A deeper look at self-deprecation


A deeper look at self-deprecation

Your flaws make you good - see why it's the new social currency of the narcissist?

By Vatsala Chhibber  April 13th, 2015

My nose cannot be called petite. It is pear-shaped, takes up a good amount of face, and can do a mean ear-to-ear stretch. But if you live outside of Rwanda, to find it a thing of beauty is somewhat of an acquired taste. All this I did not know till a post-puberty visit to my grandparents’ home, where I was greeted with an enthusiastic “Ah, the family nose is here.” The only way of dealing with the misfortune I found, was to pay it no attention and bring it to no one’s attention. Breathe lightly, sneeze sparingly and lay low during those “Should I get my nose pierced?” discussions, which, sadly, were fast gaining popularity. Until, one day, I heard a fat classmate make a fat joke. About himself.

It wasn’t very clever, something about him being pregnant with twins, but hilarious for a time when Cyrus Broacha brought us cutting-edge comedy. Everyone roared with laughter (tubby, the loudest), and suddenly, his button-popping circumference didn’t seem as pitiable as two seconds ago, and my dearest form of amusement — watching someone trip and fall disgracefully — was no longer a guilty pleasure. Over the years, I found others ribbing on their large bottoms, meagre bosoms, wobbly thighs, giant buckteeth, even crumbling marriages —  and with my typically risible circumstances, I was always free to join in, and unlike Russell Peters, never repeat material.

But self-deprecation is not just a safety blanket for those being pooped on by the gods —  it is an LBD you can wear to almost any occasion, depending on how you accessorise: creative self-bashing, with some punches thrown at your family, can win you an Emmy (Louie) or puncture deadly zingers (Kendall Jenner preserves crowdsourced hatred in her Burn Book).

The millenials, realising the latent potential of self-deprecation, have dragged it off sitcom sets and stand-up stages and made it their own. For Alia Bhatt, reminding the world of a forgotten gaffe in AIB’s ‘Student Of The Year’ video allowed her to waltz away from national shame. This wry, British brand of humour has earned a following in the unlikeiest places, with even the perpetually poker-faced Kim Jong-un choosing to adopt this dangerously western trend, instead of banning it. (His response to a five-year-old admitting to having seen him on TV was “It must have been no fun.” For North Korean humour, this is groundbreaking.)

But users of self-deprecation no longer look the way they used to. What was once the playing field of oddballs like Woody Allen and Larry David, is now finding a flood of new, confident and strangely well-put-together entrants like  Selfish author Kim Kardashian, who took a dig at her fabulously vacuous life for a Superbowl commercial earlier this year. It does seem odd for the unaplogetically vain to suddenly resort to unsparing self-parodies. Have we all just agreed to let our self-esteems dip to dangerously low levels? Do we only love our selfies and secretly loathe our selves? Not even close. This cultural migration to below-average should point at a socialist uniformity of egos. Except, it doesn’t. The Me Generation have found that they share a common love with self-deprecation — the ‘self’. Arrogance is unbecoming, but an inferiority complex allows you to be self-absorbed in a whole new, socially acceptable way. You remain the focus of spotlights and the topic of conversations, and nobody seems to mind as much.

Self-deprecation doesn’t come in the way of narcissism; in fact, with self-deprecation 2.0, you can highlight your flaws when you have none (we’re looking at you, Jennifer Lawrence), thereby bringing more attention to the fact that you have no flaws. J-Law accidentally fumbling and cussing on every red carpet, and insisting she’s a talentless actor with gross armpit vaginas has long stopped being endearing. For power-holders, self-raillery is a quick, painless replacement for an apology. At last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, for example, Barack Obama brushed past his poor performance with: “In 2008 my slogan was, ‘Yes we can’; in 2013, it was ‘Control-Alt-Delete.’” 

Self-mocking in front of millions is no longer a monopoly of the famous, either. Twitter hashtags, increasingly suited for personal ridicule, allow you to share your woes and wisecracks with more than a dinner-table audience of five. Spending your birthday with a ‘Dance Party For One’ 8Tracks playlist? #ForeverAlone. Fasting as a Krispy Kreme employee? #RamadanProblems. Social media has evolved into a place where it is impolite, almost vulgar, to upset friends and followers with self-assured happiness. It takes me a little less than a second to share pictures of my newly dented car (and lack of driving skills thereof) but with good news, I’d rather hold back. It would stick out sorely on a  screen where grins are wide for ugly selfies, #fail tweets are generally trending and ‘25 signs you’re the most hated person in your group’ posts are finding plenty of takers.

As our timelines are gradually purged of excessive cheer and too-bright filters, the more grey, less dispiriting tone of self-deprecation fits right in. It’s reassuring, and much less irksome. Which means, even celebrities must switch gears from aspirational to relatable and  use the self-slandering potential of Twitter bios and handles to their advantage. Kesha for instance, went with her most-Googled term (@keshasuxx) and Anna Kendrick’s bio ensures if you ever meet her in person, you expect nothing more than a “pale, awkward and very, very small” person.

While self-digs can be stretched or shrivelled to fit any ego size, one misstep can needlessly magnify your blemishes. Taking the piss out of yourself, however, is not as easy as it seems. Here’s how to do it right:

1. Be a man: It works better for them because women, it appears, are suckers for low self-esteem. A study published by Gil Greengross in Evolutionary Psychology found that women believe self-deprecation in a man indicates healthy amounts of “intelligence, verbal creativity and humility”. But while we girl-crush over the cute self-vilification of Amy Poehler and Melissa McCarthy, men are quite content with their preference for big breasts.

2. Be powerful: If you’re more George Costanza than Barack Obama, flailing your shortcomings around will bring you no good lovin’. Greengross’ study also found that belittling yourself is only a good look for high achievers. And it's best worn out of the office. Telling your boss that you “never fail to make a terrible first impression” at work will just give them reason to snigger while signing your pink slip.

3. Be sincere: When you punch yourself in the gut, you have to do it like you mean it, without any protective padding. If it leaves you a little sore, you know you’ve done it right. Like the way Tina Fey remembers her skinny past in Bossypants: “Sometimes I had to sleep with a pillow between my legs because my bony knees clanking together kept me awake.”

While this embroidering of flaws restores balance in our otherwise colour-corrected reality, you don’t want to be too good at it. Enthusiastic nods every time you point out a weakness aren’t always fun, and bringing an overlooked oddity to attention might ensure you never hear the end of your weirdly misshapen pinkie toe.

When used wisely and sparingly, self-deprecation can be a strangely comforting companion — keeping your life laughable, your worries insignificant and your priorities orderly (the money from my nose job piggy bank has funded wonderful travels). Phyllis Dean, one of the first to introduce self-deprecation to stand-up comedy, said, “To refer to oneself in a negative way is always a good way to say hello to an audience.” But for now, we can only hope that Lena Dunham doesn’t overdo it and make it uncool. 

Photograph: Marcelo Krasilcic

My nose cannot be called petite. It is pear-shaped, takes up a good amount of face, and can do a mean ear-to-ear stretch. But if you live outside of Rwanda, to find it a thing of beauty is somewhat of an acquired taste. All this I did not know till a post-puberty visit to my grandparents’ home, where I was greeted with an enthusiastic “Ah, the family nose is here.” The only way of dealing with the misfortune I found, was to pay it no attention and bring it to no one’s attention. Breathe lightly, sneeze sparingly and lay low during those “Should I get my nose pierced?” discussions, which, sadly, were fast gaining popularity. Until, one day, I heard a fat classmate make a fat joke. About himself.

It wasn’t very clever, something about him being pregnant with twins, but hilarious for a time when Cyrus Broacha brought us cutting-edge comedy. Everyone roared with laughter (tubby, the loudest), and suddenly, his button-popping circumference didn’t seem as pitiable as two seconds ago, and my dearest form of amusement — watching someone trip and fall disgracefully — was no longer a guilty pleasure. Over the years, I found others ribbing on their large bottoms, meagre bosoms, wobbly thighs, giant buckteeth, even crumbling marriages —  and with my typically risible circumstances, I was always free to join in, and unlike Russell Peters, never repeat material.

But self-deprecation is not just a safety blanket for those being pooped on by the gods —  it is an LBD you can wear to almost any occasion, depending on how you accessorise: creative self-bashing, with some punches thrown at your family, can win you an Emmy (Louie) or puncture deadly zingers (Kendall Jenner preserves crowdsourced hatred in her Burn Book).

The millenials, realising the latent potential of self-deprecation, have dragged it off sitcom sets and stand-up stages and made it their own. For Alia Bhatt, reminding the world of a forgotten gaffe in AIB’s ‘Student Of The Year’ video allowed her to waltz away from national shame. This wry, British brand of humour has earned a following in the unlikeiest places, with even the perpetually poker-faced Kim Jong-un choosing to adopt this dangerously western trend, instead of banning it. (His response to a five-year-old admitting to having seen him on TV was “It must have been no fun.” For North Korean humour, this is groundbreaking.)

But users of self-deprecation no longer look the way they used to. What was once the playing field of oddballs like Woody Allen and Larry David, is now finding a flood of new, confident and strangely well-put-together entrants like  Selfish author Kim Kardashian, who took a dig at her fabulously vacuous life for a Superbowl commercial earlier this year. It does seem odd for the unaplogetically vain to suddenly resort to unsparing self-parodies. Have we all just agreed to let our self-esteems dip to dangerously low levels? Do we only love our selfies and secretly loathe our selves? Not even close. This cultural migration to below-average should point at a socialist uniformity of egos. Except, it doesn’t. The Me Generation have found that they share a common love with self-deprecation — the ‘self’. Arrogance is unbecoming, but an inferiority complex allows you to be self-absorbed in a whole new, socially acceptable way. You remain the focus of spotlights and the topic of conversations, and nobody seems to mind as much.

Self-deprecation doesn’t come in the way of narcissism; in fact, with self-deprecation 2.0, you can highlight your flaws when you have none (we’re looking at you, Jennifer Lawrence), thereby bringing more attention to the fact that you have no flaws. J-Law accidentally fumbling and cussing on every red carpet, and insisting she’s a talentless actor with gross armpit vaginas has long stopped being endearing. For power-holders, self-raillery is a quick, painless replacement for an apology. At last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, for example, Barack Obama brushed past his poor performance with: “In 2008 my slogan was, ‘Yes we can’; in 2013, it was ‘Control-Alt-Delete.’” 

Self-mocking in front of millions is no longer a monopoly of the famous, either. Twitter hashtags, increasingly suited for personal ridicule, allow you to share your woes and wisecracks with more than a dinner-table audience of five. Spending your birthday with a ‘Dance Party For One’ 8Tracks playlist? #ForeverAlone. Fasting as a Krispy Kreme employee? #RamadanProblems. Social media has evolved into a place where it is impolite, almost vulgar, to upset friends and followers with self-assured happiness. It takes me a little less than a second to share pictures of my newly dented car (and lack of driving skills thereof) but with good news, I’d rather hold back. It would stick out sorely on a  screen where grins are wide for ugly selfies, #fail tweets are generally trending and ‘25 signs you’re the most hated person in your group’ posts are finding plenty of takers.

As our timelines are gradually purged of excessive cheer and too-bright filters, the more grey, less dispiriting tone of self-deprecation fits right in. It’s reassuring, and much less irksome. Which means, even celebrities must switch gears from aspirational to relatable and  use the self-slandering potential of Twitter bios and handles to their advantage. Kesha for instance, went with her most-Googled term (@keshasuxx) and Anna Kendrick’s bio ensures if you ever meet her in person, you expect nothing more than a “pale, awkward and very, very small” person.

While self-digs can be stretched or shrivelled to fit any ego size, one misstep can needlessly magnify your blemishes. Taking the piss out of yourself, however, is not as easy as it seems. Here’s how to do it right:

1. Be a man: It works better for them because women, it appears, are suckers for low self-esteem. A study published by Gil Greengross in Evolutionary Psychology found that women believe self-deprecation in a man indicates healthy amounts of “intelligence, verbal creativity and humility”. But while we girl-crush over the cute self-vilification of Amy Poehler and Melissa McCarthy, men are quite content with their preference for big breasts.

2. Be powerful: If you’re more George Costanza than Barack Obama, flailing your shortcomings around will bring you no good lovin’. Greengross’ study also found that belittling yourself is only a good look for high achievers. And it's best worn out of the office. Telling your boss that you “never fail to make a terrible first impression” at work will just give them reason to snigger while signing your pink slip.

3. Be sincere: When you punch yourself in the gut, you have to do it like you mean it, without any protective padding. If it leaves you a little sore, you know you’ve done it right. Like the way Tina Fey remembers her skinny past in Bossypants: “Sometimes I had to sleep with a pillow between my legs because my bony knees clanking together kept me awake.”

While this embroidering of flaws restores balance in our otherwise colour-corrected reality, you don’t want to be too good at it. Enthusiastic nods every time you point out a weakness aren’t always fun, and bringing an overlooked oddity to attention might ensure you never hear the end of your weirdly misshapen pinkie toe.

When used wisely and sparingly, self-deprecation can be a strangely comforting companion — keeping your life laughable, your worries insignificant and your priorities orderly (the money from my nose job piggy bank has funded wonderful travels). Phyllis Dean, one of the first to introduce self-deprecation to stand-up comedy, said, “To refer to oneself in a negative way is always a good way to say hello to an audience.” But for now, we can only hope that Lena Dunham doesn’t overdo it and make it uncool. 

Photograph: Marcelo Krasilcic