How Self-Deprecating Jokes Can Backfire

It works for Woody Allen and Tina Fey, but that doesn’t mean self-deprecating humour will work for you.
According to a recent Financial Times article by Lucy Kellaway, self-deprecation can “disarm others, make them forget you are scarily powerful, and lull them into liking you,” but it only works if you’re already in a position of power and authority.

Generally, people like powerful leaders who make self-deprecating jokes because it makes them seem modest, accessible, and human, which minimizes hierarchical differences between leaders and followers.

But typically when you’re working your way up from the lower rungs, self-deprecating humour just doesn’t work. An article in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology examined whether men who used self-deprecating humour had an advantage in attracting women. For a higher status man, self-deprecating humour is seen as charming, but for a lower status man, it is seen as weakness, the researchers found.

And it might backfire even more for women. One study finds that 70% of the time, the humour women use is self-deprecatory, and it usually fails. Given their relatively recent addition to the workforce, women are still not seen, traditionally, as leaders, and are subconsciously expected to be submissive. So for them, self-deprecating humour is seen, at best, as unfunny, and at worst, as a sign of being unfit for future leadership.

As the FT’s Kellaway writes:

“Self-deprecation is only dangerous if there is any chance at all that the person you are talking to might agree with it.

I learnt this from my mother. Even though she never managed to teach me how to cook, she did warn me never to diss the food I had just put on the table.

To say: “Oh dear this pasta is disgustingly soggy” simply draws the guests’ attention to how overcooked it is, which otherwise they might not have noticed. Worse, it then obliges them to say: “But no! It’s delicious.”

Self-deprecation that demands a contradiction is never OK. It boils down to neediness, which is always tiresome.

This shows where all those women in boardrooms are going wrong. The men there are not yet convinced that what they are producing isn’t the boardroom equivalent of soggy pasta.

Only when it is clear to everyone that a woman’s skill is beyond doubt will it be time for her to start telling everyone that she is useless.”

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