'No, I swear, if you saw my face you'd wonder what all the fuss was about.' Photo: Karin Smeds
I was recently hanging out with a friend’s child and was rather dismayed by our interaction. No, she wasn’t rude or unruly. No, we didn’t come to verbal fisticuffs over whether ‘tis nobler to be a Belieber or a Directioner'. But when I told her she had a lovely singing voice she replied, “No, I don’t. There are lots of other kids at my school who are much better.” Wait, what’s that pain?! Oh, only my heart breaking! It was so sad to see that at such a young age she’d already been socialised to display false modesty about her talents. My distress also came from the fact that I could easily imagine how she’d come to think this was the correct thing to do, as I recognised in her reaction how many of my accomplished, intelligent pals act – and indeed how I myself act in my weaker moments. I hear friends who when they get a deserved promotion talk about how lucky they are. I hear friends describe themselves as “just” a mother. There’s a very real and intense discomfort for many women in taking credit for their accomplishments which leads to the question – why are we so bad at bragging?
Though saddening, I could understand this little girl’s reticence. We grow up on the playground hearing whispers of “Oh, her. She’s up herself. She thinks she’s so good.” With being good at something – anything! – being treated like some sort of heinous crime, it’s not surprising that so many of us downplay our achievements or go to grand lengths to act like they sprung fully formed with no effort at all on our part. Much of it can be traced back to childhood socialisation says consulting psychologist, Prue Laurence. “Girls are socialised to be more modest than boys and it is more acceptable for boys to talk about themselves and their achievements.” Simply put, a female bragging violates gender expectations.
There can also sometimes exist an unhealthy culture among females of bonding through self derision – most of us have probably heard or been drawn into conversations of “Oh, I hate my thighs” to which we all know the correct expected response is “They’re not fat! You should see my [insert another part of body that we are all supposed to hate].” While I do think most of us grow out of these insecurities or make a conscious decision to stop chipping away at our self esteem just to make small talk, it can still be a hard habit to break. One of the best decisions I ever made was to learn to graciously accept a compliment. Now when I get praised I simply smile and say thanks, whereas when I was younger I would have all but challenged them to a televised debate on the topic of “Does Nicole’s hair look good today?”
And while we might no longer be in the schoolyard, a quick look to Twitter shows that even when you grow up there’s still a stigma attached to publicly acknowledging anything positive about yourself. With the rise of the humblebrag hashtag, even the faintest whiff of a boast is called out and derided. But is it any surprise that we have to resort to the back door brag when tooting your own horn is considered such thoroughly unladylike behaviour? Women are stuck in a catch-22 situation when it comes to openly acknowledging their achievements, because a wealth of research has found that while self promotion makes oneself look more competent and is therefore an asset in getting ahead, women who behave in this confident and assertive manner are perceived more negatively than men who engage in this behaviour. So instead we reject and deflect our achievements even though this can lead to repercussions in the workplace. “It is potentially career limiting to not assert ourselves in terms of talking about our achievements and successes,” says Laurence. “How will we get noticed if we don’t? Many jobs are not advertised and sometimes people are promoted because of their relationships and networks.”
Laurence suggests that ultimately the answer is to challenge these gender stereotypes by not putting ourselves down and also to throw out the very word ‘brag’ as it reinforces the negative connotations in speaking up for ourselves. “Women need to own their achievements, as men do. Women need to be proud of what they can do, as men do. And everyone needs to stop seeing it as bragging in order to change the connotation that bragging is negative.” And maybe if we can stop seeing it as bragging, and start seeing it as a fair assessment and acknowledgement of our strengths and talents, little girls of the future will proudly be singing a different, less self-effacing tune – and not denying any compliments they receive along the way.