Self-deprecation: an eloquent art form

How far should you take making fun of yourself? Doing it sparingly can be seen as somewhat endearing. Besides, who really likes the person who refuses to admit their flaws, or that they are ever wrong? Recently unemployed Piers Morgan springs to mind there. Yet overplay the art of self-deprecation at your peril, as you risk appearing as desperate for acknowledgement as Nick Clegg at a cabinet meeting.

An interesting example of self-deprecation, or ‘disarming candour’ emerged from Russia last week during the closing ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics. As was widely publicised, in the opening ceremony, the organisers endured an embarrassing malfunction whereby the fifth Olympic ring failed to light. In an attempt to mask the problem, Russian state TV switched to pre-recorded footage of the rehearsal. The cat was out of the bag however and #SochiProblems was quickly trending worldwide. Surprisingly then, given their attempts at a cover up, the closing ceremony featured a knowing wink to the malfunction. Hundreds of dancers formed the Olympic Rings, but the fifth one initially failed to open. I think this act is a positive step, as it shows the world that even Russians don’t have to be serious all the time.

This humour was most unexpected, when you consider that the former Soviet Republic is (still) governed by Vladimir Putin, a man that looks like the Bond villain that Ian Fleming was too scared to write about. If he is prepared to battle an escaped tiger into submission or be photographed fishing half naked with his bare hands, then it’s fair to say he’s a man that cares what people think. This naturally extends to him being a man who cares that his country appears macho and without weakness. So I do wonder what Mr Putin made of the organisers’ tongue in cheek moment.

This technique has also cropped up in the corporate world from time to time. Skoda for example, used the slogan ‘It’s a Skoda, honest’ in a nod to the notoriously poor past performance of its cars. However Danny Rogers, editor of Campaign magazine, argues that “Consumer sympathy for poor corporate performance is very limited” This makes sense as who would to buy a car from a company who is constantly boasting that they used to be awful, but now they are slightly less bad? Therefore Skoda needs to be careful when trying to strike a balance.

Back to self-deprecation in society at large, I think the ability to laugh at yourself is one of the most important weapons in the social arsenal. Admitting to your weaknesses can inspire a level of trust between people that is hard to achieve without exposing a bit of vulnerability. This can also be used as a potently effective defence mechanism. If you poke fun at yourself for something you feel self-conscious about, then others lose the ability to hurt you for that particular trait. I was particularly guilty of this at secondary school as around the age of 12 and 13 I had a list of insecurities as long as the Boulevard de Nantes.

Overweight, a high pitched squeaky voice and a penchant for the game of chess (I was the schools youngest chess champion in over a century). With boasts like these you would think I would be a prime target for bullies, and those assumptions would be correct. Yet I learnt quite quickly the art of self-deprecation, making fat jokes at my expense or talking in a voice with a higher frequency than Alvin and the Chipmunks. This rendered me, if not popular, then reasonably well liked.  However, the overriding message of this piece is don’t overdo making fun of yourself, as people will either pity you or lose all respect for you. As I started to lose weight and my voice descended to a near normal level, I realised that no one took me seriously. I had tried too hard to become what my mother called ‘The Class Clown’ that I had become stuck in that position. Gradually I dragged myself out of this position, but it was a long, painstaking process.

I’m probably making this out to be a lot more harrowing than it actually was; I had a great time at school. I guess if you take anything from this confusing mix of bad advice and poor jokes about Russia it should be that showing weakness isn’t a bad thing. Be prepared to make a joke at your expense, but don’t do it constantly or it will end up having a less than desired effect.

I was going to end this with a witty bit of ‘disarming candour’ about how awful I am at writing articles, but alas, I’m not clever enough for that.


Matt Hale


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