We’re generally quick to celebrate arrogant, egotistical people, especially when they’re clearly talented (Kanye, anyone?). But what if–like most people–you’re not extraordinarily capable? The answer is simple: You’re better off being humble.
Or at least seeming humble to others. Psychological studies have found that when people appear to be less competent than they believe–when their self-image is more positive than others’ views of them–they’re likely to be less popular and successful. In other words, confidence and assertiveness are adaptive only when they’re proportionately backed up by competence. Thus we are better off seeming more competent than confident, even if that might mean faking humility.”
The Cultural Element
Most people aren’t naturally humble. That’s true despite certain cultures valuing outward shows of humility more than others.
According to Gaijin Pot, a website that helps people around the world find study, jobs, and travel opportunities in Japan, “my stupid son” and “my foolish wife” were common expressions used by Japanese men to refer to their families until quite recently. “It is said not only because is it frowned upon to say nice things about your family, but it is actually better to sound like you are putting them down,” the site’s blog informs Western readers. And as the British social anthropologist quips in her 2004 book, Watching the English, the typical Brit would only report being “quite good” at a sport only if they’re the world champion in it.
While every culture has its own norms for encouraging modest self-presentation, most people (and societies) favor humility when interacting with friends and family, yet permit a measure of braggadocio when dealing with strangers. Either way, it’s likely there will be certain occasions where you’ll need to deliberately come across as more humble than you actually feel. Here’s how to do it convincingly.
Talk Less About Yourself
Research shows that there’s a positive correlation between how frequently people use self-referential pronouns–words like “I,” “me,” or “mine”–and their likelihood of narcissism, a trait describing self-centered, egotistical, and entitled behavioral tendencies. And while we all talk about ourselves without even noticing it, those who come across as more humble spend less time focusing on themselves while speaking with others. So if you consciously tamp down how often you refer to yourself, you’re likely to appear more modest.
Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously
If you do have to talk about yourself, do it light-heartedly. Although humor is somewhat culture-specific, the ability to laugh at ourselves is pretty much universally advantageous. If you can be a little self-deprecating, you’re likely not just to seem modest but also witty, moral, and smart. Even leaders have been found to be more effective when they use a dose of self-effacing humor.
Compare Yourself To More (Not Less) Capable People
A simple way to aim high while remaining humble is to put your performance into context with those who are more capable and talented. You’ll still benefit from putting yourself in their theoretical company, but you won’t seem obnoxious in the process. By the same token, if you draw comparisons between yourself and those who are generally seen as low performers, you may artificially inflate your ego while seeming arrogant and tone-deaf to others.
Resort To (Gentle) Flattery
No matter how smart we are, most of us are highly susceptible to flattery, even when it’s blatantly false. In fact, even computers are deemed more likable when they suck up to us. Stroke other people’s egos and they will see you as both more genuine and more humble. And the good news is that this is probably the easiest rule to implement. As the hedonistic villain Svidrigailov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment puts it, “nothing in this world is harder than speaking the truth, nothing easier than flattery”–uncomfortable coming from him, but not too far off the mark.
If feigning humility feels dishonest or manipulative, think of it this way: You’re simply toning down what you believe to be your praiseworthy accomplishments to give other people a chance to see them as clearly as you do. After all, just consider the alternative; people who spend most of their time talking about themselves, being “brutally honest” and critical of others, and taking themselves way too seriously often end up worse off. Rest assure that despite appearing genuine, people who operate this way are likely to be unpopular (this is true even on social media, by the way).
So just as there are times when you’ll want to fake confidence when you’re feeling unsure of yourself, remember there are other times when you need to do the reverse. A little modesty goes a long way, no matter how self-assured–or even arrogant–you may actually feel.