How to Respond to Self-Deprecating Comments
September 18, 2016 10:45 PM   Subscribe

Sometimes people suddenly reveal their insecurities to me in casual conversation, and I rarely know how to respond. What are some good ways of dealing with situations like this?

Here are a few examples:

(1) I watched a historical drama with my mum. She did not understand the plot, and I explained it to her. She said, "I'm too stupid to understand films like that".

(2) I was chatting at a party with someone I only slightly know. She repeatedly told me that she "doesn't have good taste in art". She seemed genuinely sad about this.

(3) I was talking with a group of colleagues the other day. We were talking about the fact that people sometimes look like their pets. I asked one of them whether she looked like her dogs. She replied, "I wish I did: my dogs are gorgeous, not like me."

Of course, sometimes people make self-deprecating comments as a joke, or as an exhibition of the virtue of modesty. I'm not talking about cases like this. I'm talking about cases in which a person seems to reveal some genuine source of fear or shame.

In some cases, it's easy to reassure the person. In example (1) I was able to point out to my mum (giving examples) that *she* is often the one who has to explain complicated books/movies to the rest of us. But this sort of response is not always available. In example (2), because I didn't really know the person, I didn't know how to reassure her about her taste in art. And it would have hardly been appropriate for me to tell my colleague in example (3) that she was good-looking! (I'm a man.)

Are there any good strategies for dealing with situations like this?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
As somebody who does this all the time, just laugh with them. It also might be a cultural thing - in some cultures (Australia, for example) it's rude to praise yourself.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 10:49 PM on September 18, 2016 [16 favorites]

If this is very common, is it possible that you're putting some kind of high status energy out that sensitive people are responding to?

None of these are criticisms of you, just asking (for your reflection):

1) How did you explain the plot? (Tone and language considered - big words? Definite or exasperated tone, maybe?)

2) I bet she had the impression you have good taste, by comparison - were you working to communicate that you do?

3) Asking a woman if she looks like her dog may not be as neutral a question as it might be if you asked a man. ("Dog" is an insult teen boys enjoy inflicting on girls to demean them, or did, a few decades ago. If shades of this sort of thing bled into her understanding of what you meant, that's not your fault, though. If it did, if you accidentally hit some sore spot - are you attractive? If yes, might have made it harder on her.)

Do you think you do carry other kinds of signifiers that suggest high status or dominance in some way? Are you intellectually or physically confident, direct, accomplished, wealthy, well-educated, known for a talent, tall, etc.? Or do you physically hang back in a face to face conversation, such that people think they're being judged?

Basically it seems people are on the defensive, which means they're interpreting something you're doing as being on the "offensive". If it's a very common response, maybe you are?

If this is a possibility, and the responses bother you, you could soften your presentation a bit. The way to do that depends on what you're communicating. Probably - listen and smile more often, ask more questions, be more equivocal, lean in, communicate warmth.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:12 PM on September 18, 2016 [17 favorites]

In these kinds of situations, I either: 1) laugh with them (if they are laughing already) or, 2) I change the subject and try not to make it awkward. Like, I'll excitedly start talking about some vacation I have planned upcoming, or the fact that I'm going to go on a fun hike with some friends, etc. etc. Pick the topic you change to based on what you know about them, and if you know very little, choose something neutral.
posted by FireFountain at 11:21 PM on September 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

From girl world: if you can't lift them up then lower yourself down. Lie if you have to.

#2) "I also have a hard time distinguishing good art."

When all else fails Crack a joke.

#3) "aww well on the bright side at least they're not humping your leg!"

Your sentiment is sweet but with strangers remember it's not your job to solve their low self esteem. Just smooth over the social interaction is enough.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 11:23 PM on September 18, 2016 [13 favorites]

If I don't know them super well I'd probably let it slide. If I did, I'd say "hey don't talk that way about my friend!"
posted by aubilenon at 11:26 PM on September 18, 2016 [30 favorites]

[A couple of comments deleted. Reminder: Ask Metafilter isn't the place to debate or argue with other commenters.]
posted by taz (staff) at 11:38 PM on September 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

To clarify my previous response, I am suggesting doing this selectively and temporarily, only with people you can perceive are anxious or vulnerable (by evaluating their body language). (And only if you think there's reason to.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:43 PM on September 18, 2016

I usually go "you do NOT" or "whaaaaaaat, no" or "haha" depending on the degree of the remark. I see a lot of other people do this too.
posted by stoneandstar at 11:49 PM on September 18, 2016 [15 favorites]

I tend to look vaguely baffled for a beat when people say stuff like this and then move on past it. Possibly not the best approach depending on your style, but I really hate the social game where someone says "oh I'm so [conventionally unattractive/other perceived negative trait]" and I'm expected to jump in with no-you're-not/soothe/reassure.

I've had low self esteem about a ton of things and none of it was significantly helped by outside reassurance from others, especially the rote performative kind. I had to fix that shit from the inside. So if the thing the person is saying is pretty big I might ask if they've considered therapy for the issue, otherwise I ignore it as behaviour I won't be helpfully rewarding if I engage.

Worth noting that I prefer my average conversation to be less emotional/sharing than this (unless it's with super close friends or we've strongly & mutually signalled in advance that the conversation is going to a more vulnerable/sharing place), and that I generally get a little uncomfortable with comments like this as they feel like the other person is drawing me into their inner issues without my consent.

I also broadly reject a bunch of accepted social constructs around appearance and how humans are "meant" to live and behave so often the comment being made already rings false against some arbitrary standard that I have no interest in reinforcing (or refuting the person's belief within the value system of that arbitrary construct).

All of which is to say that this approach will likely not suit everyone but it's the least uncomfortable I've managed to make this stuff for me when it comes up.
posted by terretu at 12:18 AM on September 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

I think you've got the right approach with your mum, with number 2 I think the kindest option is to also be self deprecating or to acknowledge the inherent difficulty in judging art or something along those lines, and with number 3 I think it's a faux pas to ask people you don't know if they look like their dogs. I think that conversation requires a degree of jocular confidence that many people don't have.
posted by jojobobo at 12:37 AM on September 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I like both terretu and aubilenon's answers. I do not like to tolerate negative self-talk, but complimenting someone when they do this usually doesn't work because A) the compliment can come off as false ("Oh, they're just saying that to make me feel better") or B) the negative comment is a ploy for attention.

I'd probably say something along the lines of aubilenon's repsonse, which I think is really sweet. OR, if I didn't know the person well, I'd just say "You shouldn't talk about yourself that way." No reassurances, just a short line to say that negative self-talk is in general damaging and unhelpful.
posted by Brittanie at 12:42 AM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

The belief that one must think highly of oneself and praise oneself all the time, whether one feels the statement is accurate or not, is not universal. It's probably different with your mom bc she's your mom and you know her very well. But with other people, just respect them enough to grant that they're telling you the truth about themselves, and continue the conversation in the usual way by changing the subject or asking questions.

Her: "I have bad taste in art."
You: "I think most people don't know much about art...I like art museums but no one will ever go with me, haha. Do you like museums at all, I mean history or science museums or anything?"
Or: "Speaking of bad art, I was just reading about this giant portrait of Donald Trump. Scary!"

Her: "I wish I looked like my dogs, they're gorgeous."
You: "Are they really? What kind of dogs? Do you have pictures?"
Or, if you've seen them: "Well, your dogs are especially cute! My childhood dog was cute too, he used to..." Etc.

It could be that what you are reading as insecurity, is to them just a statement of fact. Not everyone who points out a less than flattering aspect of themselves wants to be reassured.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:00 AM on September 19, 2016 [26 favorites]

yeah, small-talk social interactions make for a awkward segueway into public therapy, even if you were a qualified therapist, which I assume you're not. :-) I like the "bring myself (or others) down" approach St. Peepsburg mentioned, and use it a lot. (Hopefully I don't come across as a smug know-it-all, but as I seem to specialize in knowing things on obscure topics, at the expense of knowing things that are socially useful, like how %state_school did at %sport last weekend, it happens to me.)

If it really is a weak area, I also like to deflect to something that they *are* good at, the general premise being that we're all ignorant, just on different subjects. So in example 1, "Well, mum, you remember all about 6 generations of great-grand-parents and how cousin Madge met Uncle Rick in New York unexpectedly that one time; I can never keep *that* straight."

by "bring others down," I don't mean insult others, I just mean - "point out where others we might both know, or humanity in general, has different skill levels." For example, if someone says they're not good at math, I might point out that C.S. Lewis, who was a brilliant linguist, couldn't even pass the college entrance exam due to the math portion, and would not have even gotten to go to college if he hadn't had a WWI service exemption.*

* like I said, knowing things on obscure topics is my superpower...
posted by randomkeystrike at 5:37 AM on September 19, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you know them well and they seem genuinely upset:"don't talk about my friend that way"....worked when someone said it to me!
posted by bearette at 5:41 AM on September 19, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm the person often making self-deprecating comments, though I'm really trying to break the habit, and for me it isn't a well-thought-out play for attention or reassurance. It's more that I don't want to sound full of myself or boastful, mixed with some awkwardness, and a put-down of myself will just slip out of my mouth. (Then I tend to dig myself out of it and not make the other person do so.) Certainly I don't want to dwell on it, analyze it, or be told, 'That's not true; you're a wonderful [whatever: conversationalist].' Any of those responses would just embarrass me further. They'd make me want to say, 'Oh yeah, oops, you're right. I'm super good at talking. Let's move on.' (!)

The example with your mom is a lot more intimate and it sounds to me like you handled it perfectly. Another angle that works almost always is to say, 'I know how you feel,' and maybe laugh or otherwise reassure the person that we all have feelings, feelings don't reflect or indicate reality all the time. About the dogs, I definitely would have played up how gorgeous the dogs must be, like, what are they, dog-models? On the cover of Dog Weekly? But, yeah. Maybe that's inappropriately flippant. About the taste in art-- Don't we all have a thing for which we're not confident in our taste? I'd respond to that person like, 'Hm. Really? Is that so?'-type-of-thing. Basically a 'I know that feel. Right on.' Shrug of shoulders. So what. It's all good.

We all have insecurities. My approach is to acknowledge THAT; the existence of insecurities, it's part of our humanity, it's not a big deal.
posted by little_dog_laughing at 5:53 AM on September 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

This may be totally coincidental, but I notice that all three of your examples feature women who self-deprecate. Do you think there might be a gender thing going on here? That it might be something about the way you interact with women that leads some of them to adopt a low-status posture? (granted, women are generally socialized to do this, so maybe this could be something else you're sensitive to?)
posted by obliterati at 5:53 AM on September 19, 2016 [6 favorites]

I say I'm stupid constantly. Why? Because there are things a three year old would get that I don't get, because there are things literally everyone around me gets that I don't get, because I can't do math in my head without having to break out a piece of paper, because I drove over a curb I didn't see too well and jarred the shit out of my car one day, because there are plenty of problems I am not dealing with because for the life of me I can't come up with a solution to them so I just put up with them, and oh, because I just found out I've been making a stupid mistake for YEARS that there is no justification in the world one can make up for that to be okay. You know, stuff like that. For me, being stupid is the truth, because I'm just not smart enough for the world I have to live in.

Someone else trying to make me feel better by telling me the opposite isn't actually going to make me feel better and less stupid and shut up my feelings of stupid, or make me less stupid when I do stupid things that I should be "too smart" to not be doing.

If you're dealing with me, just don't say anything about it and move on, please. I'm just stating the truth. I'm not looking for you to buck me up, because you can't buck me up about this topic, and right now I'm saying it because I'm being obviously stupid in front of you for not getting your explanation after you've just explained it for the fourth time. If you feel "uncomfortable" that I said it, just imagine how much more "uncomfortable" I am BEING it. Just...let it go, don't say a darned word.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:58 AM on September 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

In terms of their feeling genuinely better afterwards, the response of reassurance and "oh, no, I think you're very smart, honestly!" often doesn't last. It's what they've asked for (if you assume that type of behavior was asking for attention and reassurance) but it may not help; not surprisingly, asking to be told you're smart and then getting told you're smart can feel unfulfilling.
The response that made me realize I was doing that was my friend looking confused, taking an obvious moment to stop and think, and then saying in a serious but puzzled tone, "you really think so?" And when asked to tell that person whether I did, in fact, have terrible fashion sense, I could think about it and say, "no, actually, I just feel conspicuous in these shoes."

But that kind of response requires a particular person/friendship, and a particular situation, ymmv.
posted by aimedwander at 8:26 AM on September 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

I suggest you do your best to just not engage. Maybe make a wan smile and try to move on.

I was one of the top three students of my graduating class. I used to make self deprecating jokes to try to put other people at ease and to signal that I am not an egomaniac. I finally realized this doesn''t read like I thought it did when a high rankung woman at work did this and my initial thought was "Gosh, is her self esteem that bad in spite of all her accomplishments?"

For people generally, this isa no win situation: If you claim your comoetence, you are an egomaniac, if you try to be humble, you must have poor self esteem. This seems to be even more problematic for women.

I don't know what does work, but I am trying to just give this crap less attention as the least worst answer I currently have.
posted by Michele in California at 11:35 AM on September 19, 2016

I disagree with St. Peepsburg's suggestion that you put yourself down to keep yourself level with the other person. Staying level is important in women's interactions, but achieving it by putting yourself down is a bad mental habit to adopt — as it can turn on you. I agree with another commenter's suggestion that women are more prone to self-deprecate, but I also think they're more prone to putting themselves down, especially if their self-esteem is shaky. In still other cases, you may be seeing someone genuinely clarifying they're not schooled in something, so you won't expect them to engage, or judge them if they say something silly. Regardless of the cause, use a light, kind tone of voice and gently raise them up when you respond: "No, I'm sure that's not the case." "No, don't be silly...." If they disagree, just gently shake your head, no, and disagree right back. Then you can move on to other subjects if neither of you want to probe further.
posted by Violet Blue at 12:33 PM on September 19, 2016

I'm a sensitive caretaker-type, and I like to always have the answer for my friends when they feel this way; my mind starts racing.

But I don't always have it. I haven't seen it recommended yet, so allow me to suggest it: simply 'existing in tension' as a strength of your interpersonal communication. Sometimes people just need someone to 'sit' with, if it's part of an emotional moment.

As long as it is not off-the-cuff, and doesn't need to be immediately reacted to (i.e., patently untrue, or harmful as self-concept,) then you might just let yourself... reflect for a moment on what they have said, and stay with them on this feeling. Reacting organically can even mean non-verbally processing it for a moment - i.e., facial reactions, surprise, internalization, and all - they will note that you have done so. Occasionally, a deeper insight will quickly come to light - sometimes from either of you, I find. You'll be the best judge of when this is applicable, but I say, do consider it an option when you feel you don't have the solution.

Certainly, if you have a counterpoint or ready answer, like with your first example, say it :) but it sounds like you already do so.
posted by a good beginning at 1:32 PM on September 19, 2016

I generally say in as light and polite a manner as possible, "Oh, I'm sure that's not true." - and then make sure to have something else to say to hopefully head off any further protestations of their faults and keep the conversation going. Or to segue to a polite but quick exit - "I hate to run off, but I've got to talk to that person/ I need a drink"--whatever. Some people just don't know how to "do" small talk, to keep things light and easy and it can fall on you to keep things away from therapy territory or just groaning awkwardness.
posted by lemniskate at 2:09 PM on September 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

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