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« The Empire Strikes Back | Main | Terry Teachout, Blogger »

July 10, 2003

Self-Deprecation and Ego

Friedrich --

Dropping my usual affable/genial/modest act for a brief posting, I'm here to confess that I have a pretty healthy ego. So why aren't I forever going on about it like the real big-ego people do? Ie., asserting it even when there's no need to, bragging tiresomely, buttonholing the unwilling, doing my obsessive best to impose my will, not stopping until you concede that I'm a really impressive guy, etc?

Largely for two reasons. 1) I grew up in a smalltown culture where preening was frowned on and laughed at, and 2) most of the time it looks pretty pathetic to me. I can't help it. I can't help but have a "the more you make a big deal out of how good you are, the less I'm convinced" response. (Although I can be amused by the boastfulness of sports figures. We guys do feel that way sometimes, and it can be funny to see it acted out so cartoonishly.)

I'm not saying I'm right, and I'm not advocating my outlook -- I've met some grandstanders and braggarts who were in fact pretty good, darn them. I'm just saying that I seem to be programmed to look skeptically on that kind of display. So much so, in fact, that I'm even suspicious of people who make a point of looking hypersexual in public. I can't help suspecting that they're lousy lays -- that they're burning up everything they have to give in public, and will have nothing left for when it really counts.

Self-deprecation suits me far better than boastfulness. Partly because it makes such good sense as a self-defence tactic -- if you take the wind out of your own sails first, you're getting there before anyone else can do it to you. But I also find it a good way to assert things, myself included. Surprise people with a decent joke at your own expense. A few of them will laugh, if only out of politeness; there's also the chance that maybe, just maybe, someone will have the truly-hoped-for response -- "wow, if he can make jokes that easily about himself, and take himself so unseriously, he must really be deeply comfortable with himself." In any case, you'll have the stage to yourself for a moment or two, which is all the likes of me really asks for.

It's all about hinting that while I have the same healthy ego so many others seem to, I also have the distance and self-mastery to be rueful and funny about it. Two mints in one, in other words. A reverse kind of showing-off: I'm not just well-endowed, I'm well-endowed with modesty about being well-endowed. People are notoriously bad at knowing how they affect others, so I'm almost certainly kidding myself. Perhaps I'm hopeless, and everyone's just indulging me. But even that's ok -- because I'm still getting the kind of indulgence I'm looking for.

I'm admittedly guessing here, but over the years I also seem to have developed an impish, dreamy, give-me-a-second-here, harmless-guy persona that some people seem to be willing to be disarmed by. Often I'll use a tone I think of as "idly musing." Perhaps deludedly, I seem to enjoy thinking of myself (and presenting myself) as meandering through life, pausing occasionally to wonder about what it is I've seen and run across -- I'm just speculating here; I'm just thinking out loud here; what do you think of this; have you noticed that. It's all a way of earning myself license enough to get by with a little armchair philosophizing and a little armchair sociologizing.

If I can get people to indulge me a bit, I don't mind going to this kind of trouble. I rather enjoy it, in fact. It's fun, and deep inside my own overweening ego I feel I'm pretty good at it. But what's most important is results -- the little bit of license, and the way other people seem to mind me less when I take on that persona. All of which means I get to have my own way a little more. Given that I sometimes like using my moment onstage to show other people off, perhaps it doesn't work out too badly all around.

When, on the other hand, I try to be effectual by being pushy or showoffy, I always fall flat on my sorry face. I go rigid, and lose my wit and my generosity, such as they are. Some of the moments from my life that I remember with the most shame are those moments when I was doing my best to push myself. God, how I wish I'd never done that. This unfortunately does mean that I'm at a total loss in NYC and in the media biz where I make my living. Both of which are places where egomania, compulsion and self-advertisement are prerequisites to taking your next breath, let alone provoking a friendly response.

Back when I did a little professional writing, I found a much more appreciative audience writing for an English publication than I ever did writing for American ones. I wondered why, and eventually concluded that while the British like and enjoy slyness, irony and self-deprecation -- I do none of them as well as the Brits, but they're still a big part of what I'm peddling -- the American media class has no time for them. Do they not recognize them? Or are they simply peddling something else entirely?

Whatever the case, and doomed to loserhood though I may be, I remain attached to my wide-eyed (mock wide-eyed, grrr) persona, if only out of desperation. It is, after all, the only act I've ever developed that I'm comfy with and that a reasonable number of people seem willing to tolerate.

What's your fave way to think new thoughts out loud? What kind of "act" -- I put quotes around it because mine is only semi-conscious and not at all deliberately arrived at, though my enjoyment of it is quite conscious -- do you find allows you to get away with a fresh observation here and there? Does life in the L.A. business world reward only chest-pounding ego displays? If so, how, given your own midwestern upbringing, do you negotitate that?

Best, and now reverting to my usual public self,

Michael

posted by Michael at July 10, 2003




Comments

Those who talk about the most do it the least.

Half the time, I'd rather not talk anyway, and bragging always seemed insulting to me - how can a braggart care about my opinion if the braggart thinks I'm too stupid to notice smooth moves and skills without horns being blown?

Chest pounding works best, I think, when one is among those who are not comfortable or confident when judging a person's work or ideas. In such company, hooting and cheering is the way to go, if you can hack it. Just do try to calculate how often pissing matches are the only discussion in many important decisions.

"People are notoriously bad at knowing how they affect others, so I'm almost certainly kidding myself. Perhaps I'm hopeless, and everyone's just indulging me." My fear is that people are pitying, not indulging me. Or perhaps not tolerating me so much as observing my neurosis with clinical fascination.

Asking seemingly innocent questions usually works for me - as social gambits go, it's far more effective than wandering off or muttering with my girls in the corner. Bonus: I can pat myself on the back for giving the benefit of doubt - even though I know full well I not giving not the benefit of doubt but enough rope.

Posted by: j.c. on July 10, 2003 11:33 PM



I make semi-outrageous comments in a particular tone of voice, which is so matter-of-fact that it (at least slightly) tips people off that I'm not really expecting to be taken seriously. The reaction of most people is to squint at me in shock and then either (1) turn and walk away or (2) "get" the joke and realize I'm goofing on both of us. Some people go for this, what can I say?

My uncle, who grew up on farms in the wilderness of Alberta, many decades ago perfected his "stupid country boy" persona which he used to sell a lot of merchandise at auto-parts and hardware stores he owned. At first you couldn't believe what a hick was waiting on you; only gradually did you notice that you were buying a lot more stuff than you came in for, all on the advice of this so-called hick. (It was a real bad idea, by the way, to sit down and play poker for money with this hick.) My uncle ultimately became quite well to do, despite coming from people who truly did not have two nickels to rub together and despite having pretty much zero education. It took me a few years to see his hick act as a form of snobbery, but it was. Would you describe your own "act" as a form of snobbery?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 11, 2003 3:19 AM



Michael:

Have you ever read the Aubrey-Maturin series of historical fiction? Your writing reminds me of those books: acute social observations, very Humanist. But it was only in his last books that Patrick O’Brian got preachy about social issues.

I tend to beat listeners over the head with my message. The concept of being less serious when I’m serious about something in order to communicate more effectively, that’s too much of a paradox for my black and white thinking! Fortunately on the computer I can check my word count. Brevity is a good defense against overbearing posts.

That reminds me of your post on the Warner Bro’s cartoons, how they were successful within certain limits. Hollywood tends to shout their ideas during movies. The film makers complain about the censors but maybe those small limitations make them work better.

It takes a certain amount of 'letting go' to turn down the volume, a certain awareness of the listener. You're assuming they will 'get it' without you shouting. When I assume the listener won't care or they're an idiot it shows in my communication.

That makes me think of talking to teenagers. You're almost guaranteed to lose them when you come on too strong with the message.

Posted by: Matt Leonard on July 11, 2003 11:12 AM



Mr Blowhard

The hayseed persona may work peron to person but expending 1100 words on a subject such as how small your ego is belies that claim.

And that is not even factoring in the impressive contributions that you make regularly to 18th century thought.

Posted by: robert birnbaum on July 11, 2003 4:04 PM



I think it is important to keep in mind that you are manipulating others for your personal amusement. I think we all play these social games to varying degrees, and while acknowledging them may be harmless, I don't think they are anything to be proud of.

Posted by: Carl Jung on July 11, 2003 9:31 PM



JC -- In which case I should probably stop talking about sex so much. Rats. I really enjoy talking about sex. I like your "asking innocent questions" ploy, and would like to see it in action. Every now and then I catch myself playing Columbo too. Not a bad way to get through some potentially unpleasant moments. Do I remember that you're a New Yorker too?

FvB -- Now that you mention it, I've seen you take that tack. Ballsy -- you've got to be willing to let a few people walk away. But effective. How do you find that being a businessguy has affected your self-presentation? Businesspeople having (generally) to be so positive and upbeat and all. Being a cynical, downbeat fraud myself, I always figured business was the last field I should consider going into. But where do you put your ideas and imagination when you're conversing with businesspeople?

Matt -- No, thanks for the reminder, I definitely should read the O'Brien novels. Have you checked out the blog Seablogger? Some terrific postings on the series. There's a link to Seablogger on the lefthand column on this blog -- great blog. As for preachiness, not a good thing, I seem to be starting where O'Brien ended up. Do you really tend to hit it on the head too much yourself? You don't write like that.

Birnbaum -- You've seen through me yet again! But you didn't do an actual wordcount on the posting, did you? I'll try to rope my ego and verbosity back under some kind of control. Or maybe not.

Carl -- Guilty as charged. But do you see any way around playing social games? You may well be more man than I am, but 95% of the time I'll be damned if I'm going to be the "real me" in a social situation. The real me I save for a few friends, The Wife, and occasional parenthetical passages in my blog postings. Do you find you can do without a social persona? If so, I'm awestruck.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 11, 2003 10:01 PM



"But where do you put your ideas and imagination when you're conversing with businesspeople?"

YIKES! There's some snobbery! I don't think it would be perceived as polite or fair to say--"but where do you put your BRAIN when talking with people in the culturebiz"...do you?

Posted by: cindyincidentally on July 11, 2003 10:32 PM



Oops, point taken, Cindy, thanks. I've got a lot of respect for business and businesstypes, and should have been more precise. What I'm thinking about is this: in actual business situations (ie., not when businesspeople are being the people they actually are, but when they're being all business), businesspeople are often very dynamic, aggressive, focussed, positive. They have to be -- that's business, and good for them. I happen to know that FvB has an arty, thoughtful, even poetic side. I was wondering what he does with it when he's in a business situation, and what kind of act he pulls together to get himself through. Though it's quite possible, as you hint, that the other businesspeople present have twice as much artiness in reserve as he does ... I'm just thinking out loud about how we develop public personae -- "acts" that help us get through the day. And how, over time (and perhaps with enough age and beaten-up experience) we become semi-conscious of what those personae and acts are. Have you gotten a sense of what yours is, or tends to be? My suspicion is that if you're younger than 40, probably not. But you could well be far more perceptive about yourself than I've ever been about myself.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 11, 2003 10:49 PM



I've got nothing to hang my hat on here, but I find it's far easier just to be myself all the time, and to hell with the consequences. That's an attitude of comportment I've had for the last six or seven years. Everything else is just a lot of damn work that has zero payoff.

I should probably be asking yall -- how do you find the time and energy to manage anything else?

Posted by: Scott Chaffin on July 11, 2003 11:24 PM



My "business manner" varies depending on the situation, from no-nonsense to kidding around. I actually find myself introducing somewhat unusual elements in all but the most deadly serious conversations (i.e., when I'm seriously pissed off with somebody) just to assert the fact that I don't really look on myself as a bidness man; or, as I've sometimes put it, for a bidness man I'm a pretty good Sunday painter. People who deal with me get--I think--the message that I'm not trying to crunch myself down into a "suit." And really, in money-making situations (as opposed to fighting and scratching, which is never remunerative) most of the people I deal with (at least more than once) aren't trying to play a suit either.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 12, 2003 12:08 AM



Micheal, as veteran print editor I can sniff a word count at 100 yards...I am good on paper weights too. No self deprecation here.

Is this some kind of paen to posing? I think Scott Chaffin is right on.

Posted by: robert birnbaum on July 12, 2003 1:56 AM



I can only go on the feedback I've gotten, which is that people think I'm very "straightforward." Polite, pleasant, but direct. Some people love that, and some, who like to play games, don't--particularly from a female.

Posted by: cindyincidentally on July 12, 2003 4:51 AM



I had a female boss once who came off as a total blond bimbo until you started paying attention to what she was doing and saying. Then you realized she was using it on men to get what she wanted without being hassled and on women to get what she wanted without being competitive. Very interesting to watch. I never trusted her much.

Posted by: Deb on July 12, 2003 10:12 AM



Somehow in my life I got the distinct feeling that I was/am abrasive. I think it happened when I moved south---though that was a LONG time ago.

Now for decades I've been "sanding off" much of what I say/write before anyone ever hears/reads it. I've learned the "art" of being palatable yet honest. Some sort of creativity seems to flow more from this stance then from the "just let it all hang out" mentality. Most people I know seem to be engaged in "sanding"...some more then others.

Still though, I'd be nice to feel that I'm not running from a gorilla all the time. The gorilla that is a very real part of me. The part doesn't want to behave mannerly, that farts and burps, and that would rather lay around all day and be fed and fought over by male gorillas rather then be the responsible human I aspire to.

Does anyone else harbor a gorilla...it's a little different yet similar to Michael's ego? I think Freud would call it the ID!

Posted by: laurel on July 12, 2003 1:07 PM



"...being responsible for the human I aspire to."

You should be proud of that, and I can only wish everyone took that seriously. I myself think too many people let the gorilla out of the cage too casually.

But that being-fought-over-by-male-gorillas thing has its appeal...

Posted by: cindyincidentally on July 12, 2003 1:28 PM



I guess some of us have achieved I-am-what-I-am Zen mastery while the rest of us do our desperate best to fake our way by ...

I find these little acts some of us use kind of interesting. Partly because they can be fun to take note of -- they can range from really extreme, almost put-on kinds of things to "acts" that we barely recognize as acts at all, that we're even kind of sincere about. My wide-eyed, innocently-musing thing, for instance, isn't some charade I invented out of whole cloth. There's really a lot of me in it -- yet over time I've also found that I can make a little semi-conscious use of it in certain social circumstances.

An acting teacher I once took from pointed out something I found interesting. I was expressing my usual befuddlement about acting (I'm a terrible actor), and he was trying to suggest to me that we've all already done a lot of acting as part of real life. And I was struggling with the idea, thinking, "Gosh, not me. Putting it on, being that fake? I try not to do that!" And he said, "OK. Imagine that you're going to a party. It's been a long day and you don't really have tons of energy. Yet you're climbing the stairs to the apartment where the party's going on. You hear the music, you know there's going to be a crowd. Assuming you don't turn around and leave, what do you do?" And I had to admit that, no matter how I was "really" feeling, I'd pull together some kind of party persona and then wade on in. (I had to further admit that when I do so I almost always wind up enjoying the party.) My acting teacher said, "See, that's acting. You're kind of faking it, but you're kind of being yourself, and you're kind of flinging yourself into the persona, but also kind of flinging the persona into the party. You're yourself, but you're playing a role too, and no matter what you're being open to whatever you're going to encounter. That's acting."

I don't know why I just went off on that tangent. But it was a light-bulb-going-off moment for me.

Now excuse me while I go pound my chest and go do battle over some females...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 12, 2003 2:25 PM



“As for preachiness, not a good thing, I seem to be starting where O'Brien ended up. Do you really tend to hit it on the head too much yourself? You don't write like that.”

I’m fairly new to posting on the Net. Without instant feedback from the listener posting online can seem like “free” communication and sometimes I get carried away. Am I just expressing myself or do I want to communicate and solicit a response? I’m working on my “sanding” like laurel said.

In the non-Net world my communication is dry and understated. It can be funny and provocative but you have to be paying attention. This worked well for me when I was a computer trainer. People were trapped in a room with me and I usually had their undivided attention.

Now however I am freelancing my own consulting services and it’s a different story. The sales and marketing. How do I get peoples attention in somewhat jaded, fast-paced, we don’t need you marketplace? I think about ways I can draw attention to myself that jive with my inner man.

I detest the showboating, TV news anchor type in business, but they’re everywhere. The insincerity, the out of proportion intensity. It’s a substitute for competency and relationships.

Posted by: Matt Leonard on July 12, 2003 2:27 PM



People are always telling me I'm straightforward and direct - but I figure that's part of their act.

Puh-fucking-lease. How can one be completely honest and direct? There's not enough time to say everything that would have to be said in complete honesty and as for direct, well, how can I be direct when I'm going so many places all the time?

Deb, just out of curiosity - was this bimbo boss woman a competent boss? That is, did she use the bimbo act to make life easier, or was she using the bimbo act to avoid working? And, was she so good looking that men would have been hounds and women cats no matter how she conducted herself?

Friday's WSJ has a nice column about the value of being a brown nose. (Thur. had an interesting column about land in Brazil, by the way.)

CIA factbook update for M. Blowhard: been a New Yorker in the past, have crazy idea it would be fun place to retire.

Posted by: j.c. on July 13, 2003 1:38 AM



j.c.--Yep, the blonde bimbo was a competetant boss and yep, she was a looker. Youngish, pretty as all get out, a great body. She used the act just to make life easier in what was essentially a good ole boy's world where women were generally neurotic as hell. I called her on it once and she was straight with me most of the time mostly because I dont care what my boss looks like, I just want someone who knows what they are doing and stays out of my way while I do what I am supposed to be doing. We got along just fine.

Posted by: Deb on July 13, 2003 10:02 AM



"I detest the showboating, TV news anchor type in business, but they’re everywhere. The insincerity, the out of proportion intensity. It’s a substitute for competency and relationships."

Matt---hang in there. I would've said the same thing once. And then discovered that a lot of people appreciate competence and honesty and relationships more than it may appear---there's just so much showboating that it takes people awhile to trust that you are for real and then they will miss you greatly if you leave.

And thanks for your remark---I went out with a TV news anchor a few months ago. It really made me laugh.


Posted by: annette on July 13, 2003 10:44 AM



There was a great SNL skit with Will Ferrell where the hosts of a TV morning show devolve into savages on air when the teleprompter stops working.

I understand Michael's point about "fake it till you make it". When I had to train a new software program I would rely more on showmanship than detailed knowledge and it gave me time to learn. What I get tired of is people who seem stuck in the "fake it" phase and really have no intention of getting to the "make it" part.

When I started the computer training, that's when I first noticed TV news people were faking it. You can imagine the disillusionment. My world's been a little darker even since.

Posted by: Matt Leonard on July 13, 2003 1:35 PM






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