QuestionDoes being self-deprecating help or harm you socially?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of people who know what they’re talking about. Today, we ask psychologists and communication experts if making fun of ourselves makes us look bad.
People self-deprecate by belittling, undervaluing, or disparaging themselves as a means of social signaling or tension release. Excess or false modesty has made many a comedy routine, but how does it measure up as an interpersonal strategy?
Recently, the self-deprecator's dilemma was summed up by Twitter parody account @GoogleFacts. "Self-deprecating humor increases the perceived attractiveness of high-status people, but can make low-status people seem less attractive," it tweeted out to its 1.4 million followers last month, referencing an actual social study. Is the "low-status" person destined to a life of misery and alienation from "high-status" social circles if they have a tendency to disparage themselves in conversation? Where is the line between a wry sense of humor and a classic case of low self-esteem? Can a harmless jab at oneself spiral into an act of self-sabotage?
We looked to the experts who understand the power of identity and are experienced in the evaluation of personality types to tell us if being self-deprecating helps or harms us socially.
Nick Haslam, Ph.D.
Professor, Social and Developmental Psychology, University of Melbourne
Self-deprecation can be an effective way to present oneself in egalitarian environments, where people are vigilant for signs of arrogance. Self-promotion backfires in these settings. Self-deprecation is also a disarming way for people in authority positions to flatten hierarchies. However, as soon as you are in a position where standing out rather than social leveling is important, self-deprecation can be self-defeating. Presenting a confident or even over-confident front can persuade others that you are capable and desirable, and self-deprecation can easily be mistaken for under-confidence or low self-esteem, and can confer a competitive disadvantage.
As work by Bill von Hippel and his colleagues has shown recently, over-confident people present more confident faces to the world, and their perceived confidence leads others to see them as more desirable and to be less likely to try to compete with them.
Five Self-Deprecating Comedians
"I finally have the body I want. It's easy, actually, you just have to want a really shitty body."
"How do I feel? Empty? Check. Scared? Check. Alone? Check. Just another ordinary day."
"I've had so much plastic surgery, when I die they will donate my body to Tupperware."
"My background is degradation and sloth, mostly."
"Despite all the jokes I make about myself here, I'm not really a slut. I've only had sex with four guys... and that was a weird night."
President, Sterling Marketing Group; Author, The Brand Mapping Strategy: Design, Build and Accelerate Your Brand (forthcoming)
I think the real issue here is whether self-deprecation is an authentic expression or a calculated strategy. Whenever we are able to step back and see the humor in our own thinking and behavior, we become more accessible to others. The humility of being able to be authentically self-deprecating helps build our personal brand in a positive way. However, the opposite is also true. If the self-deprecation is an attempt to gain favor through false humility, it's a manipulation which other people pick up on—and that can be damaging to our personal brand.
Motivational speaker; Author, Jungle
In the past I used to think, "The weaker your ego, the stronger you are." I thought that a strong ego was egoistical, self-obsessed and self-serving, and so I desired a meek, more spiritual ego that would better serve others. Relentlessly, I practiced until I crushed my ego so thin it was transparent, and then there was nothing to live for and no energy to serve anyone.
The greatest of all Rabbis throughout the ages is Akiva. When an illiterate peasant approached him one day and asked if he could condense the entire Tora to one simple sentence, Akiva replied: "Love your friend as much as you love yourself." If you dwell on this sentence for a second, you see that it suggests that the more you love yourself, the more you can love others. I reckon self-deprecation is very dangerous for the low-status person and that indeed humility in high-status people is a great virtue.
In a 2008 study, anthropologist Gil Greengross and psychologist Geoffrey F. Miller theorized, "high-status individuals can more easily afford to make fun of themselves. Self-deprecating humor for them may be a form of self-handicapping, following the logic of costly signaling theory." Meanwhile, "the use of self-deprecating humor by low-status individuals may be counter-productive, suggesting depression, defeatism, subordination, low self-esteem, and/or low mate value."
Founder and principal strategist, Delightful Communications; Author, Pioneers of Digital
I don't think there's anything wrong with showing a little vulnerability now and again, but what people want to see is true confidence and sincerity in your abilities whatever status you are. It's about how authentic you are at the end of the day. If you're super successful, but always telling people how incompetent you are, they'll quickly get turned off because you're coming across as insincere. Conversely, if you're over-confident with little or no basis or track record, people are going to be equally turned off, as you can't back up your overbearing demeanor with any substantial achievements. Finding the right balance between confidence and the understanding you don't know everything and are constantly learning can be honed over time, but it's important for your personal brand.
Life Coach focusing on women
It's interesting that the action of putting yourself down increases the attractiveness of a high-status person but makes a low-status person appear less attractive. However, I can completely see why.
I would think one of two things of the high status person. "Wow, despite you being tough on yourself, you still are looked at as a success. You must be pretty fab to reach that level despite your critical self-talk because that hinders so many people." Or, "He/she is just like me! They have their critical thoughts, but it looks as if they've been able to use them in a way that doesn't hinder their success."
For the low-status person I would think, "That's why you're stuck. You haven't moved past your critical self-talk. Consequently, you haven't achieved what you want because of it."
I think being self-deprecating can harm a person socially, because it's sending the message out there that you're flawed or imperfect. While we all know we aren't perfect, putting that image out there allows others to consciously (or perhaps unconsciously) see you as such and then treat you in that manner.