Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Dinner with a Narcissist

Last Saturday, my sister had organised for two pairs of her friends to meet up with the potential to create a new friendship. The other idea was that one of the couples owns a boat and the other couple miss sailing so, all being well, they could sail together.

My sister went all out, buying beautiful fish to grill and making fabulous salads. I helped her by taking loads of broad beans out of their pods, making a roasted yellow and red pepper salad with anchovies and generally being the sous-chef.  We prepared most of it at home and then transported it to her friends' house in downtown Toronto. 

This couple are in their late 60s and quite wealthy. They had spent 15 years living on a yacht sailing in the Mediterranean and were missing sailing now they were back in Toronto.  I had met them briefly at the opera a few weeks earlier and noted that the husband was the sort of man who makes bad jokes when he's uncomfortable.  

We arrived at about 6pm and started to organise the food. I then went out and joined the husband who had made us each a martini (a very good one it was too). It turned out he was a fount of information about the history of Toronto and I really enjoyed learning all of this. I thought it would turn into a lovely evening of good conversation and new friendship.

About 7pm, the other couple arrived.  I'll call them T&M. Immediately, the wife, M, noticed we had had martinis and I thought it was pretty clear that she wanted one too but our host chose not to hear that and served us all a glass of champagne.  Our host had that week had eyelid surgery to correct a problem where his upper lids were starting to droop so much they were obscuring his vision. He looked a bit like he'd been through a few rounds in a boxing ring.  As it happened, the husband, T, is a doctor who works ringside at boxing matches on occasion.  He make a quick joke to our host about his eyes. All seemed well.

We sat down to dinner after crackers and cheese, champagne and get-to-know-you-chat.  All very nice.  Jacquie and our hostess dished up the food while I stayed at the table joining in the conversation.

After a while, it became more and more apparent that our host loved the sound of his own voice and was starting to usurp the conversation and making it all about him and his exploits, experience and knowledge. Indeed, he is knowledgeable and was interesting before the dinner when the drinks had not yet started to flow.  As the dinner wore on, it was getting harder and harder for anyone else to get a word in edgewise.

I was sitting beside T, an older man, clearly warm and thoughtful who exuded a curious sex appeal, despite his bulk.  Our host somehow brought up the subject of a well known impresario in Toronto who, after years of enormous success, had been found to  be a swindler and who had extorted large sums of money from various sources.  Our host had had dealings with him and his business in earlier times when he, our host, had been in investment banking.  He took some pleasure in describing to us how he and his company had taken this extortioner for a financial ride.  At one point in the conversation he referred to this swindler as 'tall'.  Immediately, T&M broke into the conversation to refute that. Being a neophyte in the world of Toronto social life, I  had heard a bit about the swindler from my sister before this dinner. I noticed right away that the way T&M were refuting our hosts statement that the man was 'tall' had an air of insider knowledge.

Eventually, T managed to get a chance to say something and told our host that this swindler had been intimately involved in business with T's father!  At that point, it was clear that our host had trampled on T's sensibilities. Well, it was clear to me, to T, to my sister and to T's wife.  It was not clear to our host and hostess, however, as our host launched into another long story about the swindler and his character while also mentioning a certain cabinet minister by referring to her as 'fat Eleanor'.  At this point, I could feel T bristling beside me.  He sighed, huffed quietly to himself and was clearly about to walk out the door. What stopped him, I don't know.  Politeness, I would imagine.

Eventually, after having to sit through another half an hour of our host's monologue and dismissal of anything T or his wife said, T got up, ostensibly to go to the lavatory and, when he came back out, signaled to his wife that it was time to go.  I could feel their relief.

After their goodbyes, all seemingly amicable to the hosts, our hostess said, while smiling at her husband, that he should have realised when T said that the swindler had been a close friend of his father's, that it was time to shut up.  Our host replied that he felt he could say what he wanted about anything he liked and didn't much care if anyone was bothered by it.  As my sister and I were trying to leave, he started to tell us horrendous Irish jokes, in a Hollywood brogue...

The next day, we called M to see how T had taken the whole thing.  She laughed about it but said that her husband as appalled at out host's lack of sensitivity and his boorishness and it would be a cold day in hell before he would invite the man onto his boat.  Then, it got even funnier. It turned out that 'fat Eleanor' was a relation of Ted's too!  We laughed about it but both my sister and I were disturbed by what had happened.  

Later that day, the hostess came over to pick up some medicine for her husband and we discussed the previous evening as she was leaving. We had both thought that she was coming over to have a debrief about it.  When we told her that 'fat Eleanor' was a relation of T's she laughed about it. She seemed to have very little understanding of the impact her husband had had on poor T and M, let alone me and my sister.  

It was only later, while deconstructing the evening, that it became clear that she had to do that in order to survive living with a consummate narcissist and alcoholic.  I had wondered, at the time, why she had done nothing to stop her husband's headlong assault of his guests.   How she coped living on a yacht with him for 15 years is anyone's guess.

It is clear to me that this man is deeply insecure, despite his intellect and experience.  He makes bad jokes to cover his discomfort and then rules the conversation and doesn't give a damn about anyone else's feelings or opinions.  The classic narcissist.  Very sad really as he has a lot to offer.

Needless to say, T&M won't be seeing them again any time soon.


  1. We have a phrase we say to bores like your host... "[Name], you are a small, small man."


    Great post - rings true with almost everyone, as we've all been bored to death by someone like your host. I've often wanted to have a gathering of all the bores I ever met, and see who is the last one standing.

  2. As my sister pointed out, there's very little point in confronting a narcissist as it makes not the slightest difference. I was so amazed at his total lack of observance about how his new guest was reacting to his statements!

  3. I love the idea of a roomful of people like him. It would be a fight to the death, for sure!



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