by Maya Shroff
Just to begin, I want to say that I hope this article doesn’t take up too much of your time. I mean I have things to say, but I have no clue if you’ll like them. And I’m no expert in writing. At all. So bear with me. Ok, so I’m just wondering if you all have noticed that I have just undersold myself here. In addition to these sentences, I tend to write emails starting with “I was just wondering if…” And in math, when I think I solved a problem correctly, I say “I’m not sure this is right but…” When I answer a question I say “I think” and then my point. I say “sorry” if someone bumps into me because clearly I was in their way.
I’ve started noticing these things I do unconsciously. Why am I asking permission to speak? Why am I apologizing when I’m not sorry? Why am I questioning my abilities? I, along with some other people I know, tend to use this kind of language to appear polite or humble. Although I don’t know if using words like “just” or “wonder” is actually helping; instead, they might just make us appear under qualified.
After some thought, I saw that it was both intentional and unintentional. Sometimes I use self-deprecation for strategic purposes. I don’t want to come off too strong or rude, so I’ll soften my language. I also think self-deprecation is a result of my self-doubt. Many times, I’m worried that I’m wrong, so I’ll downplay my answer so that if it is incorrect, it was like I predicted it all along. So, yes, I do all these things, but does it matter? I mean, isn’t this what being humble is?
It wasn’t until there was a tangible cost to my self-deprecation that I realized my definition of humility was too wide. Humility, to me, meant underselling myself just enough and being very careful not to overestimate my performance. And so when in one of my classes last year, my teacher asked for a self evaluation and an estimated grade for the quarter, I undersold myself again. That quarter was not my best; I got a couple 80’s on major assignments, so in my attempt to be honest and acknowledge that my performance could have been better and assuming there were no consequences, I gave myself a B. In my thinking, I didn’t include the hours I spent studying or the extraordinary effort I put into the class. After a long year, I found out that since I evaluated myself so low, my final grade was lowered by a letter grade.
While disappointing, this experience became a valuable lesson for future, more important, situations. For example, it made me reevaluate how I express myself to others. Small things like going over my email drafts taking out all instances of “just” and “I was wondering.” Or trying new ways to express empathy and warmth for others without using apologetic language. For instance, instead of saying sorry for taking up someone’s time, I try to express that I understand how busy they are and that I appreciate the time they are giving me. I’ve found that there’s a difference between humility and underselling, and it’s finding the right balance that feels most comfortable.
And while I likely haven’t done this topic any justice in this short and uninteresting article, I hope I didn’t waste all of your time.