Sunday, March 7, 2010

Blowing Your Own Trumpet

Last week’s discussion touched on the subject of British versus American modesty. We’re talking the “hiding your light under a bushel” type of modesty rather than the no-nudity version by the way.


The general consensus last week seemed to be that Brits don’t openly boast about their accomplishments/gobs of money/clever children, but in my experience neither do Americans. The operative word here is “openly” because both will find a way to let you know of their success, whether it’s driving around in an Aston Martin or wearing their child’s Oxford college scarf. (Here in the USA it’s very common to see car window stickers saying things like “My Child is an Honors Student” or “My child’s at “Really-Hard-to-get-Into College”.)

And as we’ve just seen at the Winter Olympics, there’s absolutely no modesty in American sports. They love a winner and have very little time for the Brit-beloved underdog. I’m used to it now, but Americans will even boo their own teams if they’re not playing as well as expected. It’s bad enough for baseball outfielders to have tens of thousands of people (plus a huge TV audience) waiting for them to catch a high fly-ball, but the knowledge that they’ll be roundly boo-ed if they drop it is, I suppose, added incentive.

One thing Americans do well is accept a compliment. Take the same compliment “Your daughter’s very pretty” and the response is often markedly different on either side of the Pond.

US parent – “Oh thank you”, followed by beaming smile with no attempt to deflect the praise.
UK parent – “Well, obviously not my gene pool”, followed by self-deprecating laugh.

The modesty question is alive and well in the blogosphere too. Just look at some of the “top blogger” web sites – full of widgets, awards and followers, making us mortal bloggers feel like, well, mortal bloggers. For someone like me (ie. trying to make a living out of my writing) I should be boasting and puffing out my feathers all over the place; exaggerating every decent review and providing links to my “many” radio appearances. (Which reminds me Mike, we really need to link to our Radio Five Live debate of last year.) But no. I can’t bring myself to do that.

It would be unseemly.


Popular wisdom holds that self-aggrandizement is as much a part of the American national identity as a Browning 30-06 Springfield and a box of ammo, whereas the British regard bragging as vulgar and tend to downplay their personal accomplishments. But do these accepted stereotypes play out in the real world?

While I would love to pop this stereotype bubble, I am .afraid I can only confirm it.

A guy in my office runs marathons. He trains regularly, runs in local events and, a few times a year, signs up for marathons. Then, on the weekend, he goes off and runs them. What he does not do, however, is come in on Monday morning and say, "Hey, I ran a marathon over the weekend. I finished in XX place" (Really, to my thinking, unless you win, what difference does your place in a marathon race matter—the fact that you finished it instead of collapsing on the road at the 14 mile mark should get you a medal.)

But you see my point. At some time during the day, someone might recall that there was a marathon over the weekend and ask if he ran in it, at which point he would admit he had. And, if asked, he would reveal his ranking.

(For the sake of accuracy I must report that this particular trend is ending as more people in my office begin to take up running. A the last event, three of my colleagues and my colleague's son all raced so there was a decidedly un-British discussion on Monday morning concerning who came in ahead of who. Modestly may be more pronounce on one side of the Pond, but testosterone levels remain the same where ever you go.)

Now compare the modest marathon runner to an old friend who recently tracked me down on Facebook. His opening letter to me managed to work in his yearly salary, which was much bigger than mine (penis metaphor, anyone?). I don't know anyone's yearly salary over here except mine and, in a vague way, my wife's, and, of course, the president of the Royal Bank of Scotland's but that's just because they keep publishing it in the newspapers to shame him for making so much.

"But, how," I hear you asking,, "does this effect you on a personal level, Mike?" So glad you asked:

A writer's life, out of necessity, tends to be boring and self-absorbed, and mine is no exception. So when I am with people, I occasionally would like to talk about something that is important to me, and that might be the fact that I a get up at 5 AM every morning for to bang out as many words as I can before arriving at work.

No one asks about it, so I can't say anything about it. In the States I could easily start a conversation with, "Hey, I just finished the rough draft of my latest novel this morning!" and we'd be off and running. Here, I'd likely get a puzzled look and an unenthusiastic, "Well done you. Have you seen the weather for the weekend?" in return.

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  1. Great post and so true of Brits, always putting ourselves down. Your post has inspired me to advertise my self published children's book.

    CJ xx

  2. Mike, I can totally relate. Even in my London writers' group we don't do self-congratulation! I often find myself asking question after question in a bid to get people to reveal their own accomplishments -- and even then, it's like pulling teeth. I feel like the group interrogator!

  3. I saw this today on Yahoo's home page and had to laugh. I thought about the other recent discussion on here about celebrating.

    The actual content of the yahoo post is pretty boring, even more so if you're not British, but it's the thought that they'd have an article entitled "Top 10 British Sporting Flops"!

  4. My husband reports that since coming to the US he has noticed how his UK colleagues in medical/scientific research don't "sell" their findings in the same way as those in the US. So they will say some finding is "quite interesting" whereas in the US it would be ground breaking! I guess it is the British way to do ourselves down, but while it is a nice habit to be self-deprecating it is not necessarily good for us on the world stage.

  5. When I used to study cerebral things, I remember the Expectancy theory (or something), whereby people, (especially children) will live up to your expectations of them whether good or bad. If you expect great things of yourself you might well live up to them, and similarly, if you think you'll never amount to anything/publish a book/etc. you probably won't.

  6. I recall when I first moved to the US I asked a student in our lab how he did on a recent exam. "I did great, I got 97%, I"m really pleased with how well I did" he replied. I was completely taken aback and not sure how to respond to his open pride in his own achievements being so used to the British self deprecation.

  7. And yet, there's really nothing wrong with that. It's not even showing off - it's just really honest.
    The British version (picure a young Hughie) would go:
    "Not bad considering. I'm sure they gave me the wrong paper back though! I didn't do any work for it at all."


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