The self-deprecating humour conundrum

Graphic Jenny Kwan

Self-deprecating humour is a tool I use a lot in my daily life. Chances are, you’ve heard me make fun of my unfortunate clumsiness and sometimes-awkward demeanor.

As I grow older and start to take on more important tasks in my life I have begun asking myself whether my self-deprecating ways are actually affecting the way people view me. Does this talk allow manipulative people an opening to take a jab? Does it open the window for people to make unwarranted criticisms and scrutinize me for the sake of their own egos?

The role of self-deprecation is an actual topic being discussed and studied. Researchers at Seattle University recently conducted a study on their undergrads in which they were presented a list of descriptions about a new boss joining a fictitious company. The description that showed his self-deprecating side was most popular with the students, because they felt he seemed to be “a more likable, trustworthy, and caring leader.”

According to the article in INC. Magazine, “Self-deprecating humor enhances perceptions of leadership ability because it tends to minimize status distinctions between leaders and followers.”

I am always meeting new people, and often find myself in leadership situations. This type of humour is my way of trying to make myself approachable and open to others. I also want to be likeable…there, I said it.  However, this is where I have noticed it can become dangerous. I can’t help but feel that these comments, quips, and jabs at myself should only be used around those who I know are sincere, and when I have control of the situation.

I find it important to be able to poke fun at yourself. I usually feel more comfortable around people who can, because it shows a sort of acceptance of one’s weaknesses, which we all have. Someone who thinks they know it all and jumps at your throat the minute they get the chance to correct or criticize are the most exhausting to be around. This is not called “tough love,” it’s being rude.

Maybe the reception of the humour also has something to do with gender? The Guardian reports that linguistics expert Dr. Judith Baxter did an 18-month study into the speech patterns of women and men from seven big companies in the UK. She studied the language used at 14 meetings led equally between women and men.

She found that most of the time, humour used by men was met with better reception than humour used by women. Also, women were much more likely to use self-deprecating humour, as it is a safer option to poke fun at themselves. Baxter also mentioned the fact that men have traditionally held the “leader” position in the business world, and women are still claiming their place.

This suggests a broader issue in terms of a woman’s place in the work field. However, in terms of using self-deprecating humour overall, I think there is a general rule: there is a time and place for everything, regardless of who you are.

It’s a double-edged sword, because I want to be myself around others, however this also opens me up to the wrath of megalomaniacs. I personally see nothing wrong with using a little bit of self-deprecating humour, being funny is an asset. However, I just can’t help but feel it is important to be careful of your environment and whom you’re speaking too. You also don’t want it to be misinterpreted as self-doubt; no one wants to be the human version of Eeyore.

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