Self-deprecation: A trixie little minx

Posted on November 11, 2009 by yankeebean



If you (like me) are an American woman, living in England, married to an English man, having trouble making English women friends – here’s a tip for you.

Experiment (carefully) with self-deprecation.

You all know by now that I’ve had never-ending issues making good friends that are both female and English.  English but not female?  No problem.  Female but not English?  Nothin’ but net.  English AND female?  I’m an alien from outer space.

But there’s been a positive development in my handicap with befriending British women – self-deprecation.

It doesn’t have to be much, I’m not saying, “My God, I am just SHITE and EVERYTHING, I am such a WASTE of SPACE, I’m taking up VALUABLE OXYGEN that better people could be USING…” – but it seems that a little self-deprecation goes a long way.

I must admit, it doesn’t come naturally to me… I’ve spent my whole life working in an industry where self-deprecation = weakness = no work = no cash = no food = die (well, not DIE, I’d probably just have to move back in with my parents…).  I mean, there’s enough free criticism out there to knock any wobbly ego off its pedestal faster than you can say “American Gladiators”… why invite it in to bash you in the face?

Anyway, I’m starting to ramble…


So, this is how it used to go when I met a new Brit-chick:

  • I introduce myself and shake their hand
  • I ask what they do
  • I make a comment about how that sounds interesting
  • They say something equivalent to, “Oh, it’s nothing, really”
  • They ask me what I do
  • They make a comment about how that sounds interesting
  • I say something like, “Yeah, I really love it – it’s the best job ever”
  • The conversation eventually either dribbles, grinds or jolts to a halt…


This is how it works now (only one small difference):

  • I introduce myself and shake their hand
  • I ask what they do
  • I make a comment about how that sounds interesting
  • They say something equivalent to, “Oh, it’s nothing, really”
  • They ask me what I do
  • They make a comment about how that sounds interesting
  • I say something like, “Oh, I dunno, you haven’t heard me yet, you’ll have to make up your own mind” (note: I’m a voice-over artist)
  • The conversation ambles along reasonably well for awhile

I don’t know exactly why it works and I don’t give a rip snort – but it definitely warms the atmosphere.  I get a kind of ‘you’re one of us’ vibe once the deed is done.  Of course, deep down I believe the people that don’t like my stuff either have different taste, or they’re just wrong.  But if I didn’t feel that way, the Industry American Gladiator would’ve WHOOPED my ass by now…

But beware!

A word of warning to all the confident, outstanding, feisty-sass-pots out there – don’t fall for your own bad press.  Self-deprecation is just a tool to crack the ice – we all know you’re awesome, really :)

PS – On the flip side of the foreign currency, Americans seem to HATE self-deprecation.  People tend to either try and big you up, or tell you to stop fishing for compliments.  I wonder if there are any American kids named Confidence…

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What Others Are Saying

  1. Glenn April 22, 2011 at 12:29 am

    The art (if there is an art?) of conversing with a Brit – male or female, is all about being perceived on the same level. The differences maybe quite stark between you, but in conversation there are no boundaries, except of course, for politeness, articulation, and commonality. You see, the key is commonality, and the differences add the interest.

    For a conversation to take place there has to be interest, and that means there has to be differences, but if one adds a sprinkling of humour (the wittier the better), it shows an open and approachable friendliness which puts both at ease.

    Self-deprecating humour is ok if not used too much. There’s nothing wrong at all at being good at something and discussing it, but don’t do so that you make the other feel less of themselves for not being as good as you. How good you are at something is never the main topic of a conversation at any time…speak it, tell it, but move on. Unless you are asked to expand on your goodly thing, I would move the item away from the conversation…you don’t want people yawning at your ability. It goes without saying that one should never boast about oneself, that’s a real turn off in any language or accent.

    Let friendship find itself.

  2. Michelle March 29, 2010 at 4:37 am

    I was once at a British garden party where I knew some of the guests but not all of them, and I was sitting in a small grouping with 2 other women and a couple of men. One of the women started to complain that she had a foot odour problem and had it for many years, didn’t know what to do about it, couldn’t wear sandals, etc. (No, that’s also not the kind of topic I would expect a British woman to come out with at a party, but there you go.) The other British woman chimed in immediately, “Oh, yes, so do I, it’s so annoying, isn’t it, you try everything but nothing works, blah blah.” And then they looked at me! I knew that it was my turn to make my feet sound even worse than theirs — but I don’t have a foot odour problem, and I was certainly not going to talk about such a thing anyway when I was around some people I’d never met before. I didn’t know what to say, so I just shook my head slowly with a concerned, polite look on my face, and glanced at the men in the group, as if to say, “Next subject!” Well, those two women were always frosty to me after that, as if I had tried to upstage them or something. I’m not saying that it was an appropriate topic to begin with, for any party, but clearly they thought that I was supposed to join in with the self-deprecation, and I made them look bad when I didn’t.

    I also agree with others here when they say that an American doing self-deprecation can come across as suspicious in the UK, as if we are 1) honestly as bad as we are indicating, or 2) making fun of them in a stealthy way, or 3) so self-effacing that actually we must think we are brilliant, and therefore still come across annoying to them. I don’t think you can win here – I try not to get into descriptions like that – just stick with some bare facts and keep the conversation jumping along – let them make their own assumptions about how good or bad you are, how lucky or not you were, etc.

  3. Yorkshireyank November 22, 2009 at 6:33 pm

    Sirmelja, I think Americans also sometimes see self-deprecation as sarcasm, so that when the other person says “You are so much better than me”, we interpret it as meaning “I am so much better than you.”

  4. Sirmelja November 20, 2009 at 4:02 pm

    I think Americans see self-deprecation as false modesty, which then pisses us off that someone’s trying to hoodwink us :-)

    Steve, I think the Irish version of disliking those who take themselves too seriously is to dismiss anyone who even seems like they take pride in their accomplishments. If you’re famous and live here, you definitely don’t have to worry about anyone kowtowing to you :-)

  5. Yorkshire Yank November 20, 2009 at 2:51 pm

    This is interesting because I have been denied jobs in the UK because I was told that I didn’t sound confident enought at the interview.

    I’ve never been one to “toot my own horn”. Maybe it is a cultural thing: I’m of eastern European Jewish descent where bragging or talking about your good fortune is considered to be bad luck. I have a feeling that there are other subcultures within the US where saying too many good things about yourself is considered bad form.

    However, I think the problem may be that when Americans are being self-deprecating, British people assume that Americans are just being honest, because they think that Americans don’t do self-depreration.


    Brit 1: What do you do?
    Brit 2: I’m a …
    Brit 1: That sounds interesting
    Brit 2: It’s nothing really.
    Brit 1 thinks – Her job sounds fantastic and she’s such a polite person; how kind of her not to go on about how great her job is.

    Now, switch a Brit with an American

    Brit 1: What do you do?
    American: I’m a …
    Brit 1: That sounds interesting
    American: It’s nothing really.
    Brit 1 thinks – Her job must really be shite.

    I’ve personally experienced stuff like this where I was just toning things down to be polite, and it’s been misinterpreted.

    • yankeebean November 21, 2009 at 12:21 am

      Yorkshire Yank

      I laughed SO HARD when I read your comment – I also instantly relived many moments in my life… you hit the nail squarely on the head :D

      On the job front, I think I’ve had the opposite experience, though. After working a new job for about a month my boss once confessed to me that his first thought after my interview was, “She’s either going to be really passionate and dedicated – or an absolute bloody nightmare”. I’ll leave it to your imagination which option he decided on ;)

  6. Steve Shawcross November 17, 2009 at 9:33 pm

    Don’t worry Yankeebean, we know you’re brilliant– don’t be afraid to say so :D

    I think there’s nothing wrong with “blowing your own trumpet”, as long as you do it subtly. In other words mention your talent casually, so you don’t come across as bragging.

    To use Iota’s example, it’s fine to say: “Yes, I enjoy cooking and I’m quite good at it”. As Iota says, no big deal with that– as long as you can cook well of course! However it would be a faux-pas, would be then to go on about *how* good a cook you are– it makes you sound “up yourself” and intimates you’re better than everyone else.

    The key is not to take yourself too seriously– I believe *that* is the biggest difference between Americans and Brits. In my experience Americans culture encourages people to take themselves seriously, fair enough. There is merit in the American attitude of taking one’s self seriously: You’re the world’s only superpower, leader of the free world and have the world’s largest economy– so it obviously works for you!

    However in Britain the reverse is the case; people who take themselves too seriously, are generally disliked… Piers Morgan, Jeffery Archer and Heather Mills being prime examples. We just take the attitude life is too short, and there’s no shred of evidence that we should take life seriously. Quoth GK Chesterton: “Angels fly, because they take themselves lightly”.

    My advice would to observe your follow Americans who have cracked the self-depreciation thing; endearing themselves to Brits, by taking themselves lightly. The best example would be George Hamilton: Joan Rivers, Cybil Shepherd, Will Smith and David Duchonovy are good examples too.

    Meiosis and litotes always go down well!

    Ramble ends :)

  7. Michelloui November 15, 2009 at 7:59 pm

    Well done you!!!!!!! Trumpet heard and understood, yankeebean ;)

  8. Yorkist J November 12, 2009 at 1:18 pm

    It’s funny that Smitten by Britain mentioned the book Watching the English , because I’ve recently discovered that book myself. In fact, as I was reading this post, I was mentally preparing my reply, in which I was going to talk about the part where the book mentions that it’s part of the cultural code in England (especially among females) to engage in a back-and-forth of praise and self-depracation. The author describes the ritual as ‘I compliment you and then compare myself unfavourably to you, and then you are meant to refute my self-depracation with praise and put yourself down, and the cycle repeats.’ She says that this ritual is sometimes truncuated when there are men around, but they often pick up where they left off when the men aren’t around (like if the women excuse themselves to the ladies’ room).

    The author has followed women into public toilets to observe this, and has even timed it, with one such ritual lasting a good forty-eight minutes!

    So I guess my point is, I think you’ve stumbled across this phenomenon in your own way. Also, the book is very informative and helpful, and I recommend it.

  9. Smitten by Britain November 12, 2009 at 5:23 am

    You are spot on with your P.S. comment, in fact that is what I was going to suggest to you, that we are the opposite in our thinking. Americans are raised (for the most part) to have strong self-esteem and to be proud of ourselves, we can do absolutely anything and it’s perfectly acceptable to express it as long as it’s not too OTP. The English, however, view this suspiciously, especially what sounds like boasting. The best book I have ever read on the English is called “Watching the English” by Kate Fox. She does a great job of diving into the English psyche. I wish the book was around 20 years ago when I needed it.

  10. Julie November 11, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Hahahaha. I really enjoy your blog, and, truth be told, I am not and American with an English partner, – I am German but there are sooooo many parallels… I do the same! I usually am not as imaginative and only say lamely “yeah… sometimes it’s a nice job…”
    But then again, – I also didn’t make any female friends here (yet?).

  11. Michelloui November 11, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    I was chuckling as I read this, and Iota’s comment. Ive become so used to the self-depreciation thing that the other day someone (a BRITISH woman, she broke the rules) was telling me how much she enjoys her job and how lucky she was, just after I said the ‘its nothing really’ thing about my quickly developing career that I should be proud of (that I AM proud of, but Im suppose to not say that, right?!) so I felt caught of guard, cheated even when she said all this. I lost focus of the conversation because I was then trying to work out how I could add ‘actually I am really excited about MY job too’ without it sounding too contrived… do you think I over analyze things?? ;)

    You’re right, in other words. That self-depreciation thing is important! But I’ll add another warning to yours, you feel like a twit if the Brits don’t play by the rules.

    • yankeebean November 12, 2009 at 10:58 pm

      @Michelloui I’d feel totally hood-winked if I ‘played by the rules’ but a Brit went outta bounds. I couldn’t agree with Iota more, I like being excited about my job because I AM excited about my job. I don’t want to go on about it – but I also don’t always feel like I want to downplay it, either.

      For example, one of my goals this year was to be a featured artist on a certain music website and yesterday I found out that I made the cut. It’s not a HUGE deal (there I go! Self-deprecation!!), but it IS something I’ve been working towards and I’m really proud to have gotten there! I went to a jam session last night and I didn’t even bring it up because I didn’t want to sound like I was ‘blowing my own trumpet’ (as Iota said).

      But the truth is I wanted to climb to the top of a big hill and blast that trumpet until I was puce… :)

  12. Iota November 11, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    It’s a huge cultural difference, isn’t it?

    Over here, I’ve had to get used to what in Britain would be called ‘blowing my own trumpet’, as a part of normal conversational exchange. I think it’s rather healthy actually. I mean, what’s the big deal in saying “yes, I enjoy cooking and I’m quite good at it” if you are? Much more sensible than mumbling”yes, I brought those cookies, but, um, they were really easy to bake and it’s nothing really”.

    I use that as an example, because actually baking isn’t my thing – oops there I go again, back in British mode.

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