On Self-deprecation: Don’t Believe The Hype

I read recently, in a feature in The Times Magazine about the ladies who work for Tatler magazine (have you seen the trailer for the documentary? It’s on tomorrow night and looks totally brilliant), that one of the supposed ‘rules’ of being posh is the ability to be self-deprecating. Now, I have no clue how to be posh and I certainly don’t claim to be any kind of poster girl for how to behave. In fact, I put my foot in it so often that I might as well leave it hovering close to my mouth at all times. I am, however, quite self-deprecating by nature.

It has been my modus operandi since childhood, a way to break the ice and put people at ease. I like being a bit tongue-in-cheek and sarcastic. It’s so much easier than being solemn and earnest all of the time. Deadly serious people, particularly the ones who are incapable of laughing at themselves, are just the worst. You only find out about this aspect of someone’s personality when their response to a self-deprecating remark you’ve just made is an echoing silence and a face of pity rather than a kindly chuckle. You know you’ve found a kindred spirit when they do the generous thing and laugh along with you. But not too heartily, of course. That’s just mean.

Part of it must be a defence mechanism. If I take the piss out of myself before you do, it takes the sting out of anything you might say to me. I also think it’s useful to recognise your own flaws so that you don’t end up swanning through life oblivious to them. Some gentle self-deprecation is healthy, it’s a bit of fun. Isn’t it?

The problem arises when everyone starts to believe what you say. Repeat something enough and people have absolutely no reason not to question you. Why should anyone challenge what you say? You’ve labelled yourself, and we all know how hard it is to wriggle out of a label. You overslept once ten years ago and now you are forever, ‘the girl who could sleep for Britain’- I may be speaking from experience here. It seems to me that self-deprecation can be damaging to one’s self-esteem if not employed properly. If it is based on modesty (opting not to draw attention to your achievements, talents or qualities) or on honesty about your shortcomings, then it can only lead to general merriment. If, however, it crosses the line and becomes an active denial of everything you are good at or should be proud of, then self-ridicule can easily become self-loathing. Then it’s definitely not funny anymore. When you mock yourself to the extent that the people around you stop seeing through the façade of self-deprecation, and start believing the hype which you created, that can’t be good.

It works the other way around, too. If someone boasts about their abilities and achievements, and seems to back it up with a ballsy attitude and an air of confidence, why would we not believe what they say? All it takes is a charming manner, knowledge of all of the right things to say and a bit of arrogance to convince everybody that you are capable. From this confidence trick can stem all manner of real, tangible success. Just go to LA.

Given that the way you present yourself to the world has such an enormous bearing on what people think of you, surely being as honest as possible about your strengths and weaknesses is the best way to go through life? That way there is no need for others to guess at what is real, what is exaggerated or what is downplayed. It may not come naturally, but I’m beginning to realise that being honest about one’s strengths is not the same thing as boasting. Equally, being honest about your weaknesses can be downright hilarious. Tales involving incompetence, ineptitude and awkwardness are the tales I love hearing and telling.

I think the conclusion I’ve come to is that self-deprecation is a hoot, most of the time. It’s a particular brand of humour that I hope we never lose and I doubt I’ll ever abandon. However, I also think that it’s important not to stray too far from the truth when taking the piss out of yourself. Be open about your failings but don’t deny or conceal the things which give you self-worth. Otherwise, if you bat away a valid compliment by making yourself the butt of the cruel joke which follows, you may well feel strangely wounded when everyone laughs.

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