Have you ever been in the middle of telling somebody something important to you, only to be interrupted because what you’ve just said has reminded them of their own (far more fascinating!) story that clearly outshines yours? It’s a scene-stealing moment of oneupmanship. Or as author Stephen Covey once lamented:
“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
Oneupmanship is perhaps most memorably represented in the iconic Monty Python Four Yorkshiremen skit (pictured above) in which the lads sit around and argue about which one of them had endured the worst poverty in childhood. “A house? You were lucky to live in a house! We lived in one room, all 26 of us!”
Oneupmanship compels us to do or say something in order to prove that we’re better/smarter/cooler/more interesting than others (as displayed in that unfortunate 2013 trend of sporting Google Glass on your face in public).
But sometimes oneupmanship, as in the Monty Python skit, looks like a competition to see who has it worse, not better – a kind of onedownmanship, if you will.
“You think YOU have pain? Let me tell you about MY pain…”
Or as one of my blog readers wrote, it’s like interjecting with the phrase “That’s almost as bad as. . .” What does that mean?
“Haven’t you ever noticed how people always say they’ve had worse things happen to them than you have?”
The most insufferable type of oneupmanship (or onedownmanship) can affect patients when discussing their medical conditions. Segen’s New Medical Dictionary even defines it as oneupmanship syndrome (and isn’t every aberration now a “syndrome”?), describing it like this:
“A term that refers to the habit of some patients of exaggerating the symptoms of their particular condition – e.g., worse symptoms, greater pain, a longer recuperation than others with the same condition – in order to evoke greater sympathy in spectators.”
“When it comes to coronary artery bypass graft surgery on our unofficial Hierarchy, more is better. Triple bypass tops double, quintuple beats quadruple. You get the picture.”
Thus, those who are arguably most able to understand what it’s actually like to live with a serious illness often feel surprisingly free to minimize, interrupt, dismiss or insult others whom they judge to be not quite as bad off.
I first learned of the term friendly fire being applied to those living with chronic illness on the site Hitting The Wall, whose editor Kelli lives with a number of debilitating medical conditions. She made this observation about what can sometimes happen when patients get together:
“Sadly, in many situations instead of getting support, we end up hearing stories about fellow warriors’ woes at times when we are trying to reach out. This leaves the person who shares and needs support feeling unheard.
“When we vent, we need to feel heard and validated. We do not need to feel like someone thinks our story is unimportant and feels their situation is more important than ours.
“They hijack our vent, so to speak. We are all fighting a battle. We must be kind and let each person have the floor, allowing them to feel heard.”
There’s an implied sense of separation here within such a hijacker that disturbs me – some kind of insistent inner voice that snaps: I suffer far worse than you do! Attention must be paid! You are not anything like me!
I think Kelli brings up an important reminder: that empathetic conversation is not merely waiting for the other person to take a breath so you can interrup
How to tell if you’ve ever engaged in friendly fire when somebody is speaking to you:
- if you’ve ever interrupted somebody telling you about their _______ (insert diagnosis/symptoms/medical procedures here) in order to interject your own far more fascinating story about those subjects
- if you’ve ever interrupted somebody telling you about the above subjects in order to tell them the far more fascinating story of somebody you used to know/read about in the tabloids/dated your cousin’s neighbour’s son back in high school
- if you’ve ever interrupted somebody telling you about the above subjects in order to attempt to convince them to try the all-natural homeopathic organic vegan herbal supplement miracle cure you just learned about from Dr. Oz (you know, the treatments that our doctors don’t want us to know about)
- if you’ve ever interrupted somebody telling you about the above subjects in order to attempt to convince them to try the above cures because you are personally engaged in making money from selling them (which is, by the way, simply too hideously tacky for words so you must cease doing this immediately)
- if you’ve ever interrupted somebody telling you about the above subjects in order to tell them that clearly her physician is ________ (insert the appropriate slur: an idiot/uninformed/in bed with Big Pharma/lazy/out to get her)
- if you have a tendency to keep interrupting others no matter what they’re talking about. Please shut up and listen, for God’s sake…
Q: What prompts people to engage in oneupmanship when others start sharing their personal health stories?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote more about oneupmanship – or onedownmanship! – in Chapter 7 of my book “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease“ (Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2017). You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (and use the code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).