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Why self-deprecation is best practised in moderation

Obama used plenty of self-deprecatory humour at the White House correspondents’ dinner. Photo/Getty

In defence of self-deprecation, sometimes.

Being a self-deprecator from way back, it was encouraging to recently read “Self-deprecating humour promotes psychological wellbeing”. This was the headline on a story about a study that showed Spanish people who regularly poke fun at themselves exhibited greater levels of emotional well-being, happiness and, to a lesser extent, sociability.

On the other hand, it doesn’t take much online searching to also find headlines suggesting the opposite, such as “Self-deprecation is damaging and unhealthy – let’s break the habit”. This seems to be widely perceived wisdom, particularly in self-help books: self-deprecation draws attention to our weaknesses, contributes to poor self-esteem, undermines self-belief and so on. As a friend, a counsellor, once told me, “Don’t put yourself down. There are plenty of other people in the world to do that for you.”

True, but I wasn’t putting myself down when she said that, or if I was, I was joking, sort of. Besides, some of my best friends are self-deprecators. Most of them actually, and they’re generally funny with it. Having just written that, I should note that my female friends tend to be better at it than my male friends. Does that mean self-deprecation is (yet another) feminist issue?

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Possibly. A 2012 study by linguists at Aston University, Birmingham, analysed the speech pattern of employees at seven large companies at 14 meetings, half of them led by women and half by men. They found women used self-deprecating humour more than men did, but they didn’t get as many laughs as the men’s jokes did. Lead author Judith Baxter suggested that senior women in business might consider using the “light, teasing banter” favoured by men rather than relying on self-deprecation as a form of humour.

Really? Why should women change their lady-humour (if there is such a thing) to be more like man-humour (if there is such a thing) in their professional lives? If laughing at your stuff-ups is, in a professional environment, female-centric, it could also be construed as a sign of modesty, that you have the confidence to allow for a little self-effacement without worrying that it undermines your authority.

Anyway, if laughter is good for us, then being able to laugh at your own expense might be good for us too. This is hard to prove, although some have tried. A study published in 2011 took 67 undergraduates and got them to rate their ability to laugh at themselves, and also got them to ask peers to evaluate them according to the same criteria.

The researchers then secretly took photos of the participants, and later showed them pictures of themselves, which had been distorted, as if they were looking into the back of a spoon. The participants were then filmed to see whether (and how hard) they laughed at the funfair-style images of themselves.

Those who claimed (and whose peers confirmed) they could laugh at themselves, laughed hardest. Interestingly, there was no correlation between participants who claimed they could laugh at themselves and their readiness to laugh at distorted images of other people’s faces. This, the authors claim, suggests that being able to laugh at oneself is a personality trait that is distinct from a general readiness to laugh at distorted faces. Moreover, those who laughed most tended to be more cheerful and in better moods on the day of the experiment. I know, this is one study, a bit of an odd one, and probably doesn’t prove anything... but it makes sense to me!

Self-deprecation isn’t always funny, and can become tedious, embarrassing and a bad habit. Context is everything. Self-deprecation should, in most instances, be avoided in a job interview. It’s probably best curbed in front of people younger than you too, especially if you’re telling a self-deprecating anecdote about how you forgot where you parked the car. It can be cathartic and reassuring to share anecdotes about memory-loss anxieties with other middle-aged friends, but a younger person might just look at you funny, and not because they think you’re funny.

In an uncharacteristically self-deprecating position, British comic actor Peter Cook films a scene with Judy Huxtable for the UK television show Where Do I Sit? in 1971. Photo/Getty

Self-deprecation has always been a staple of comedy, although it was sobering to hear what Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby had to say in a Netflix special, Nanette. That, as a “fat, queer woman” who’d built a career out of self-deprecating humour, she didn’t want to do that anymore. “Do you understand what self-deprecation means when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins? It’s not humility. It’s humiliation. I put myself down in order to speak. In order to seek permission to speak, and I simply will not do that anymore.” What Gadsby seemed to be saying is that her self-deprecatory comedic routine had supported, and excused, the very forces that marginalised her.

Making fun of yourself is less likely to hurt if you come from a position of strength. Like Barack Obama, who used self-deprecation as a powerful rhetorical tool. “These days, I look in the mirror and I have to admit, I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be,” he said in 2013 at the White House correspondents’ dinner. “Time passes. You get a little gray.” Cute. But would a female president or prime minister ever get away with a joke like that?

The self-deprecatory humour used by Obama at the correspondents’ dinner was analysed in depth by Illinois State University PhD candidate Brian Sorenson, in a thesis neatly titled “To thine own self be cruel”. Sorenson also examined the speeches of Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush at the same event, where self-deprecatory humour had become the norm. All the aforementioned presidents used it to get the audience on side. Their jokes worked because those listening to them were “aware that their self-disparaging jokes are just that – jokes”. Most of the jokes were made at the expense of relatively innocuous personal flaws on the part of the speakers, and used in lieu of tackling more serious issues. (President Trump has declined invitations to speak at the White House correspondents’ dinner two years running.)

Or, as Sorenson put it: “This speaks to the value of self-deprecating humor as a means of distraction-through-ingratiation.” They used self-deprecatory humour to create the illusion that the president of the US was really an Everyman, just like everyone else in the room.

Self-deprecation can be used manipulatively. Like everything else, it’s best practised in moderation. It helps to be sincere – bogus self-deprecation can be more annoying than endearing. It helps to be funny, but then funny people can get away with anything. Still, even when we run-of-the-mill self-deprecators aren’t that funny, we’re not usually being that serious either. 

In an uncharacteristically self-deprecating position, British comic actor Peter Cook films a scene with Judy Huxtable for the UK television show Where Do I Sit? in 1971.

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.

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