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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

When Self Deprecation Goes Too Far

Before Tina Fey and Chelsea Handler—and even before Joan Rivers—comedy’s queen of self-deprecation was the late Phyllis Diller. Sassy one-liners (“I once wore a peekaboo blouse—people would peek and then they’d boo”) spun out of her mouth for some serious laughs. It was funny when Diller did it—and it’s still funny when Liz Lemon does it, with her self-deprecating jabs that sizzle on the small screen.

We love people who don’t take themselves too seriously. We applaud self-deprecation. And we like to use it ourselves—especially in the office.

For example, self-deprecation can be used to keep our colleagues’ expectations for us in check. “By self-deprecating a little, you’re making sure your co-workers and employers aren’t expecting too much and you gain points for modesty,” says Mark Leary, a professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and the Director of the Social Psychology Program at Duke University.

For years, I’ve attempted to master my own self-deprecating inclinations. I kept a handful of one-liners in my pocket, which I could whip out to charm and soften any kind of awkward exchange. Then, one day at work, I made fun of my inability to spell. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember receiving an email that afternoon from one of my colleagues—a completely heartfelt but serious email—that concluded with a postscript: “You may want to rethink boasting about your spelling issues while working at a magazine!” Yikes.

Turns out, self-deprecation can backfire. It’s counterproductive in the most obvious way: People might actually start believing you. Of course there’s no hard and fast rule for when we should and shouldn’t use it—but for starters, here are three situations that demand a little self-censorship.

1. A Job Interview

This should be self-explanatory, but during interviews, nerves and the desire to be likable tend to fuel self-deprecation. Think, “Oh, don’t look at the early part of my resume—as you can tell, I couldn’t really figure out what I wanted to do with my life!” Trust me, not the way to impress a hiring manager.

Though no one likes a self-aggrandizer, don’t be modest in an interview. Practice talking about your achievements and addressing your shortcomings in a way that is realistic, that paints you in the best light possible, and that you can be comfortable with.

2. A Meeting

Know your audience. If you’re not in a high position of power, knocking yourself down in front of your boss or colleagues, whether it’s about your skills at work (learn from my mistake) or your less-than-stellar date last night, isn’t doing you any favors. Remember that promotion you want? You’re selling yourself for it, every single day.

And sure, a little humor keeps things light-hearted, but remember that, unless you’re a comedy queen (or king), self-deprecating humor can fall flat. The only thing worse than a bad joke is a bad joke about yourself.

3. When You Receive a Compliment

When someone says to you, “Great job on that presentation,” what’s your first instinct? A self-effacing “no problem”? Well, your two words should be “thank you.” Hey, someone at work is actually pointing out how awesome you are—why would you want to redirect him or her to your weaknesses?

Self-deprecation is endearing. Self-deprecation is funny. Self-deprecation reminds us that we are all flawed and that nobody has it together all of the time. But self-deprecation is tricky. And unless we are stand-up masters or have a hit television series on NBC, it’s probably wise to rethink it sometimes. Especially when we’re trying to land our dream job (or any job). Especially when we’re trying to impress our colleagues. And especially when someone is trying to focus on our strengths.

Photo of woman laughing courtesy of Shutterstock.