How To Talk To A One-Upper Without Losing Your Damn Mind

If you have a friend or co-worker who constantly brags and tries to top your stories, here's how to respond.
No one likes to talk to a chronic one-upper.
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No one likes to talk to a chronic one-upper.

We all have that friend: the one who one-ups you in conversation every chance they get. Sometimes it’s a co-worker or family member, but what they all have in common is that anything you can do they can do categorically better.

Went to a Public Ivy for your undergrad? Oh, yeah, they applied to a handful of them but ultimately went with Harvard.

Finally got around to buying a new hybrid sedan? Sure, the new Priuses are nice, but they’re waiting for Tesla to put out the new Model S.

Going to the Amalfi Coast for your vacation next spring? Sweet! They went there with their spouse years ago, before it got super touristy. They can send you a list of recs if you want! (Everyone loves the list. They’ve forwarded it like 50 times.)

If this article were a medical malpractice ad, this is the point where we’d say: “If you or a loved one has had prolonged interaction with a one-upper, you may be entitled to financial compensation...

Jokes aside, one-uppers ― people who listen to you tell a story and immediately try to do you one better (or try to do you one worse, if you shared something sad) ― are some of the least pleasant people to talk to.

“It’s almost as if one-uppers have the belief that if your light shines, theirs is dimmed,” said Margaret Rutherford, a psychologist in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and the author of “Perfectly Hidden Depression.” “Do they do it to take you down a notch? Or is it because they somehow feel less than because you’re getting attention or praise for something?”

“A 2015 study found that braggarts overestimated the extent to which their audiences would feel “proud” and “happy,” and underestimated their annoyance.”

Rutherford hears complaints about one-uppers all the time in her therapy practice, and she’s dealt with plenty in her own life, too.

“I’m an avid walker, and I had a family member who would tell others that they walked just as much or farther than me when all of us knew they’d never walked for exercise. Ever,” she said. “It’s quite sad.”

Oneupmanship can be born from all kinds of inner struggles. “Sometimes it’s rivalry, low self-esteem masked by bravado, an actual problem with lying or just having an awkward social presence,” Rutherford explained.

That awkwardness is worth exploring a little: Most of us can read the room if we’re coming across as braggy: If we jump on someone’s sentence before they can finish getting it out or use their story as a jumping-off point for our own humblebrag, we’ll notice that there’s an awkward pause from the rest of the group once the interaction is through. We’ll spot the occasional eye roll and realize, “Oh, my gosh, I’m a thunder-stealing monster!” and change our ways.

It’s different for a one-upper. What sets them apart is their failure to relate to others and read social cues, said Amanda Deverich, a marriage and family therapist in Williamsburg, Virginia.

“Many people who like to ‘story top’ are not aware of what they are doing. They’re simply enjoying sharing their story and feeling like they are one of the gang with a similar experience,” she said. “These who are unaware are getting a good feeling, as if they are popular and well-liked.”

Science backs this up. A 2015 study found that braggarts overestimated the extent to which their audiences would feel “proud” and “happy,” and underestimated their annoyance.

When a one-upper brags, they misjudge how the story will play for others. “If I tell my co-workers about how I quit my first job at 22 to backpack through Europe for a whole year, they’ll think it’s romantic and cultured sounding!” the one-upper thinks.“Maybe they’ll want to join me on my next smaller trip.”

Meanwhile, the one-uppers’ co-workers are thinking: “Could this guy be any more of a bragger? Must be nice to up and quit your job. His parents probably paid for that.”

“Sometimes one-upping is motivated by a competitive streak, too, but a sophisticated, competitive person knows story-topping generally is impolite, off-putting and disenfranchising,” Deverich said. “It doesn’t actually secure your position at the top of the social hierarchy. The intelligent, competitive person will save the topping story for the most advantageous moment.”

How to deal with a chronic one-upper:

1. Go into the conversation expecting it.

Certain things ― a root canal, a conversation with a relentless one-upper ― are easier to deal with if you just accept it’s going to be rough going. If you’re in regular conversation with a one-upper, just think of their habit as part of the package. Maybe even learn to laugh at it. (“I wonder how many times they’ll respond with a brag this time; last time, I think the count was four.”)

“As with so many character traits that are annoying, what’s helpful is to expect the response ahead of time,” Rutherford said. “If you’re talking about your own accomplishments, assume the one-upper will do the same. They have to stick their two cents in, whether what they’re saying is truth or fabrication. If you expect it, it has less impact on you. It can even make you smile.”

2. Sympathize with the one-upper. They probably don’t even know they’re doing it.

Now that you know most one-upping is fueled by the inability to read the room and relate to others, hopefully you’ll respond differently the next time your pal does it. It’s not them, it’s their social awkwardness!

“Try not to get too annoyed or frustrated with this person, even though it can be taxing to deal with,” said Jessica Baum, a psychotherapist in Palm Beach, Florida. “Remind yourself that the other person might have low self-esteem or that maybe they feel out of place and could be unaware of their behavior. Patience is really important here.”

“If the one-upping is hindering your relationship, it’s OK to speak up and share that you need them to listen to you more, because you want to connect with them and feel that they care about your experiences, too.”

- Jessica Baum, psychotherapist in Palm Beach, Florida

3. Maintain a healthy sense of pride in your accomplishments ― even if the one-upper tries to steal your thunder.

A healthy sense of self-esteem can make you near bulletproof to one-uppers, Deverich said. Resist competing with the bragger in your life; it’s a waste of time, plus, there will always be someone who’s done, seen and accomplished more than you have. Our goals are so highly personal and individualistic, what’s the point of comparing?

“One-upping is just a never-ending cycle of madness,” Deverich said. “Encourage yourself when it comes to your goals, and appreciate the experiences of others. Definitely distance yourself from braggarts and aggressively dominant jerks, though.”

4. If you’re close to them and it’s really starting to bother you, address it gently.

While practicing patience and empathy is usually the best approach, that can be difficult when you’re close to the one-upper and their bad habit is starting to chip away at your goodwill toward them. In this case, healthy and kind communication is a big step in the right direction, Baum said.

“You can share your take on their behavior and do so in a loving way,” she said. “If the one-upping is hindering your relationship, it’s OK to speak up and share that you need them to listen to you more, because you want to connect with them and feel that they care about your experiences, too.”

Make it more about what you need ― you need them to actively listen, not offer commentary ― and less about how annoying their one-upping is. And look on the bright side, from their perspective: You’ll give them another thing to brag about it in their next conversation once they nail that skill: “Oh, you’ve been told you’re a great sounding board? Such a coincidence, I was recently told I’m the best listener!”

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