you want to be different. That’s huge.
Michelle: Right, right. That kind of, yeah (yes), I think that that phrase, like, has a positive feeling attached to it. So, you know, rather than having it be, like, “be a part of the group”, “stand out in the crowd, you want to stand out in the crowd, here’s how you do it”. Right?
Lindsay: I mean, yeah (yes). Absolutely. There’s so many proverbs too, that we could bring into today’s episode. Maybe we can do a follow-up on this with proverbs that kind of highlight this perspective. But yeah (yes), is there another one?
Michelle: Yeah (yes), and then the last one is “self-absorbed”.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes).12
Michelle: Just being, you know, thinking that everything that goes on with you is the most important thing, and I think that, you know, people… I mean, not to generalize, but, I mean, I definitely, I don’t think of myself as a selfabsorbed person, but I think that we all have moments, like, especially when we’re going through a high-pressure situation or something stressful, that you kind of like think that it’s, like, the most important thing in the world.
Lindsay: I mean, for sure. Sometimes our brain kicks into survival mode and at that point we are self-absorbed because our brain thinks it’s trying to survive.
Or not, right? For example, maybe you get, you’re in school, and you get, like, a bad report card. When you’re a kid, your brain goes into survival mode because it thinks it’s trying to protect you, and, of course, in that moment your self-absorbed. You know what I mean? You can’t be concerned with other people when you’re worried about your own academic success. Right?
Michelle: Right, right, oh, sure. Yeah (yes), so guys, those are three phrases that connected with me with the article, and then, of course, we have “big fish in a small pond” or “a small fish in a big pond”. So, that’s always a fun one as well. So, that goes directly to the fish tank study.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes).
Michelle: Lindsay, you know, the takeaway today, for me, is I think it’s important to understand some of these cultural differences. Because it can help us be more understanding with other people. That’s my opinion. So, what may, of course not to stereotype, but what may seem like maybe a narcissistic person or self-absorbed person or group, maybe that, you know, they’re experiencing pressure from, like, the way they grew up or the culture or something like that to be a certain way, to perform a certain way. Right?
Lindsay: Yeah (yes), yeah (yes).
Michelle: Yeah (yes). The article talks about that a little bit too. Like, just, like, having this incredible pressure. So, you might think, “This person’s, you know, just, like, obsessed with himself.” But maybe it’s something about, you know, just, like, a pressure that they’re feeling, I don’t know.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes).13
Michelle: I think that, you know, what we want to leave our listeners with today is to learn as much about others as possible. And, you know, if someone doesn’t have a trait that you’re familiar with, you know, don’t look at it as a bad thing. Right? I think that you also can’t just say, “Ohh, well, it’s because of their culture.” or something like that, because that would be stereotyping. That’s taking it too far. But I think just this idea of trying to be a little bit more understanding of others and, like, realizing that there’s so much that goes into who we are. It’s how we were brought up, it’s our families, it’s also, it could be a little bit of culture and things like that. I think that that’s important to help us make us more tolerant. What do you think?
Lindsay: Yeah (yes). No, totally, I mean, I think what it comes down to is, like, you know, holding these two ideas together. No two people see the world in exactly the same way, and at the same time, our history can influence how are brought up, our family can influence it, and culture can influence it.
So, you take those two ideas, no one is the same, and there are certain cultural patterns that we can find, and we put those together and then we can, we have a way to connect with people, because we’re more aware.
Right? I mean, this is for anybody, for our listeners, guys, if you’re doing business in the U.S. or abroad using English, when you do business, any of those can come into your repertoire to connect better. Right, Michelle?
Michelle: Right, right, definitely. I completely agree and I think, you know, just be aware of these differences, and be, you know, comfortable with that.
Lindsay: Yeah (yes), I love it. So good, so good. Good to dive into this topic, it’s good to veer away from, you know, other things, Michelle. We go into a topic that’s maybe a little bit tougher to articulate, but I think, hopefully, our listeners found some value today, guys. Come back to 1018, to our blog, and leave us your response today, your thoughts on what we talked about. We’d love to hear from you.
Michelle: For sure.
Lindsay: Alright, Michelle, this has been good. We’re out of here for today.
Michelle: Thanks, Lindsay. Have a good one.
Lindsay: Alright. Take care. Bye.14
Michelle: Alright. Bye.
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