Tuesday, May 20, 2008

I'm the greatest (maybe)

DH says I am often too self-deprecating and that I lack self-confidence. I tell him that it is a cultural thing. Remind him that I grew up in the UK, and our attitudes there were different. Lucy Kelleher wrote a good article on this phenomenon:

When I was a child, we were taught never to boast. For a start it was bad manners. If you went around saying I got 97% in my algebra test, you made the dunderhead who only got 23% feel even more wretched than he was feeling already. To boast was to let your achievements get out of proportion, and it clashed with that very English idea that everything had to be effortless. Trying was fine - so long as no one caught you at it.

I remember a family friend who used to visit our house. My parents would tell us how clever he was and marvel at the way he wore his intelligence so lightly. The great thing about him wasn't that he was brilliant, but that he hid it so well that no one would have ever suspected that there was anything special about him at all.

I didn't question this attitude until I went to university and took up with an American boyfriend. He looked a bit like Oscar Wilde - which pleased me. Yet what pleased me less was the way he used to tell me that his doctorate thesis on the economy of communist China was an important piece of work. It wasn't that I doubted that it was good. I was just mortified that he felt the need to tell me. Looking back I suspect he wasn't a particularly boastful person. He was just American, and so his mother had never told him that he must hide his light under a bushel at all times.

I thought I had learned to boast like an American quite nicely not long after my arrival here. I applied for a job that I was sure I was a shoo-in for. I didn't get it. One of the committee members was nice enough to tell me that a major reason why I didn't get the job was because I was TOO confident. Apparently, I sounded so confident that I came across as condescending and arrogant. Interestingly, a Kenyan friend who did get hired by the same committee reassured me that it was a cultural misunderstanding - "You just sounded too British." So his perception of the British was that we came across as overly confident . . . exactly the perception that many British people have of Americans! The experience traumatized me and ever since then I've been paranoid, afraid to admit that I know when I'm good at something. I get the job, but then wonder if I only got it because I was too good at bluffing my way in. Can I really do it? When are they going to discover that I'm a fraud?

At a recent meeting with other people in my field, the meeting facilitator made the point that if we don't toot our own horn, if we don't constantly remind people of what we are doing, we will be perceived as doing nothing. So, despite my lack of self-confidence, I will be doing just that, and trying to convince my colleagues that they can't do without me (even though I know they could replace me at the drop of a hat!)


Expat mum said...

Very interesting post indeed. But in the schools here, they almost shy away from the competitive environment I grew up in in England. Private schools may be more culpable than public schools here, but there's none of that shouting out your scores so that the whole world knows who came bottom. Heck, we don't even have academic prize-givings in our school. When I think back to the harrassment that the "thick" kids used to get it's almost unbelievable. (Slightly off topic at the end - sorry!)
Anyway - you go ahead and praise yourself from the rooftops sweetie.

Janet said...

My husband reckons it's the British accent that does it. He says that Americans just naturally see us as being in charge, even when we're not. :-)

Everyone always comments how much they love our accents, but in the workplace, many seem to find it intimidating. Just a theory, or maybe a ramble.

Unknown said...

YAY I CAN comment!

Very interesting post, I am in that 'shoo-in' situation right now with a job at a school I sub' at regularly. They love me and my accent apparently, but I am going to play it reasonably low key at the interview, despite knowing this job is well within my abilities after what I did back home. I agree that Americans just see us as highly intelligent and articulate because of the accent. I don't want to scare them out of going with me because of this!

Great post and so happy I can comment :-)

Jane said...

Very interesting. I had a strange experience when I went on my limo trip to the tulips last month. Everywhere we went the driver kept telling me where he was going to park and wait etc, as if I was in charge of the trip not my friend. It took me ages to realise it was probably because of my accent.

Expat mum said...

And don't you love it that you can swear your head off and get away with it (not that I do) because "It sounds so much better with a British accent"?

AliBlahBlah said...

Excellent post - I've just been reading a book 'Pies & Prejudice' about growing up in the north of England, and he mentioned the horror of 'showing off' too, a huge cultural difference with the 'if you can be great why aren't you?' attitude of the US.

It took me a long time to realise that somewhere in the middle would be perfect - and to get over the fact that sometimes just opening your mouth with a British accent over here makes you sound like you're showing off to start with!

Mmm said...

FYI: I just added to you to my new blogroll. I've nejoyed your posts immensely. Thank you.

Daffodilly said...

The problem over here is that you never really know how you child is doing or where they are in the class unless you see the teacher one on one.
In general when asked the question the response is "they're good!" It drives me crazy!

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