18 Aug 2022

The pros and cons of self-deprecation

Self-deprecation is a trait that permeates British culture. It is a national characteristic – evident in a sense of history that, possibly uniquely, dwells on ‘glorious’ failures (the Charge of the Light Brigade, Dunkirk, Scott’s race against Amunsden). It is also a valued personality trait, which people find engaging and attractive.

The British have a horror of what they call ‘blowing your own trumpet’, and are deeply averse to earnestness, pomposity and self-importance. Statements that, in another culture, would simply be attributed as confident expressions of self-esteem, are interpreted in Britain as boastful and self-aggrandising.

If you want to avoid being misunderstood, learn to downplay your attributes and resort wherever possible to understatement. People will read between the lines and admire your modesty.

Self-deprecation can be deeply confusing to outside observers. The problem is that the British should not be taken at face value, and it would be wrong to judge their bumbling modesty, self-effacing apologies and downplaying of their own achievements as in any way genuine. In fact, the ability to conceal feelings of bombastic pride, superiority and self-satisfaction is a sure sign of social success and secure status in Britain. It takes great reserves of good luck and natural ability to rise to the position where you are confident enough to adopt an air of ironic self-deprecation and sheepish self-mockery. First and foremost, self-deprecation comes from a position of strength, not weakness; it is emphatically not an expression of lack of self-esteem, but an oblique projection of poise and self-assurance.

In many social circles it would be seen as hopelessly gauche to admit to striving hard for recognition or affirmation, be it taking exams (much is made of non-revision and inspired improvisation), or securing the top job (winging it at the interview with very little research or preparation is much admired). While it is perfectly possible that gallons of midnight oil have been burned during meticulous exam preparation, and much private anguish has been suffered before the important interview, it would be seen as bad form to own up to any exceptional expenditure of effort.

A tendency to broadcast achievements or boast about wealth or status is seen as ‘showing off’, a childish character trait that is greeted with opprobrium. Show offs are loftily disdained for exposing their insecurity, neediness and naked ambition.

Naturally, these strangely nuanced character traits are not shared by many other nationalities, and seem to fly in the face of contemporary admonitions, much aired on social media and in self-help advice, to stress your personal ‘brand’, believe in yourself and ascend the career ladder, wafted gently to the top on a cloud of self-belief and self-esteem.

But what happens to you when it all goes wrong? Or even when it doesn’t go quite as well as hoped and expected? When your blustering ambition and drive has fallen flat, where do you turn? If you have managed to hang on to a modicum of modesty and an ability to make fun of yourself, you will probably find that you are surrounded by supportive friends, who find it easy to relate to you, pick up the pieces, and help you move on. Even if you have succeeded in reaching the giddy heights of your aspiration, a sprinkle of self-deprecation and self-mockery will go a long way towards keeping your feet on the ground, ensuring that you are likeable and acceptable.

None of this means that we shouldn’t recognise other people’s success. We all need to avoid tall poppy syndrome, where we decry other people’s drive and ambition, and pour scorn on their achievements. Deprecating yourself is fine (as long as you don't overdo it), but that doesn’t mean you should extend your disparagement to everyone else. When you see other people thriving or flourishing, it is basic good manners to acknowledge their attainments and encourage their success. Failing to do so is an embarrassing sign of resentment and envy. If they choose to meet your compliments with a large dose of wry self-deprecation, so much the better…

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