Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Random Thoughts: On self-praise and the lack thereof

This is another brief step off the path of my tales from my former employment. They'll be back next week. Thanks for your patience and for reading!

One of my friends here in the U.S. believes she is great at counseling people. In fact, she is lacking in empathy and listening skills. She's competitive in all areas, but especially in terms of how she believes she has suffered more than anyone else. When talking to her about ones issues, she is sure she is always worse off and tends to cut off talk of other people's problems in order to insert her own woes and how much greater they are. She is lousy at counseling because the biggest part of that type of work is being good at listening and she would prefer to talk about herself.

Another person I know is sure he is a good writer, but his work is derivative and poorly paced. His writing style is fine, but his characterizations are unappealing. Instead of making me want characters to succeed, I want them to fail. While not a bad writer, he is not a particularly great one either.

And if you are reading this or there is a chance that you might be reading this because you know me, you can bet that I'm not talking about you. I'm not one of those people who tries to get messages across in a passive-aggressive manner or through some sort of back door hinting. I don't talk about people behind their backs in the hopes that they'll get a message that I'm unable to say to their faces. I'll say it to you or I won't, so if the previous paragraphs incited some insecure sense that you're being talked about or believe I'm talking about a particular person that we both know, rest assured that you are not. This is not my style. I only say such things when I'm 99.99% sure that they won't be read by the people of whom I'm speaking. I have no desire to harm people or to play games.

Even though I know people who know of my work and I'm speaking of them here, I know they won't be reading it. Why? Well, it is because the same thing that leads them to believe they are great at things which they are not great at keeps them from bothering to read my blogs. They are too self-involved and narcissistic to take the time to drop in on my work and see if there's anything there of value for them to hear. They love their voices more than anyone else's. I don't say any of these things because I need to insult people or even by way of a complaint, but rather because I reached a realization about society and humility recently which is interesting to ponder.

When I encounter people in America who are certain of their high level of skill in a particular area, I'm stressed listening to their assertions of high competence because I'm not certain of how to respond beyond a non-committal "oh" or "uh-huh" or a head nod. I can't be authentic and affirm what they are saying, but I absolutely do not want to be rude and disagree when they say or do something which cues that they want some sort of pat on the back from me or affirmation. After having enough of these experiences, I realized that dealing with people who have a high estimation of themselves which is unwarranted places a burden on the people listening to them.

When I was in Japan, I encountered the opposite situation in which people with high levels of ability and competence would profess that they were not good at things. Sometimes, I felt they were just showing appropriate modesty or humility. Most of the time, I believed that they truly did not think they were any great shakes. Often, they believed their English was poor when they were actually quite good. I knew they were not in a position to judge themselves because they didn't have the perspective that someone in my shoes - someone who'd had a wide range of experience with speaking abilities - possessed.

In the case I experienced in Japan, I would find myself reassuring people that they were good at things which they felt they were bad at rather than having to listen to people assert that they were great at things they were not especially good at. It did not stress me at all to provide that reassurance in Japan. It does stress me to withhold confirmation here because there is almost always some expectation on the part of the speaker that I will agree with their assertions. I feel bad for withholding that approval, but I cannot find it within myself to lie and offer it.

What I realized when pondering this is that narcissism, egotistic behavior, and the professing of ones superiority at a task exacts a social price whereas modesty and humility do not - or at least they do not cost as much. I realized how relatively often in the U.S. that I'm stressed deciding how to politely manage unwarranted self-praise. Perhaps one of the reasons that most people dislike immodest gas bags is that they get tired of an internal war between maintaining a sense of integrity and exercising civilized politeness. Such people make us uncomfortable by putting us in a position to carry out this balancing act.

In a much broader sense, there is another cost to society on the whole. I think that people with an inaccurate perception of their capability lose motivation to actually get good at what they are doing. If you're already a "master", why keep trying hard? Maybe humility also spurs one to improve. Perhaps the sense that the Japanese people have that they are rarely great at anything is what helps compel them to constantly do better. No matter how often I reassured students of their competence, they never wholeheartedly embraced my conclusions and maintained their position that they weren't especially good.

It is very simple to handle underestimation of oneself and ones capabilities because it allows me to be honest and authentic in how I regard the other party. I can feel warm and kind, while still telling the truth. In the other case, I feel stingy and mean and pressured to dissemble. I do believe that at least some (if not all) braggarts are motivated by the same forces as the irrepressibly modest - insecurity. They are looking for confirmation of what they believe, but the way they go about it creates a hardship - at least for someone like me who does not want to be inauthentic in my actions or words.

I don't know if Japanese culture values humility because it places less of a burden on others or because it is a Confucian principle or simply a happy coincidence, but I do see the value in it pretty clearly in terms of how it smooths relationships. I feel better dealing with modest people than immodest ones and it has nothing to do with any sort of notion that people shouldn't be proud of their achievements or should adhere to some arbitrary principle. The truth is that I'd rather be with people who appropriately estimate themselves as neither better nor worse than they are, but I also know that it is often hard to see yourself as you truly are in the eyes of others. The bottom line is that the Japanese tended to err on the side of too little and the Americans too much. The latter makes my life a lot harder than the former. 


  1. I think I could sum it up in one sentence: American culture encourages narcissism, while Japanese culture encourages insecurity. I fully agree, and don't really think it's good or bad--just interesting.

    1. I think that it would be nice if both cultures encouraged realism rather than insecurity or narcissism. If there was a focus on balance such that people see that they have strengths and weaknesses, that'd be best. Then they could see themselves as they are rather than focus too much on one or the other.

      Like you, I'm not interested in "good" or "bad" as I hate cultural pissing contests, but I can say that I feel a burden dealing with narcissists that I didn't feel dealing with the incorrigibly humble. That may reflect something about me than anyone else, however. ;-)

      Thank you for your comment!

  2. In terms of your comment about whether humility helps the Japanese to maintain their motivation, Steve Heine's 2001 paper suggests that it might. (Apologies if you've read that paper already) It seems that Japanese tend to have an incremental theory of intelligence (i.e., they believe that intelligence can be improved through effort) more than North Americans typically do, but no matter your culture, people with an incremental theory are more likely to have mastery (i.e. self-improvement goals) goals, and this type of goal leads people to work hard after failure. Whether humility also increases motivation for people with self-improvement goals is an interesting empirical question!
    Your point about the social costs of self-enhancement vs. humility (and potential emotional benefits to the person who gets to reassure a humble person) is really interesting too.

    1. Thank you for your comment and for mentioning Steve Heine's paper. I had not read it, but I plan to look it up now.

      I find it ironic that Japanese people believe intelligence is something that can be improved incrementally with hard work while Americans see it as more of an inherent thing because Americans are supposed to believe we're all born equal and achieve success from our choices and work whereas the Japanese believe more in the quality of ones blood. I say the latter because of their sense that being Japanese is a factor of their biology, not their culture. It seems a contradiction in one way, but I absolutely witnessed Japanese people having more self-improvement goals than Americans.

      Thank you for your intriguing comment.

  3. Do you have any plans of returning to psychology? I'm a grad student in cultural psychology and I'd love to talk research with you.

    1. I actually do have plans, though they are dependent on economic issues. I hope to return and get a PhD in social psychology or physiological psychology at some point in the not too distant future. My husband is in a clinical psychology program at present and we can't afford to put two of us through grad. school simultaneously. Once he completes his degree and our budget is revealed, I hope to pursue a higher degree in psychology.

      At present, I continue to self-educate in this capacity. Currently, I'm reading a book by Ronald Chase called "Schizophrenia: A Brother Finds Answers in Biological Science".

      Feel free to e-mail me at and I'll give you my full real name (it's out there anyway, but you'd have to dig for it and I don't want to post it here at the moment) and you can connect with me on Facebook where more of this sort of thing tends to come out.

  4. Many years ago I worked with a woman who had many years of 'sobriety' via her ongoing and passionate involvement in AA. She used to say it was imperative that she 'keep a squeeze on my ego.' Ie, maintain a humble, and grateful, attitude for living her life day to day in order NOT to relapse back into her drinking.

    She taught me a lot about alcoholism in particular and life in general.

    Personal insecurity is something all of us have to deal with. HOW we do it is what matters.

  5. That is very interesting. While the Japanese on the whole do tend to be self-deprecating in talk and humble they also strive to improve themselves, there seems to be no resistance to that even in a culture that typically hammers down the nails that stick out. There you can be humble but also aim for the top spot if you approach it in the right way? There's always an undercurrent in Japanese stories of how "we may all be insignificant in ourselves but with patience, hard work or co-operation etc. we can achieve the best"?

    I don't have much experience with American culture beyond internet interaction with American friends but the British culture where I was raised seems to have the worst of both of these worlds - people are not generally very narcissistic, but they are also not strivers. They are humbler than Americans (less humble than Japanese though) and they don't bother to improve their skills very much. I don't speak for all Brits, but it's not as socially acceptable here to try to excel. As someone who was brought up to strive by my parents, unapologetically, I find it a somewhat lax and restrictive culture all the same. People often think there's something a bit odd about you if you've got a great deal of ambition or drive for self-betterment. Of the three if I had to choose... between a culture where you don't have to try because you're already entitled to feel awesome, to a culture where you don't have to try and don't feel awesome, to a culture where you self-deprecate but are also free to strive I'd say the Japanese one seems most favourable. I've always thought of it as unhealthy to be too pleased with your own efforts, in case you fall into the trap of thinking you really are fantastic when you might actually be awful at something.

    On a personal level as an artist, say, I think humility and ambition go hand in hand. You are humble because you know you can always improve, someone is always going to better than you, and in the end, I'd much rather be and deal with humble people than those who think they're God's gift. It's simply more pleasant in interaction terms and you have more of a window to add comment or suggestion, don't you? Two people being humble and helpful to each other gels better than one talking about how great they are and the other being forced to nod; but it also doesn't seem wise to embrace only humility or only narcissism as they might both lead you to nowhere or delusion. A good balance is the key as always, I guess.

    I do notice though that the idea of being good at something, perfecting something to the level of art, runs deep in Japanese culture and history and it is a goal. They're humble but proud too, if you can look past the culture of humility. I'm sure they wouldn't have perfected so many unique and beautiful art forms from martial arts to flower arranging if they were not also perfectionists perfectly capable of enjoying the fruits of their own hard work.

    I my work I do meet a lot of artists... so I'm looking at it from that POV with art as a metaphor. I meet some artists who think they are awful and they never tend to get anywhere. I meet some who think they are fantastic but really aren't. I meet some who really are fantastic and they never have much to say about themselves, and that just kinda speaks for itself.

    Sorry for the ramble! ^^


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