Is modesty a virtue at the office?

November 13, 2013

An image from the 1939 film 'The Women'. Not much self-deprecation there.

I've often joked that being British and female is a double-whammy. You have two cultures essentially telling you be nice, modest, and self-deprecating. The British, after all, are known for their propensity to apologize, usually when there's no need. And many women, wherever they grow up, tend to be self-deprecating. This is certainly part of my makeup. Moving to the US has been good for me in that I've had to learn how to sell myself, how to talk myself up without, I hope, coming off as hideously obnoxious. So I was interested to read this piece by Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times that starts out by questioning why women use so much self-deprecation, but then switches tack:

"So long as there is no doubt about the status and superiority of the person using it, self-deprecation is one of the most effective tools there is. It disarms other people, makes them forget you are scarily powerful and lulls them into liking you instead. The only boss I’ve ever had whom I truly adored self-deprecated constantly.

Between women friends it acts as a non-compete clause...what I’m actually saying is: I’m not dangerous. Come closer."

Yet some research suggests that self-deprecation can fail women badly at the office. Within the next week or so I'm going to be talking to Dr. Judith Baxter of Aston University in the UK, a linguist who studies the intersection of language, gender, and leadership. Dr. Baxter has done research into the use of language by women in the workplace, and according to her findings, the women who joked about themselves in a self-deprecating way came across as "contrived, defensive, or mean." I want to get to the bottom of this, because I tend to agree with Lucy Kellaway that on the whole, doing yourself down paints you in an agreeable light. Dr. Baxter found that when women joked during a meeting, 80 percent of their jokes were greeted with silence. In men's case, 90 percent of jokes were met with instant guffaws. Baxter says that with men, joking is recognized 'tribe' behavior that calls up an instant response (whether genuine or not is another question). With women, joking isn't recognized in the same way by the tribe.

I think there's a fine line here, as with so many things women-and-work-related. If you use self-deprecation too much, it gets tedious. No one believes you're genuine (frankly, you often aren't). But women are judged by centuries-old norms, and modesty is one of them. What do you think? Is self-deprecation a must for women, or can it backfire?