Sorry! Sorry! Sorry! How a culture of apology holds you back

20130729134103By Caitlin Kelly

This essay in The New York Times, written by a woman raised with traditional Confucian values, really hit home for me:

Much of one’s worth is equated to compensation and promotions in the workplace. And for years, bringing up these topics and taking credit for my own work were still uncomfortable and even embarrassing.

But I realized I had to stretch myself to succeed in an environment that was so different from my cultural upbringing. Confidence was expected. And I knew it wouldn’t just spring up from a pat-yourself-on-the-back brand of puffery, but from a deeper understanding of worth and how it could be communicated in the workplace.

As I examined my background and core values, I discovered that having a perpetually apologetic stance didn’t necessarily represent true humility. I found that I could offer an honest self-portrait without being arrogant, so others would see how I could make a difference…

Throughout my career, I’ve met many other professionals who have struggled to find their worth on the job. Women and members of minority groups, especially, are often raised with one set of values and expectations, and then suddenly need to excel in a new environment where the path to success is much different.

One challenge immigrants face when moving to the United States is the sheer number of people you’ll be competing with for good jobs. Maybe not if you move from India or China, but Canada — where I lived to the age of 30 — has only 10 percent of the population of the U.S.

When I moved to the States, after having established a thriving journalism career in Canada, I felt like a raindrop falling into the ocean.

Would I ever be able to re-make my reputation? Was it even possible? How?

More importantly, though, is the brass-knuckled self-confidence you’ve got to have, (or fake successfully and project consistently), here — certainly in New York — to meet the the right people, say the right things, answer with the requisite ballsiness.

Anyone modest or self-deprecating is quickly and easily trampled by the brazen, who will become your boss.

When you grow up in a smaller place, people know you, and your family. They know the value of your university degree — not mistaking it, as happens here all the time (sigh) that my alma mater U of T (University of Toronto, the Harvard of Canada) is not the University of Texas (hook ’em, horns!)

They also get why you’re not chest-beating and telling everyone how amaaaaaaaaaazing you are — because, in some cultures, modesty is highly prized. Boasters are declasse.

Here, I had to be taught, seriously, how to interview effectively for jobs:

Lean forward in your chair! Smile! Keep their gaze! Have a 30-second elevator speech!

In Australia, they deride such overt confidence as “tall poppy syndrome” — as in, the tallest poppy will get its head lopped off. Better to be a low-lying blade of grass.

I recently had a conversation about this, with a total stranger, a woman of French origin who’s lived here for more than 40 years. Like me, she’s a sole proprietor of her business, a cafe and catering business. Like me, she still struggles with the internal messaging that boasting is ugly.

When our bolder — and more successful — competitors do it all day, every day.

How about you?

Do you feel comfortable tooting — or blaring — your own horn?

39 thoughts on “Sorry! Sorry! Sorry! How a culture of apology holds you back

  1. I’m comfortable with selling myself. I can see why humility would be a hardship other cultures might face here. Humility, especially in women, can easily be mistaken as complacency, or ineptitude.

  2. Tooting my own horn doesn’t come easy. I wasn’t programmed that way at all. Boasting was frowned upon. I recognise it’s worth when trying to promote my work but it does exact the price of not being able to do it often.
    xxx Huge Hugs XXX

    1. I recently joined Twitter and am trying to figure out how often I can self-promote there without annoying people. Socializing is fun, but 99% of the horn-tooting, for me, is meant to lead to paid work.

  3. Oh, this hits home. I really hate being around people that boast. Quiet confidence should be the aspiration, but sadly it can be too much of a moderate stance and mistaken as passive. We live in a loud culture. Just look at what Miley had to do to get noticed.

  4. themodernidiot

    I still maintain that one can have a cosmic sized ego without boasting. I think boasting is overcompensation for empty calories, and that environments that applaud it eventually prove just how useless they are.
    If boasting were truly the road to success then how does one explain Phenomenons like Andy Warhol, or Britain?
    We Americans grow up caught between the misunderstood glitz of selfish Hollywood flash and the humble and confident greatness of say: the Pope, George Clooney, Stephen Fry, CERN scientists, and our own Caitlyn Kelly.
    The media can’t decide whether it wants to create a sensationalist audience or an educated one. Maybe when they figure it out we’ll see less and less boasting in favor of substance. Sadly, the current trend is following the hype school of journalism. We’re like one big arena of gladiator games where the only truly confident participants of the spectacle are the lions sitting quietly in hungry expectation.
    If you’re great, just be great by being yourself. Confidence is something that exudes; it doesn’t require megaphones or fireworks, and it doesn’t apologize for it as you mention.
    If you are a good person, taking opportunities when the arise is what you’re supposed to do. Do we think our ancient ancestors sat around the hunt feeling guilty for shooting their food? Same thing, right?

    1. You had me at…including my name in a list with the Pope and George Clooney. Good God, woman.

      Where do I send my check?! 🙂

      I agree. It’s a weird time in the media world. Much shouting and not nearly enough substance to back it up. I had a fascinating moment yesterday on UPOD (a writers’ listserv) when I asked if anyone else was as hungry as I to stop focusing on marketing and production and talk about HOW to write better; 15 people immediately signed up and now it looks like we have a new, international group hoping to network online. It was a nice and comforting reminder that some of us do care a lot about quality. You never know until you ask.

  5. I know exactly what you mean! I just moved to San Francisco, am looking for a new job and continually remind myself to veer on the edge of boasting, use strong verbs, smile wide, and answer with perkiness in all networking interactions (basically, almost all interactions these days). My education is American, but I’ve only lived and worked in China for the last 7 years, so I’m having a little trouble re-calibrating my attitude, especially with my elevator speech. I’m a big believer in ‘fake it till you make it’ so onward until it feels comfortable!

  6. Hm, in my view it is not just culture, but also personality. In my experience, often people with the ‘loudest horns’ turn out to be worse than more modest, humble and self-critical people. Personally, I would avoid employing such ‘loud horns’ unless they can prove to me that they are as competent as they say. Actions speak louder than words.

    1. Interesting…

      But if you are living/working and competing WITH the loudmouths — and the people around you are listening to them and hiring them (i.e. to your detriment professionally)….? Sitting back quietly (however socially attractive, I agree) can really hurt you. At least here in NYC.

  7. i have a very hard time tooting my own horn. the irony, is that when i worked in the ad biz i was quite good at promoting others, just never could do the same for myself.

  8. From an early age I was expected to present my self with confidence. We were a family of achievers, and doing well meant aspiring toward, becoming disciplined and finally being successful in whatever we chose to do with our energies and lives.Being performers, we were taught to enter a stage with a strong presentation (music, dance, theater).
    I became an adult–despite serious travails along the way–who entered a room with forcefulness although quietly.The first response I got too often was that I was “rather intimidating”. The other was that I was professional “so welcome to the team”. I liked the second, not the first! I was then informed that I would make a good manager (because I was confident and “take charge”) but administration work did not appeal; I loved working directly with clients as a counselor. The fact was, I just claimed my space, my skills, my willingness to do the work. It surprised me more people were not like this…
    With writing, however, much more hard to do. I never know how I am doing until I get feedback. I just have the passion for it so put it out there. I speak up at conferences and pros in the business and work with confidence, anyway. And sometimes even get published, to my shock and joy. 🙂

    Great piece, as usual! Blow your own horn more!

    1. Thanks for sharing….our families sound similar in this respect, so I’ve never (much to some people’s horror, esp, Canadians,) lacked self-confidence in that regard. All through my 20s, when I had a dream job as a feature writer for a national newspaper, men would tell me “You’re so intimidating.” One day I really lost it and said =- No, you’re intimidated. That’s not MY problem.


  9. I had the experience of sitting in on a series of interviews when we were trying to fill a position, and a lot of the more modest applicants were dismissed without a second thought, while one applicant in particular, who had so much confidence it basically squeezed all of the air out of the room, was hired without a second thought. That guy ended up being a total nightmare and was fired after two years and countless screw-ups. (Hilariously enough, he’s now working in New York. God help you all.) I really feel like the emphasis on confidence is basically saying we’re all about the razzle-dazzle, which allows people to use their bluster to disguise some serious shortfalls in ability, judgment, etc. I think a lot of corporate types like it because it takes them off the hook for having to make serious value judgments about the person they are looking at, and they can instead make themselves feel okay about relying on the kind of snap-judgment crap that comprises 95% of job-hiring these days.

    (I have a lot of feelings about this, in case you couldn’t tell.)

    That said, I think some confidence is a good thing, especially when it comes to being willing to promote yourself and your own work so you can at the very least get it in front of people. I’ve become a lot better at doing that myself, mainly because I know it’s the path to getting what I want. But I also believe it has to be backed up by genuine talent, work ethic, and sincerity, or else confidence is sound and fury signifying nothing.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing this…what a freaking nightmare! I bet he’s one of my bosses now here in NY, where I can’t believe some of the bullshit I hear and see. I met a guy last year who, within minutes of meeting me, boasted about his two $8,000 assignments (I’ve yet to have one at that fee)…then I found one of his pieces in an old magazine. Meh. Really. WTF? Who decided he was worth (yes) sending to the Amazon…Moi, bitter? Maybe a little.

      I admire people who back it up. And, (imagine) the most extraordinary, award-winning, talented producers I meet are ALL modest to a fault. We just shut the hell UP and get on with it.

      1. I’ve actually noticed a similar trend as what you describe in your last paragraph among endurance athletes, actually. The true elites are often humble and kind, while the people who wish they were elites are the smallest, meanest people who will trample over anyone on their way to the finish line. I am repulsed by them.

        And that really, really sucks about that guy who got such a great assignment while being totally mediocre. Boo on him. I hope his toe was bitten by a piranha.

  10. Avery

    This will be the last comment that I do on this blog as I have nothing more of merit to say. I know now that I don’t know squat about writing. You were trying to be nice with your comments and I appreciate it. I quit my internship with the counseling department as I wasn’t reaching anyone and I hated my job anyway….My email is still screwed up….

    I have one thing to say…. I read your book Malled…with boasting any with this article, I read the comments on amazon. You were vilified because people who were worked in retail thought you were talking down to them by the tone in your book. I don’t think that; I think that you were simply mentioning your life experiences and how you came to this point…all of us have been affected by the economy… I am likely going to apply to a retail job…… and try to figure things out


  11. I love your article, it’s full of insight, direction and gracious ambition to be good at what you do, your blog is full of this and very inspiring!
    As a side note, having read your title, I expected to read more about apologising…which is a topic in itself. I think it is an art form which when done well can promote a person. My husband is a case in point, he has numerous stories of how he has missed important job interviews but phoned and apologised so well he was offered another chance leading to the job, he also won my mother over after having to phone her to say her daughter was in hospital with a head injury caused by mtb biking with him…but that’s another story!
    Thanks for your inspiration!

  12. Pingback: Do you feel comfortable tooting — or blaring — your own horn to get a job? | Otrazhenie

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