Let’s hear it for the dying virtue of modesty
By nature, I am not a modest man. Maybe you find that easy to believe. If so, I apologise. If not, I’m ashamed to say I think that’s good. And I’m rightly ashamed to say it because saying things that are good about yourself, I was brought up to believe, is a shameful thing to do. Not very shameful, but slightly shameful. Like a crafty piss behind a wheelie bin. Rude.
I may be outwardly shy and non-confrontational but sometimes, inside, I well up with a megalomaniacal self-belief that I want to scream from the rooftops. Sometimes, as is characteristic of many professional performers, my confidence collapses and I’m inclined to tedious, consolation-seeking self-pity. But then I think up some adequate joke and my brain is immediately telling me: “There you go, Mr Amazing, you did it again!” When something I’ve done has gone well, I want everyone to know. I itch to get the knowledge of it into all of their heads. Fortunately for anyone who meets me, I understand that it is not permitted for me simply to tell them.
I boarded this train of thought because of an article I read in the newspaper last week about a book called Brag Better by Meredith Fineman. It asserts not merely that it’s OK to say good things about yourself, but that you ought to. According to Fineman: “There’s this misconception that talking about your work is not part of your job, but it is.” No it isn’t. That is not a misconception. “There is a place for self-deprecation, but it needs to be used sparingly. If you rely on it as a mechanism it can undercut you. I would rather you took that out and try to cut it in half, because it’s not really serving you.”
“Rely on it as a mechanism”? Self-deprecation is not a mechanism for making people think you’re great! It’s not supposed to “serve you”. It’s just an acknowledgment that it’s impolite to praise yourself. Fineman’s argument is that we should brag about our achievements because it’s an effective way of informing other people of them. Do it because it works. But who doubts that it works? That’s not the reason not to do it. Burglary works. People shouldn’t do it because it’s not nice – it makes the world worse.
I realise there’s a cultural element here: stereotypically, Americans are bigger braggers than the British. The convention against blowing your own trumpet is stronger here, though I sense it weakening. This feels inevitable – a convention of modesty is delicate, like driven snow. Once it’s been trampled, there’s no putting it back. If other people boast about their achievements, it becomes tempting to join in. You start feeling like a mug if you don’t.
The convention against blowing your own trumpet is stronger here, though I sense it weakening
If we value a society where boasting is frowned on – where everyone thinks less of you if you do it, so it doesn’t work, so it doesn’t happen much – we need solidarity. The vast majority must agree and hold the line. But is it worth it? Does it matter? Watch an episode of The Apprentice before you tell me it doesn’t. That cacophony of fatuous self-trumpeters, to my sensibility at least, is the herald of Satan’s eternal reign on Earth.
I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give a good account of yourself in a job interview. There’s a time and a place. Job interviews are atypical human interactions, awkward but necessary, where the usual conventions about how to behave are suspended. Like rectal examinations. But we need to be sparing with such exceptions or you end up with the Oscars.
In the row over the omission of anyone black from the best actress nominations and the inclusion of a white actor from an obscure film, I was struck by an observation from the film critic Robert Daniels: “What does it say that the black women who did everything the institution asks of them – luxury dinners, private academy screenings, meet-and-greets, splashy television spots and magazine profiles – are ignored, when someone who did everything outside the system is rewarded?” I hadn’t realised that it was the system – the institution’s requirement – that those hopeful of nomination did all that stuff. I knew there was a bit of schmoozing, but not an official schedule during which film-makers are required to proclaim themselves deserving of an Oscar. So this whole debate is just about what sort of mortifying self-promotion is deemed to be gaming the system and which sort simply is the system?
How awful. Whoever decides the awards should just watch the films and vote for what they think is best. What can any surrounding events achieve other than undermining the integrity of that process? And they’re just awards – they don’t really matter. Why have them, if they no longer meaningfully reflect what films people most enjoyed, if the only way to succeed involves burying the films under so much hype and hospitality that dispassionate artistic judgments are impossible? Just cancel them and spend the money on more Facebook ads.
This is the context in which award recipients routinely use the word “humbled” as a direct synonym for “honoured”. Humility is now such an alien concept, such a forgotten virtue, that the word’s meaning has been reduced to the mere quality of standing at a microphone and saying that you’re humble.
Is this the world that Fineman wishes to conjure? She claims not and writes in her book: “For too long we have paid attention to the wrong people because of their volume and showmanship.” She says her aim is to address that problem by giving those who don’t currently boast, whom she calls the “Qualified Quiet”, techniques with which to proclaim their worth.
That’s flawed reasoning – like the members of the gun lobby who say you can reduce shootings by giving more people guns. Born boasters will never be outboasted by the Qualified Quiet, however many self-help books they’ve dutifully read. If we want to help them, if we favour meritocracy, we must return to a convention where overt self-promotion is taboo – where, if you want to evaluate a person’s abilities, you have to do more than just ask them.