Recently I was on a panel in a seminar and a fellow presenter I know well, started a new section of the seminar by saying “Now I am usually the stupidest person in the room…”. He continued speaking but my mind was elsewhere. My fellow presenter is an amazing speaker, very intelligent, highly educated with a warm and engaging personality. 

My mind drifted away to wonder which room he might be talking about. I couldn’t think of any room in which he would be considered ‘stupid’. Was he describing a metaphysical room in which he, Stephen Hawking, Aristotle and Leonardo da Vinci had gathered to share a spot of lunch?  I forced my mind back to the seminar but later, I had plenty of time to reflect. The comment made me realise how acceptable it is to start a conversation or describe ourselves through focusing on what we aren’t good at or highlight our failures, often damaging a precious first impression.   

There are some professions where being self-deprecating is clearly not a good idea. Focusing on your inadequacy or past struggles won’t endear you to your future clients or customers in a range of situations. I wondered about the impact of self-deprecating humour if you went to consult a surgeon about a possible knee reconstruction.  As you sat in the surgeon’s smart rooms, walls lined with framed certificates of his or her many medical qualifications, you probably aren’t seeking an authentic self-assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. Maybe your surgeon starts making light conversation by chatting about how their struggles through medical school, in fact anatomy was their worst subject. But don’t worry he or she adds with a winning smile. Although I was worried about the first 10 knee reconstructions I performed, I’ve really got the hang of it now. You’ll be fine. 

Would you eagerly make an appointment for your surgery with this sincere and unaffected surgeon or would you hobble as fast as you could in the opposite direction? I know this is an extreme example but still, it fascinates me how often I coach clients who have an automatic default to highlighting the weaknesses early in a conversation whether it’s about their role as a parent or in their business.   

But what is the difference between being modest (a positive trait) and using self-deprecating humour to divert positive attention to your imagined flaws?  The contrast between the two attitudes isn’t only the impact it has on you but also the person who is trying to pay you a compliment. Modesty is a balanced mindset, acknowledging you’re not good at everything but gracefully accepting acknowledgements of your strengths. Automatically putting yourself down when someone pays you a compliment leaves your admirer feeling torn between having to justify their positive opinion with evidence and worrying how they can convince you to change your opinion of your actions. Whereas ‘thank you’ creates a calmness in your admirer that their words were heard and valued.  

Becoming a habitual joker about your lack of ability in certain areas or automatically responding to compliments with an anecdote undermining any achievement has a more insidious impact on the structure of your brain. Any habitual reaction, whether it’s a response to stresses at work, or a coping mechanism for an awkward social situation literally becomes embedded in the structure of your brain. And that’s when the damage is done. Dr Sheri Jacobson, Clinical Director of Harley Therapy points out that not everyone self-deprecates intentionally and that’s when it’s a habit that damages your self-esteem. 

I caught up with a close friend recently for a lunch celebrating my birthday. I hadn’t seen him for a while and as we chatted, I was reminded what great company he is but also how he is the master of self-deprecation – about every aspect of his life. Since I had last seen him, his career had blossomed, and I started to speak about how much I admired him for his hard work creating so much success in a short period of time.  I had barely started when he interrupted with objections to my opinion – not really all my work, happened to be in the right place, lucky no-one has found me out yet etc. As tactfully as I could, I asked him to stop speaking and as an extra birthday present could he please let me finish without interrupting me? He agreed graciously and didn’t interrupt again. When I had finished my congratulations, for the first time I saw him look genuinely proud of himself. It was lovely. 

It is endearing if someone, particularly in a leadership role can poke fun at themselves. The danger is that if you habitually speak about your supposed flaws and failings in public, you’re more likely to be reminding yourself about everything you haven’t done, achieved or missed out on, in private as well.