Posted by: ritagone | August 28, 2013

Can You Top This?


It bears repeating.

Since this is one of my all-time hot-button issues, I’m going to talk about it again, so stick with me: story toppers.

You know them.  You might even be one of them.  They’re all around us.  All you have to do is enter into a conversation with one of them and you will quickly identify that person as a Story Topper.  Here’s how it goes:

You (excited to share your recent adventure):  I had such a lovely time last week in Paris!  (The implication in your opening statement is, of course, that you’d like to say a bit more about this trip.  Anyone can see that.  Well, anyone but a Story Topper…)

The Story Topper:  Oh, I was in Paris two years ago.  We loved it, but we were sorry we didn’t speak better French.

You (trying to wrestle back your story, which, because you were there so recently, you are still dying to talk about):

Well, I got to use my limited French this time, and it was great.  I even shopped and got to speak to the salesclerk in French.

The Story Topper:  Well, when I was there, the French people were so annoying, because if you didn’t speak French, they didn’t want anything to do with you.

At which point you mentally give up and let The Story Topper continue on with his or her story, because it’s obvious that you’re not going to get to tell yours.

And so it goes.  Does this sound familiar?

These kinds of conversations happen all the time.  People have lost the ability to listen, to ask questions of the other person in the conversation rather than adding a comment or referring to one’s own experiences, which automatically hijacks the discussion away from the original speaker and to the Story Topper instead.

So what’s to be done about this, if you are the least bit convicted as you read this?

I challenge you, as a matter of fact, to listen the next time you’re engaged in a conversation: listen to how you respond when someone is talking to you.  Notice how quickly you jump in with a story of your own.  You might think you’re being sympathetic.  You’re not.  You’re being rude.  Selfish. Self-centered.  You’re taking the center of gravity away from the other person and placing it onto yourself.  You’re making it difficult for the other person to get back to ownership of the topic and the focus.

Another example:

Them:  Wow, did I wake up with a bad cold yesterday!

You (as Story Topper):  Oh, I know what you mean.  Last week I was running a 101 fever and thought I was going to throw up all day.  I felt miserable.

Them (again, trying to wrestle the conversation back to themselves):  Yeah, my head was throbbing!

You (as Story Topper without a clue):  My head was like in a vise.  I had to go home from work early and go straight to bed.

By this time, you see, there’s no rescuing the conversation; it’s been hijacked.  Your conversation partner has given up and is just going to listen to you until he or she can politely get away.  And why would they stay?  You’re not capable of just listening to someone else’s story for even a few minutes, so why should they hang around to listen to yours?

Here’s a remedy:  Shut up!!  Very simple, very effective.  Stop talking.  Stop thinking that you have to interject a similar story or anecdote every time someone is talking to you.  It’s not a tit-for-tat competition.  Just listen.  Nod your head. Smile.  Let the other person know you hear what they’re saying.  Make eye contact.  Make “listening noises.”  There are so many ways to let a person understand that you are invested in a conversation without trying to top their story; try a few of them.  And above all, ask questions.  By asking questions, you are keeping the subject on the other person’s topic of conversation, not yours.  “How long were you in Paris?” “What was the highlight of your trip?”  “What are you taking for your cold?” “Do you think you need to see the doctor?”  Questions always give permission to the other person to continue their story, making them feel heard and understood and appreciated.

I actually think if we practiced this little skill of not topping one another’s stories in conversation by listening, smiling,  making eye contact, and asking questions, we could start a grass roots revolution.  People would begin to feel special.  Wanted.  Understood.  Listened to.  Who knows where it could lead.

But it starts with you being willing to stop thinking that what you have to say is more interesting and important than the person who’s talking to you.

Stop being a Story Topper.  I’m on a crusade to make this happen, one Story Topper at a time.

And I’m beginning with myself.  Test me if you see me in person and see if I try to top your story.  And if I do, please call me on it.  I mean it.  I really don’t want to do this, either consciously or unconsciously.  If there’s one thing I don’t want to be when I’m talking to someone else, it’s a Story Topper.

And I hope you don’t either.


  1. Omg! I totally know what you mean. I had this story topper once who just went on and on and on and on….. Oh wait, I’m doing it right now aren’t I?

  2. Point well taken. I think I do this a lot without even thinking about the fact that it is rude to the other person. You make good points. Thanks.

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