Is self-deprecating humor a sign of weakness?
August 17, 2008 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Is self-deprecating humor a sign of weakness?

For as long as I can remember I really haven't had any problem engaging in self-deprecating humor. I'd say that I'm pretty up-front and open about my foibles and willing to laugh at them. I probably developed that sort of humor as a way to minimize the distance between myself and other people - for a lot of my life I was shy and quiet and serious and so I needed some way so that people didn't take that as being standoffish.

I (think I) know the difference between occasional self-deprecation and the kind of wallowing in my weaknesses that screams "AFFIRM ME, PLEASE!!", and I don't think I engage in the latter - from my perspective the humor is just to lighten up the situation when people think I'm too serious or distant.

I always assumed that other people would "get the joke" and take it as - "hey, this guy has some decent strengths, but he's not all up on his high horse either". But I'm beginning to suspect that rather all my self-deprecation is being taken at more than face value and people lose respect for me because of it. I've been sort of amazed at the number of times I make a joke about myself and people seem to take it seriously. Also, some of the way I joke about myself becomes the way OTHER PEOPLE joke about me, which is fine in small doses, but sometimes I feel crosses a line from joking to tearing down.

I've thought recently about the people I know that everyone seems to respect and trust, and I can't think of instances where any of them engage in this sort of humor. So what do you think of a person who engages in a moderate amount of self-deprecating humor?
posted by sherlockt to Human Relations (33 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
If you want to be an alpha-male, then self-deprecating humor is probably not your best choice. So it depends on your goals. If you want to make friends with geeks then you are more likely to succeed with this tack; if you want to have sex with hot-but-dumb girls you barely know, maybe not. One choice is to tune your style to suit your audience (but this becomes messy when worlds collide).

I tihnk you can get respect and trust from peers by doing good work and being trustworthy; your self-deprecating humor probably won't change this much unless it's really extreme.
posted by jewzilla at 11:24 AM on August 17, 2008

I like them much more than people who use humor to pick on others. Like you said, there is a line that one can cross where you just look desperate. People making themselves the butt of a joke, not crazy about it. People acknowledging that they have said or done something silly, good.

One example of self-deprecating humor I remember from Jon Stewart: he went to button his jacket on air and awkwardly it didn't quite reach. He said something along the lines of, "I figure, I could either eat less pumpkin pie... oor just leave it unbuttoned."

If he had out of nowhere made some joke about his weight it wouldn't have been funny. So that's how I view the distinction. It really depends on your audience, of course, I wouldn't engage in self-deprecating humor when around a lot of people who are seemingly incapable of laughter or intelligent humor and are fixated on social status.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 11:34 AM on August 17, 2008

you need to find a balance. i would say stick with the self deprecating humour, but don't be afraid to make the limits clear. it's similar to "hey, only i can call my wife fat" (forgive the rather chauvinistic example, but i hope it's familiar). so: "whoops, stupid me" is ok, but "hey, stupid" get's a "what's your problem?"
posted by not sure this is a good idea at 11:34 AM on August 17, 2008

what do you think of a person who engages in a moderate amount of self-deprecating humor?

It really depends on if the person is a sorry sack of shit, or has their act together.

One person's self-deprecating humor is another person's self-deprecating pity party.

If you're confident and comfortable in your own skin then this is all a non issue. If you have low self esteem and other hangups then such "humor" may be lost on people who recognize other weaknesses. Most people probably fall somewhere in between, which is why you don't see much of this type of humor in general.

Be confident, but don't take yourself too seriously at times. That seems to be the best, but perhaps most challenging, tact...
posted by wfrgms at 11:34 AM on August 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

Are you reacting to this comment? I think it is overstated. It sounds to me like two things are going on: (1) you may be making too many jokes of that kind; (2) you may not be making it sufficiently clear that they are jokes (or they aren't good jokes). I don't know how relevant a general referendum on self-deprecating jokes is going to be for you.

Further as to #1, I think it depends on what you're trying to do. I think self-deprecation isn't necessarily a good route to gaining respect. (See, e.g., Dangerfield.) It can be a valuable way of getting people to like you, though, as you note -- especially if you might otherwise be seen as intimidating or too full of yourself.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 11:38 AM on August 17, 2008

It's the opposite.
posted by Zambrano at 11:38 AM on August 17, 2008

If you're confident, self-deprecating humor makes you appear more humble, which is good. If you're not confident, self-deprecating humor makes you look more insecure, which is not good.
posted by mpls2 at 11:45 AM on August 17, 2008 [5 favorites]

I've always thought of it as a continuum. At one end there are the people who can't joke about themselves, and would become seriously offended if a close friend tried to crack a kind-hearted joke about them. Those are the people who are full of themselves. But on the other end of the spectrum are people who are constantly engaging in self-deprecating humor, seeming to take any chance possible to drag themselves down. I've known some of those people, and it's frankly kind of awkward to be around them.

In moderation, self-deprecating humor is a sign of humility, I think. There's a definitely middle ground, the sort of charismatic person that's quite sure of themselves, but isn't afraid to laugh at themselves when they screw something up. But venture too far away from that middle ground and you're either an uptight egomaniac or the weird dude that can't stop insulting himself.

I guess it also depends on the specifics of what you're joking about, too. I'll sometimes joke about my 'quirks,' various little things that make me who I am, and are ripe for jokes, but not really all that demeaning. On the other hand, some things might just make for awkward situations: "negative" qualities, if you will, along with anything serious. I talked with a quadriplegic who made a lot of jokes about his immobility/disability, and it was really uncomfortable, for example. Jokes about being fat are often awkward too, and I'd steer clear of any sort of psychological stuff or learning disability.

So moderate amounts of self-deprecating humor? A charming trait. But the fact that you're saying it's often misinterpreted, and the fact that other people are taking to joking about things you think crosses a line, suggests that you might be overdoing it. Perhaps try toning it down a little and see how it goes. But definitely don't cut it out 100%: the ability to joke about yourself is definitely a positive quality.
posted by fogster at 11:47 AM on August 17, 2008

I've thought recently about the people I know that everyone seems to respect and trust, and I can't think of instances where any of them engage in this sort of humor.

Eh, there are people I respect and trust but whom I can't think of joking much at all - self-deprecating or otherwise.

I've been sort of amazed at the number of times I make a joke about myself and people seem to take it seriously.

Perhaps you could adapt your jokes to be obvious jokes with a self-deprecating element, rather than being entirely self-deprecation.
posted by Mike1024 at 11:48 AM on August 17, 2008

Self-deprecation can be charming and warm, but it's easy to get it wrong and undercut yourself.

Think about whether it's a realistic concern that you will be too intimidating without the self-deprecation. Are you physically imposing? Do people seem to be intimidated by you at other times?

Self-deprecation works in domains where people already see you as clearly powerful or dominant. Eg if you are a hugely imposing mathematician, then you can joke about a dumb arithmetic error you made. But if you are just an average person, joking about your bad arithmetic enough might just lead listeners to say "huh, s/he's bad at arithmetic".

In workshops about professionalism for women, one of the common recommendations is to avoid self-deprecating humor for exactly the reasons you describe. There's a fine line between self-deprecating humor and just running yourself down. Especially at work, running yourself down will just lead people to believe you. (Unless you are the hugely charismatic boss, or the acknowledged office genius, or whatever.)

You say you're shy and a bit standoffish. This doesn't sound imposing to me, it sounds like people might not be sure what to think about you. And then you're giving them negative things to fill in that vacuum.

If you think it's not working for you, try to stop. See what it's like if you don't engage in any self-deprecation for a week or two.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:50 AM on August 17, 2008 [11 favorites]

Just my personal story of self-deprecation, ignore or skim as you see fit:

I used to do this a lot. A lot a lot. I was very shy growing up, but around middle school I started gaining confidence and using humor as a way to interact socially. I definitely wasn't one of the popular kids but I could get good laughs poking fun at the popular kids- even they thought it was funny most of the time.

As I got into HS and college, I did a lot of the self-deprecating stuff, especially around girls. I had gained a lot of confidence in myself, but I still really wasn't comfortable in the ROLE of someone who's confident, if that makes sense.

Now I have stopped doing it almost entirely. It started to feel disingenuous. In the same way Jon Stewart above knows he isn't really fat, I knew there wasn't anything horribly wrong with me. I don't believe bad things about myself anymore, or at least I strive not to. So pretending I did started to feel like either a plea for sympathy or worse, a way of forcing myself back into the role of that shy, awkward kid.

The fact is, I feel like I'm good at the things I have chosen to do with my life. I try not to be arrogant, but if someone asks me directly, I will them: "yes I do think I'm a good writer. There's always room for improvement, but if I didn't feel like I had some talent at it, I would do something else." For me, this feels more honest than false self-deprecation.

So, should you be self-deprecating? I can't answer that question. I'm just some dumbass on the internet.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:52 AM on August 17, 2008 [6 favorites]

Thanks for all the answers so far. . .they've been really helpful. One of the things that prompted the question was a conversation with friends where we debated whether you can take what people say abou themselves at face value. I almost never take what people say about themselves at face value - I watch what they do and how they live to draw my conclusions about them. But after having several friends insist that they take much of what people say at face value, I began to wonder if people were doing that with my own self-deprecating comments. I figured that people would hear those comments, but then also see my life and weigh my strengths against my joked-about weaknesses. But now I'm not so sure about that and wonder if I'm just giving people the wrong impression of me.

There are some things that I joke about that may be awkward to some people, and I should cut that down somewhat. But I can't ever imagine becoming the type of person who could project the Omni-Aura of Instant Intimidation. . .I fundamentally CAN'T take myself that seriously. So I guess I'll have to find the middle ground.
posted by sherlockt at 12:38 PM on August 17, 2008

For what it's worth,
I've recently been left by someone who didn't like how open I was about my faults. I'm confident, witty, but often childish. This "fault" – I don't agree that it is one – makes some treat me without respect. This lack of respect is not as big an issue for me as, say, a bar owner or UFC fighter. In fact, I often find I can remain ahead of these meatheads by subtle means; sarcasm, suggestion, beating them on a pool table. I basically use the "self deprecating" (can we use "SD" now?) style to acknowledge my failings, be funny, accept what I can't change, and lure assholes into showing themselves.

Anyway, I've started wondering what effect this might have on those who are actually investing in me, either business or love or DNA (thanks, Dad, if you're still reading my comments. You bastard.). This thought hit me while watching one of Derren Brown's NLP mindtricks. Here you see the power of suggestion at its finest (and probably of having no friends in school).

I'd always joke with my ex that we'd split up when she moved back to Hawaii, because I couldn't compete with sand or pineapples. Two days before she went back there (for just six weeks, this time) she dumps me. Now there was also another highly emotional circumstance – to do with factors that I couldn't influence – that was in play here, so this is not the complete story, but I do wonder about whether the continual repetition of "we are going to split up" and "I can't compete" jokes remained swilling about somewhere inside her very pretty head.

How often did my bosses (bar owners etc.) pass me up for promotion or raises because of my lack of external pride? Do girls find me less attractive when I admit I'm a bit of a lush, but don't worry, my parents will die before I retire, and hopefully they'll have something saved up by then (thanks, again, Dad)? Do I convince myself of the things I say (which are, in the end, often exaggerated for the sake of humor)?

There is one obvious plus to this kind of talk, however. Used right it can lull previously careful alpha-males and -females into viewing you as nonthreatening. At this point they are likely to open up about things they rarely open up about. As a youngish British manchild in often seedy Manhattan pool halls (that's my job) this tactic has produced both respect among some ("why the fuck does he like YOU?! He Doesn't like ANYONE!"), and a lot of interesting information (you know, I have few real friends because of the alcohol, my daughters hate me, and my wife is sleeping with my godson"). Most of these hard-asses are lonely guys who haven't had a decent conversation in years, and who tell me the deepest, darkest, dirtiest shit about their lives. It's fantastic. If I had any sort of "front" I doubt that would happen.

I assume, however, this humor simply comes naturally to you. For me, I couldn't do without it. Like a streaker at Wimbledon, I feel my most interesting experiences would disappear if I covered my ugly bits. And also, regardless of what people tell you, you really DO have to have the balls to make it effective. It's brave, in a way, to be honest. And if you can make others laugh, all the better for it.

As a side note, I'd say I too have the surprise at the number of people who do come to my defense when I'm being a little rough on myself. My father always used to agree with me... (Bastard.).

I'd agree with DrJimmy about it being a little disingenuous. If someone were to ask me if I was a good writer, I too would think I am, but be too embarrassed to say yes. Perhaps that's because I am convincing myself of the very flaws I'm joking aside. It takes me a lot longer to explain my talents than my faults. Like this, for example. Look how long this is.
posted by omnigut at 12:42 PM on August 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

People who take whatever others say at face value aren't people, they're automated telephone support systems. Nobody ignores eyes, smiles, actions, tone, pauses, clothes, wealth, upbringing...I mean, the list is endless. The type of person that you are, for example, is conscious about these subconscious impressions. They, however, do not think of them, but have to be experiencing them. If I'm wrong, and any of them are good looking and in their early twenties, please ask them to contact me. I'm a brain surgeon who's great in bed and who loves ponies and cooking. And I fight like one mean mothereffer.
posted by omnigut at 12:48 PM on August 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

In that last post "They, however, do not think of them..." is supposed to mean "your friends who say they only take face values, however, seem to ignore these thoughts..."
posted by omnigut at 12:53 PM on August 17, 2008

In my travels through corporate America, I have been subjected to a number of training/coaching/empowerment ordeals such as LobsterMitten describes.

Most of them have assessed me as "self-aware." According to the people who make ridiculously good livings training/coaching/empowering, fewer than 10% of the people they assess have this quality. Something that goes along with this, according to these people, is a self-depreciating sense of humor and a willingness to admit, even volunteer, when you don't know something. The training/coaching/empowerment people usually, but not always, say that it is bad and wrong and stupid to mention that you don't know something, and that you should never, ever make jokes about yourself because others will perceive you as "weak." (The verbs and modifiers used by training/coaching/empowering people map closely to the voice-overs on nature documentaries.)

A couple of the training/coaching/empowering people said that self-depreciating humor is helpful for team-building and making people trust you as a manager.

This is all for the realm of corporate America, and from the kind of people who make ridiculously good livings training/coaching/empowering so perhaps the answer is not a good "takeaway" for your personal life.

(If you want to be happier in the workplace, my advice is do not follow-up a training/coaching/empower session by comparing notes with your colleagues. There is a good chance you will be horrified not only by their assessment results but by what they take pride in. Also, if anyone every tries to make you look at how someone answered questions off a bunch of colored cards, just don't look.)

It is very naughty, in case you didn't know, to make jokes about one of your foibles when someone present has taken that trait - say drinking or running up debt - seriously too far.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 12:55 PM on August 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

The key to self-deprecation is not the deprecation, it's the self: that you're making a bid for attention regardless of the content. If someone does this a lot, I find it tedious rather than amusing. So OK, you can't add a row of numbers or tie your shoes or boil an egg, I mean honestly, who cares.
posted by zadcat at 1:57 PM on August 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

In other words, "aren't I adorable for my little foibles?" – and the answer is probably not.
posted by zadcat at 2:01 PM on August 17, 2008

It sound pretty clear that your humor isn't being understood the way you thought it was going to be. One reality of our world is that communication is messy and we all filter it differently with different backgrounds and sets of values and experience. You have some very specific intentions in mind when you use self-deprecating humor, so I'm wondering, are there other ways to accomplish those intents?

I eventually cut way back on the self-deprecating humor when I had this realization. I realized that another equally logical interpretation to my self-deprecating humor would be like me saying, "Hi, I'm Skwirl. I suck and you must suck even worse for wasting your time reading my sucky answer on AskMe."

Here's the deal. If your goal is to form closer relationships, then humor is a tool. Confidence is a tool. Understanding is a tool. And, and this one is very, very important: vulnerability is a tool. The deal is that, like any tools, you have to know how and when to use them correctly. Vulnerability + sincerity is a hell of a lot more powerful combo than vulnerability + humor.

Do you know how powerful it is to be the confident person at the front of the room and then, at just the right moment, when you see someone is struggling, to share your vulnerability? So, you talk to them one-on-one and tell them about how, you too, struggle with shyness, and you're still really bad at X, but you took a risk one time and found out that you're really good at Y. Then maybe you say: did you ever do something that made you feel that way?

I've been blessed in my struggle with shyness and anxiety to be able to have several of those moments and I know my life has changed for it and I am confident that I've done good for others as well.

Timing matters.
posted by Skwirl at 2:29 PM on August 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

Something that goes along with this, according to these people, is a self-depreciating sense of humor and a willingness to admit, even volunteer, when you don't know something

Sorry to the expensive trainers, but I call bs on that one. Admitting when you don't know something is a great great trait. But it's not self-deprecation. "I don't know much about that, can you teach me" is not even close to the same thing as, "I don't get that at all I'm so dumb right lol"

Oh another note: another terrible time for self-deprecation is when you're in a leadership position. I had a friend who was directing a small indie film. He was constantly putting himself and the project down. Maybe he thought he was being cute and everyone would think he was very humble. But really, everyone on the set was thinking: "why I am here, if the director doesn't even believe in his own project?" Even I was thinking that a bit, and I was his friend who already believed in his ability. If you ever find yourself in a leadership role, you owe it to the people following you to let them know that you believe in what you're doing and your own ability to do it. (It's best not to come off arrogant, but an arrogant leader you have confidence in is still better than a humble one you don't.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:32 PM on August 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

oh and if I could favorite Skwirl's answer above more than once, I would.
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:34 PM on August 17, 2008

I'm a very self-aware person. I spent the first 15-20 years of my life mostly in my head being painfully aware of all my strengths and weaknesses. Self-deprecation became a big thing of mine, but it was geniunely rooted in some pretty heavy self-confidence issues. That lead to some pretty bad decisions and self-defeating behaviour, especially within relationships. Echos of that still exist in my life, but I've grown a lot more confident and my self-deprecation no longer comes from the same place, it's a more honest look at myself without the magnifying glass. It opens confidences and lowers barriers and makes me more approachable. It hasn't seemed to stop me from progressing up the company hierarchy either and (all joking aside) I'm not an aberrant genius in my field. Some of my friends (and exes) berate me for doing it, because they know what I used to be like but I geniunely feel that self-deprecating humour is no longer a crutch.

Fwiw, it sounds like you are similar in the introspection aspect. The fact that you're asking this question already proves that you think about things like this more than most people (presumably) do. To me, it sounds like you're in the middleground that I feel like I'm on. Please don't become that go-getter guy who never 'projects weakness'. He's a douche.
posted by slimepuppy at 2:39 PM on August 17, 2008

Occasional (rare!) stories about funny mistakes you made probably have a different effect than self-deprecating comments about personal traits. The former could make people think, "He's a likeable, confident guy because he can laugh at a perfectly human mistake he made." But the latter could have the opposite effect, as others have pointed out.
posted by PatoPata at 3:41 PM on August 17, 2008

I have had such a huge problem with my own sense of self-deprecating humour at our weekly labmeetings: things go wrong in the lab all the time, for everyone. Most people just don't mention it at all and only report their Great Progress at the weekly meeting and emphasize how wonderful they are, but I have a tendency to tell the stories where I did something hilariously wrong, and laugh about it, and I'm sure this has contributed a lot to my boss' impression of me. She just doesn't get that I'm putting myself down as a joke, and I'm probably not any clumsier than others (maybe a little -- I have noticed I bump into doorways and tables more often), but I just like to emphasize my stupidity.
I have friends who likewise joke about their own forgetfulness or tendency to always be late or their messiness. It's so normal to me to laugh about yourself.
posted by easternblot at 3:43 PM on August 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I love self-deprecating humor. I instinctively like other people who use it, and regard it as a sign of strength and modesty.
However, you have to pick your audience. People who aren't very bright will tend to take it at face value. It's also way less commonly used in the brash confident USA than in other English-speaking countries, so be careful.
posted by w0mbat at 4:41 PM on August 17, 2008

It's also way less commonly used in the brash confident USA than in other English-speaking countries, so be careful.

We don't need to deprecate ourselves. We have Europeans on the internet.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:03 PM on August 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

easternblot - Your story of your lab meetings resonates with some of my own experiences. A lot of the things I joke about are things that I would assume are part and parcel of normal human experience - cooking experiments gone wrong, that date where I said something really boneheaded, frequent attempts to be more disciplined that end up crashing and burning, etc. I don't REALLY believe I'm much worse than average in these areas, but I joke about them because, well, they're part of the funny stuff that makes humanity so. . .human. But like you said about your boss, sometimes people take these stories as gospel truth about who you are, and from then on you become "that guy who can't cook" or "the man who always says stupid stuff on a date".
posted by sherlockt at 5:32 PM on August 17, 2008

I engage a lot of self-deprecating humor, because, to be honest, it's a rich vein of material. However, I have noted that if you bang on a particular subject long enough, other people feel that it's a ripe vein for them to joke at your expense. If you're OK with this, that's fine; if not, cut things you know you'd be sensitive about from your "routine."

I work with people who have told me that they continue to use me because my jokes about my foibles make them a little easier to live with, though, to be clear, it would be better to not have foibles at all.
posted by maxwelton at 6:33 PM on August 17, 2008

I find self-deprecating humor a sign of strength, but I think it depends entirely on the delivery. If someone is normally confident and straightforward, their funny stories in which they pulled some goofball blunder come across as "Hey, I can laugh at myself and it's no big deal if you laugh at me too". Which is quite different from a timid confession of hapless ineptitude.

The people who take self-deprecation at face value may be responding to the delivery more than the actual stories. Or they may have other reasons for wanting to see you in a less than flattering light - social dynamics are so complicated it's impossible to know without being there. But I've known quite a few bosses and executives who told extremely funny stories about their own pratfalls and nobody ever thought less of them. Perhaps the difference is that these people tended to be confident to the point of brassy when they weren't ragging on their own bloopers, and the overriding impression they gave was of assurance and competence. A few gaffes didn't make a dent in that.
posted by Quietgal at 7:17 PM on August 17, 2008

I find that this type of humor works best when it is taken to ridiculous levels.

Fixing a copier:

Lame: "Aww, gee, I'm *sure* I won't fix this on the first try, ha ha."

Funnier: "Let's see how bad I can screw this up!"

Even funnier: "Well, I think that's about it. I'll test it now. Get the hardhats!"

Think about the tone and frequency that Letterman uses it.
posted by gjc at 8:22 PM on August 17, 2008

If you're telling them something they don't know, you're doing it wrong.

First, it has to be funny.

Second, it has to be something they have likely already noticed. Making fun of yourself shows that you know your faults and are completely comfortable with them.

If you have crooked teeth, and you make a joke about it that shows you're completely cool with your teeth, people will see you as confident and self-assured. They will feel comfortable with your flaws if you feel comfortable with them.

So, making a joke about how your thighs are fat and you really hate them or telling a story about you messing up a turkey a year ago are bad examples of self-deprecating humor.

A good example is if you showed a nipple by accident. You joke about it then and there and it makes the situation much less awkward, and puts you back in control.

It's not appropriate at work. The majority of humor isn't.
posted by sondrialiac at 8:30 PM on August 17, 2008

It might be that there's a difference between self-deprecation, and self-deprecating humor. A lot of times, even when the person isn't seeking it, they'll put themselves down and everyone else will then feel obliged to say how it isn't true and compliment them. Sometimes it'll be based on actual sympathy, other times it'll be pity. So I suppose it's not just the self-deprecator, but who's on the receiving end of it. Like with anything, two people can interpret the same thing two entirely different ways.

But if you do it with the right kind of humor, everyone just laughs (with you) and doesn't necessarily have to follow up the quip with anything. But it actually has to be funny. And what makes for funny constitutes a whole 'nother thread.

Like the Jon Stewart example, if he were some average guy and found himself in the same situation, and then gave a sincere "I'm such a fat slob, woe is me" routine, you'd no doubt follow it up with something like, "No, you look fine!" or "Don't worry about it, we could all lose a couple of pounds"... even if you really do agree he's fat.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 8:48 PM on August 17, 2008

That type of humour smacks to me of self obsession If you have humour, then please not about you. I dislike people who focus so much on themselves.
posted by ChabonJabon at 11:22 PM on August 17, 2008

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