“Stop prefacing everything you say with ‘You might think this is a stupid idea’. They’re not stupid ideas.”
This was one of he best pieces of feedback I ever received, thanks to a graduate supervisor in my first career job over 15 years ago.
I was completely unaware that I was doing this. So while this feedback was surprising, it was also an enormous gift. Especially so early in my career. My no means did it cause me to eliminate self-deprecating statements from my communication, but it did raise my awareness of how we use self-deprecation in our work, often to our detriment.
Like many women, I constantly find myself wanting to apologise for my messy home, an average meal I’ve prepared, or some imperfect piece of work that I’ve produced. But why?
In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg discusses how “success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.”. The more competent and successful a woman is the less likeable she’ll be perceived to be. So, perhaps self-deprecation is a natural, subconscious attempt to downplay my competence and as a result preserve my likeability.
I also use it as a way to avoid or soften the impact of criticism. By acknowledging inadequacies up front I’m seeking to adjust the expectations in others so not to disappoint. It’s a way of saying “you don’t need to give me any negative feedback or pick apart what I’ve done, because I’ve done it already”.
Related to this, I also use self-deprecation as a way to acknowledge the ‘taste gap’. Ira Glass (storyteller and broadcaster extraordinaire and host of This American Life) defines the taste gap as the difference between the kind of work you admire and want to produce, and the work you’re capable of producing. It’s a common frustration that plagues people (particularly creatives) when they’re starting out. Glass acknowledges that for the first few years your work is just not that good.
I especially noticed this gap, and my default response toward a self-deprecating apology, when I started podcasting. I love listening to podcasts, and when I started podcasting myself, it was immediately apparent that I didn’t sound like the hosts I admired. The audio quality as good as other podcasts. My interviewing technique not as smooth, nor as capable of eliciting deep, insightful responses. I can see the shortcomings in my work and want to try to overcome them. But in the mean time, while that gap still persists, I don’t want people to think that I think I’m better than I actually am. I can see that I’m not.
But is self-deprecation actually a problem?
In small doses, probably not. It’s a way of expressing a certain modesty and can often be a way of demonstrating a sense of humour and perspective and willingness not to take oneself too seriously. But when it is over-used or used inappropriately, it can definitely be detrimental.
Firstly, it draws the other person’s attention to the flaws in your work. Remember the thought experiment where you’re instructed not to think about a white polar bear, and then that’s all you can focus on? Once something is bought to your attention it’s almost impossible to un-see it. A deprecating comment to excuse or ask someone to overlook shortcomings might actually mean that people notice it more.
And how can you expect any one else to see value in your work, when you don’t even see it yourself? Would you buy a car from a salesperson who kept pointing out the flaws in the vehicle you were considering? This isn’t to say that you have to lie or gloss over shortcomings, but you don’t need to be shining a light on them either.
Secondly, the behaviour can become annoying and where the person is clearly competent, it may sound like a desperate attempt for validation. Constantly having to reassure someone that they are in fact capable is frankly exhausting and annoying.
So, what can you do instead?
- Try to remember that although your work (or the meal you’ve prepared etc) may not be perfect or reach some standard you’ve imagined, it can still have value.
- Become more conscious of your apologies or self deprecating language. This isn’t always easy to do, so try engaging the assistance of friends, family, colleagues or a supportive boss to call you on the behaviour when they hear it. And in return make a practice of calling this out in others, particularly women. Remember that a little self-deprecation can be used to build rapport between people and demonstrate modesty and sense of humour, so there’s no need to jump on every little instance. But if you notice a friend/colleague has a regular habit of self deprecation, a gentle comment to call them on the behaviour can be hugely valuable.
- If your work or efforts do receive some criticism, you can always offer an apology then. But before offering up self depreciating excuses, pause and listen openly to the feedback. You may find that in your rush to deflect critical feedback with self deprecation, you might be missing some helpful, constructive feedback.
Resources to help you explore this topic further:
- Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead by Sheryl Sandberg
- The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris
- The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks
- Presence by Amy Cuddy
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