Thursday, 31 October 2013

Culture Shock

Oh, man. B.A. got me to read a presentation he has prepared to give tomorrow to some very important people, and I was horrified. Throughout are tales about how he procrastinated on a project, and how his ideas were rubbish, and how his prose was leaden. All I could imagine were people laughing politely at these "jokes" and then suggesting he be given a performance review--yesterday--and gently eased to a post more suited to his talents, like washing the cups in the tea shop.

"In Canada or the States, you'd be fired," I said. "You're not supposed to give them an excuse to do it. In America, if you tell people you're rubbish, they'll believe you're rubbish."

"It's British self-deprecation, darling," said B.A. "People expect it. They like it. They think well of you for it."

"How does THAT work?" I grumbled. "Surely human nature is the same across all cultures. I'm googling this."

"Yes, google it," said B.A.

So I googled "British self-deprecation" and it came up at once. On Debrett's:

Self-deprecation is a trait that permeates British culture. It is a national characteristic - evident in a sense of history that, possibly uniquely, dwells on 'glorious' failures (the Charge of the Light Brigade, Dunkirk, Scott's race against Amunsden). It is also a valued personality trait, which people find engaging and - according to the latest anthropological research - sexually attractive.

The British have a horror of what they call 'blowing your own trumpet', and are deeply averse to earnestness, pomposity and self-importance. Statements that, in another culture, would simply be attributed as confident expressions of self-esteem, are misinterpreted in Britain as boastful and self-aggrandising.

If you want to avoid being misunderstood, learn to downplay your attributes and resort wherever possible to understatement. People will read between the lines and admire your modesty.

"See?" demanded B.A. "See? And it's so basic to British culture I had no idea you didn't know that."

Well, I'm jiggered. No wonder I don't have a blinking job here. Blimey, the British are even more wily, perfidious and deceitful than I thought. Sexually attractive?!?! Yeah, I want to see a link for that one. How does anyone get anything sold? Really, I will never understand this island.

Brit Man: Well, I'll tell you, old girl, I just looked up from the jolly old whodunit and saw a blinking tiger! Well! You expect that kind of thing in India, but not after four on a drowsy afternoon on the verandah, eh? So anyway, wouldn't you know it, the bally beast was creeping up on a native child quietly amusing itself in the jolly old dirt with a friendly centipede! So I picked up my gun in my ham-fisted sort of way, you know, and shot off a round or two that went absolutely wide, but at least it gave the tiger pause for thought, no pun intended-ha ha ha! And wouldn't you know it, but the striped beggar came bounding towards me! But fortunately, my shots alerted clever Anton here---

European Continental: And I shoot him between eyes. I am best shot in entire, how you say, Eendyan subcontinent. I drill him; he fall flat. Will make beautiful rug for fortunate wooman.

Brit Woman (totally ignoring Continental Anton): Oh, Bertie. You are brave.

Brit Man: Oh, pshaw. All in a day's work, what, what? Let's have a drink, shall we?


Andrea said...


Sherwood said...

Oh, Seraphic. You are funny!

Maybe the whodunit he was reading was Ceremony of Innocence and that's what REALLY impressed her, what what?

Julia said...

It's the same in Australia. In Australia, the worst thing is that you might be thought of as "up yourself". I would say it's the same thing in New Zealand, too.

An Australian is expected to downplay any good personal attributes or achievements s/he might possess. Your success must be seen as accidental. If you blow your own trumpet here, people will dismiss you as a "w***er". If you make fun of yourself and your mistakes, you're more likely to be seen as a "top bloke" or "top sheila".

Australians must also be prepared to insult and dismiss Australia itself at any time. One of our Prime Ministers once called Australia "the a**se-end of the world".

One uni teacher I had was from New York City, and although he'd been teaching in Melbourne for years, he said he just couldn't get over the self-deprecation of Australians. He said that he'd hear Australians speaking about their own work and basically calling it rubbish, and then he'd see it and think, "What? This is great! Why didn't you say it was great?"

I will say that my automatic Australian reaction to the fictional (?!!?!?!) exchange you've written, Seraphic, would have been the impulse to roll my eyes at the Continental. I'm not saying that that's a great (or fair) impulse to have, but rest assured that it exists, and not just in the UK.

Seriously, I could write an essay about this stuff (it'd be rubbish, though).

Gregaria said...

I personally like it. It shows that a man doesn't take himself too seriously, has a sense of humor, can laugh even in not so great moments, might even be humble... and people like me better when I'm self-deprecating as well. I'm in America. Maybe it's a west coast thing? I dunno.

In job interviews, it's entirely different. You tell them your strengths and weaknesses as they are. But in the rest of life, self-deprecation works well.

Anonymous said...

It's practically the same over here on the other side of the Channel. That's one of the reason we don't really like our neighbours up North. They have a tendency to boast, so we consider them arrogant. Welcome to Europe!

Urszula said...

haha, that dialogue was hilarious!

Polish people are very self-deprecating too, to the extreme. It's seen as completely normal in social settings, but it can be a huge hindrance in professional life, especially when Poles have to function in the US. I remember my dad once asked me in desperation to coach his Polish PhD student through a few mock interviews (he was a brilliant programmer but always failed the HR portion of interviews - even at software companies where you'd think people skills aren't always so important). The whole thing was awful because he was entirely too honest; for example, when I asked him the standard "what is your greatest weakness" question he responded with a troubled look and "But which kind? Personal or professional? There are so many!"

And when at the end of the mock interview I tried to explain that he needs to be more confident, he claimed that he was just being honest and might as well tell people that he's not all that great.

There wasn't much I could do for him, although I tried!!

Seraphic said...

Urszula, this clears up a mysterious conversation I had with a Polish priest on my first visit to Poland. He asked me if "Anielskie Single" was a good book, and I said it was a great book. He seemed highly amused that I would praise my own book. i thought he was just bullying me because I was a woman, etc.

Jackie said...

Seraphic, this is hilarious! Plus, great accompanying pic! ;-P

I really wish Americans could take a page from the Brits' book sometimes. *sigh*

Iota said...

@ Urszula
" he was entirely too honest"

Y'know what? Being Polish, I really can't understand the idea that you're supposed to say you're great and your greatest weakness is, oh let's say, being obsessed with high quality. :-)

If everyone says they're great, the interview seems somewhat meaningless...

@ Seraphic - I would second the idea that the priest may have been amused just by your shameless self-promoting. As a overgeneralised rule, I'd say the highest grade anyone is normally allowed to give their own work is "good". Which is already kind of risky.

Urszula said...

@Seraphic - I'm glad I could be of help! I'm sure the priest didn't mean to be disrespectful - he probably just thought "one of those confident North Americans again!" (there is also somewhat of a stereotype in Poland that Americans/Canadians tend to like to praise themselves - which in Poland means any mention of your accomplishments).

@Iota - I agree that you shouldn't roll off the standard 'weakness' of perfectionism at interviews. And, definitely, honesty is a virtue. But, as I explained to this hapless job seeker, he actually wasn't being completely honest in focusing ONLY on his weaknesses. Every time I would him a question to draw out what he is good at, he would say "oh, I'm ok at bla bla but...". Exaggerating or focusing only on your faults and weaknesses is also not being honest or truthful, never mind definitely not being a good interview tactic!

TRS said...

Wow. This is eye opening!

First, it made me think of my own employer, who gets steamed if we can't tell him what great work we are doing. I feel pressure to blow even harder just to assure I won't get fired for being lazy and up brilliant!

Second, oh pity the youngest generations of Americans, who are given trophies and ribbons just for showing up to an event, never mind winning!

Then, just last night, as I was finishing up the long awaited colorful slipcover for my ottoman, I was stymied by sewing the perpendicular corners. I had to rip it all apart and try again. Then, with that successful attempt, I was so proud!
But I would hope in Poland, that if would be given points for admitting I failed first.

Sheila said...

That explains me! It's my Heritage! I just can't abide being asked what my greatest weakness is ... even though I've been coached through the question, I feel like saying, "Well, that I'm kind of lousy at everything and have a terrible work ethic." Instead I think I said (since I'm a teacher) that dealing with parents can be difficult for me. Also that I have to be careful not to expect too much of the kids. Both are true, but there are so many bigger faults I could mention.

If someone compliments my clothes, I have to tell them they're thrifted. If they compliment my knitting, I tell them it took me months and point out all the tiny mistakes. And pretty much ALL women in any culture I know of feel the need to deprecate their looks in groups of other women. You don't want to stand in a group of women complaining about their weight and say, "Well, *I* weigh 120 and I'm happy about that!" I do not fuss about weight, but I feel the pressure to bring up acne or something just so that other women don't think I'm full of myself. Weird.

And yes, I find self-deprecating men very attractive. Most men strike me as arrogant.

I think the US is in the minority here. I've heard Asian immigrants also have problems praising their own work. There are whole consulting agencies whose job is to coach newcomers on how to promote yourself like an American.

But as far as the "trophy for participation" thing .... I think that's a myth. Sure, sometimes you get a participation ribbon, but everyone knows that doesn't count. Kids compete for first place just the same as they always have.