I recently went to a friend's housewarming party. I knew she was thrilled with her new apartment and I exclaimed over the painting and decor as I came in and looked around. Her response: "Yeah thanks, it's great but the lighting is bad in the living room and I still need to paint the bathroom." Later that night, a friend and I were talking to an acquaintance who was excited to hear that my friend was planning to complete his first marathon this year. Instead of accepting congratulations on his upcoming achievement, my friend deflected it by pointing at me and saying "Yeah but she's run a ton of marathons." To which I responded: "Yeah but anyone could do it if they trained; I'm not a natural runner or anything." Still later that night, I overheard a friend dismissively refer to his innovative and successful start-up as "my non-profit thing."
What's going on here? Why are we all downplaying our pride and our achievements? Are we actually not proud? Do we not want others to be impressed?
My guess is that we're all just trying to ingratiate ourselves. In social psychology terms, ingratiation means
using deliberate communication strategies in an effort to become more attractive or likeable to others. There are a few different strategies,
including other-enhancement (complimenting others), conformity (agreeing with or making yourself seem similar to others), self-promotion
(emphasizing your own attributes), and self-deprecation (observing
something negative about yourself or belittling or undervaluing yourself or your achievements to avoid seeming arrogant and to help
others identify with you).
Social norms dictate that bragging is obnoxious. Rather, we are supposed to be modest, and people who aren't modest violate our
expectations. At the party described above, my friends and I were all engaging in social ingratiation via a combination of conformity and self-deprecation. By emphasizing the apartment's imperfections, deflecting congratulations and insisting that anyone can run a marathon, and dismissing business success, we were a) being careful not to brag, and b) making ourselves more similar to our listeners, who may not have run a marathon or launched a start-up, and who may also have home improvements they'd like to make.
Is it really necessary to downplay or outright dismiss achievements? Would I view my friends unfavourably if they confessed to being
thrilled with a new apartment or to taking pride in a successful business venture? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this kind of ingratiation?
Advantages: Conformity allows you to avoid threatening or alienating others, something braggarts often do. Self-deprecation can be funny and can defuse awkward social situations (e.g., telling a story about your own gaffe to take the heat off someone else). Overall, using conformity and self-deprecation appropriately demonstrates good social intelligence.
Disadvantages: Too much self-deprecation will turn you into a person who can't take a compliment, which can be annoying. Further, if you deflect every compliment and deny every achievement or success by turning it into a self-deprecating story, people might eventually start questioning your self-esteem, your skills, and your honesty.
Moral of the story: Ingratiate often, don't brag, and use conformity and self-deprecation wisely.