Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Should You Flaunt It? A Lesson in Humility

An old advertising tag line instructed us: If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

Some people took it to the next level: they flaunted it even when they didn’t have it.

They must have assumed that if they could trick other people into thinking that they had it, they would receive more respect.

It’s a bluff, but sometimes it works.

Yet, if someone calls your bluff or takes offense at your arrogance you might find that bluffing about your accomplishments will cost you friends.

Pretending that you have it when you don’t requires that you play-act a role in the hopes that others will applaud your performance.

If you have been convinced, wrongly, that life imitates art you might assume that pretending you are better than you are will ultimately make you better. Most of the time, it won't.

Flaunting it is not an ethical principle. It’s an aesthetic.

By making you a character in an ongoing drama it will make it more difficult to get along with other people.

Your choice….

Classical ethics has always promoted the virtue of humility. It says that if you have it you don’t have to flaunt it. If you’ve got it, people will know without your flaunting it.

By this rule if you flaunt it you are showing that you don’t have it.

As a culture we concocted this aesthetic by mixing self-esteem, self-assertion and self-expression. Put them all together and we become, Elizabeth Bernstein explains, a nation of “braggarts.”

Bernstein is indulging in some journalistic hyperbole, but surely there are far too many braggarts running around. One doubts that humility will be making a comeback any time soon.

One is tempted to blame it on Facebook, but social networking might be a symptom as much as a cause.

For some time now America has been teaching children to have high self-esteem even when they have accomplished nothing of any great note.

And America has been instructing children to assert themselves and to express their feelings, regardless of how anyone else might feel about it.

As a result, we have far too many vainglorious, arrogant, self-absorbed, self-actualized individuals who try to prop up their flagging morale by posting Facebook status updates like:  Best gift ever from the best husband ever. (quoted by Bernstein)

People who make such statements have no sense of how offensive they are.

Political correct moralists have drummed it into everyone’s head that they must not say anything that might offend anyone. So then, people go out and offer boastful statements that cannot help but offend… just about everyone.

If you neighbor tells you that she has the best husband and that her best husband has given her the best gift, where does that place your husband and the gift he offered you last month?

The same applies when people feel obliged to show off their wealth by buying a more expensive car, wearing more expensive clothing, and taking the most expensive vacation.

Bragging produces resentment. It sets people against each other, to no good.

Neighborliness is not a competition. If you continue to brag about your success you will be making other people feel like failures. They will not like you for as much.

If you never let anyone forget that you are wealthy beyond belief, they will treat you as a sack of money, not as a friend.

Loving thy neighbor does not mean doing what it takes to diminish your neighbor by bragging about your success.

Ethics is about getting along with other people. That is why the ancient thinkers counseled humility and the guide to presenting yourself to others.

If you wrap your success in braggadocio you will be insulting your friends, making them feel inferior.

What happens, then, when your child gets accepted into Stanford? What should you say about it to a friend whose child has just dropped out of community college?

First, you should not initiate a conversation about college. Second, when your neighbor asks  you can mention the acceptance matter-of-factly, add that you are proud of him, but that you do not understand where he came from.

A great athlete should not crow about victory. He should share the glory with his teammates. He should declare that the honor belongs to all of them equally.

Imagine that you are going on a job interview. It happens. If you follow the conventional advice you will try to sell yourself, asserting your competence and your greatness.

If you do, you will most likely lose out.

A better course is to let your record speak for itself. Allow it to show how well you contributed to a great team.

If you make your interviewer think that you are so terrific that you can save them you will be telling him that his company has been doing a bad job.

If you are bursting with false pride a good interviewer will see that you are not going to be a team player and are not going to embrace the company culture.

You will have told him that you are going to be a wildcard, a disruptive force, taking credit for the group’s achievements, following your own rules and playing your own game.

Of course, it’s possible to be too humble. When you allow your record to speak for itself you are being reticent. If you become excessively humble you will fall into the trap of deprecating your achievements and apologizing for your successes.

People debase themselves because they think it will make them more likable. If boasting makes you less likable, wouldn’t it make sense that self-deprecation will make you more likable.

Not really. When you constantly speak ill of yourself, even if you intend to enhance your neighbor’s pride, your neighbor will eventually tire of your whining and complaining.

Too much humility is as unappealing as too much bragging.

The real problem is striking a balance. How do you share relevant information about yourself without bragging and without complaining?

At the least, it is not good always to talk about yourself and it is not good never to talk about yourself.

If you make yourself the center of attention you are putting yourself on stage, as a performer. If you shrink into the woodwork you will bemaking yourself the spectator at a performance.

Bernstein writes:

Unfortunately, some people can't seem to tell the difference between sharing positive information that others might actually want to know and flat-out crowing.

If you want to stay within the bounds of humility, try following the law of reciprocity: if someone discusses a childhood pet, you reciprocate by discussing a pet you had.

If you respond to a story about a childhood pet with an account of your victories in little league, you are bragging.

But, if you respond to such a story with an account of how you were sexually molested by your step-father you are also violating the law of reciprocity.

Clearly, you are not bragging but you are making yourself the center of attention, sucking the oxygen out of the conversation and forcing your interlocutor to see you in an immodest position.


Anonymous said...

I actually find that the least secure people are the ones who brag the most...
And that seek attention the most...
It seems the guy with the worst abandonment issues is the one that puts his key relationship at risk by latching onto too many other women, for example.
Brags about his car, his money, his education...
To anyone that will listen..

Dennis said...

Those who can DO and those who can't Talk. It would seem to me that one would be smart not to let people, the audience, or one's competition know the extend one's abilities. There is truth in "leave the audience wanting more."
In truth, almost every person, boss, work mate, and group are an audience. Demonstrated competence serves one better than arrogance that tends to alienate others. The moment one forgets that they are part of a team they are on the road to be "hoisted on their own petards."

David Foster said...

Related post: Ambition and Opportunism

Anonymous said...

Well-said, Dennis!