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Maybe It's Just Me, But...: How to Be Modest

Walking the line between bashful and bombastic.

Think about the last party you attended. I'm sure there was at least one guy who went on and on about the big account he just landed or his giant house renovation. No matter how great you may have thought he was, I'm sure it didn't compare to how great he thought he was! There were probably some other partygoers who were just as successful and yet avoided trumpeting their accomplishments. All else being equal, we normally think highly of such modest types—and assume they don't think too highly of themselves.

It seems that modest people underestimate their achievements and talents—and sincerely downplay them in public. If they truly realized how good they are, how could they appear humble to the rest of us? If modesty required dishonesty, that would certainly take the bloom off the rose.

But a recent article by Irene McMullin in Philosophical Quarterly questions this line of thinking and asks us to reconsider what it means to be modest.

McMullin argues that modest people must be aware of their good qualities, precisely so they know to downplay them. For example, imagine Jane, a well-known filmmaker. If Jane doesn't realize how amazingly successful she is compared to most, she's likely to talk ad nauseam about her box-office hits and Cannes awards, unaware of how this makes people feel. It's the paradox of modesty: You must realize how good you are to know how to avoid insulting others.

This sentiment is echoed by fellow philosopher (and fellow PT blogger) Aaron Ben-Zeév, who argues that modesty involves self-awareness joined with a belief in the intrinsic equality of people. The modest person knows he or she has some stellar qualities, but at the same time knows these qualities are to some extent beside the point. That's what allows Bill, a Fortune 500 CEO, to chat with John, the janitor in his building. Even though Bill earns more money, commands more power, and is generally more successful than John, he realizes that, deep down, he and John are of equal worth and dignity.

But superstars like Jane and Bill can go too far, too. We resent excessive modesty—such as when someone seems to be "protecting" us from his or her achievements—almost as much as we do false modesty—that which seems decidedly less than sincere. As Goldilocks might say, there is a "just right" amount of modesty. Long before the three bears, Aristotle wrote that a virtue resides in the "golden mean" between extremes.

Take courage, for instance: Running away at the first sign of danger is not courageous, but neither is running toward it, which is foolishness. True courage means striking a balance—using one's practical wisdom to know when to face danger and when to back away.

The virtue of modesty, then, requires a similar balancing act between boasting of one's accomplishments and hiding them from view. These extremes have one thing in common: They deny other people the respect they deserve. A falsely modest person makes others squirm when he claims the virtue while flouting it. For instance, when someone whom we know is a Harvard grad says with a wink that he attended "a little college in Cambridge," we cringe. He knows we're aware of his pedigree, and in glibly pretending to not display his feathers, he ends up preening even more.

By the same token, when an overly modest person more sincerely avoids talk of an accomplishment, she implies that the rest of us are too fragile to even hear about it. Take Jane, the filmmaker, at a dinner party. When the topic of her recent big movie comes up, what should she say to be truly modest? Of course, she shouldn't quote the rave reviews or mention the sold-out theaters. But neither should she deny her achievements outright with comments such as, "Oh, I don't direct very well." No matter how demurely she says it (unlike the winking Mr. Harvard), the other guests will likely feel insulted—as if Jane must prevent them from viewing their own inadequacies in relief.

Instead, Jane could acknowledge her feat but downplay it ("Thank you, it took years to make it"), show her gratitude to others ("The support I receive from friends helps so much"), or divert the conversation elsewhere, possibly highlighting something that she struggles with ("Thanks, but what about your new book—I wish I could write like that!"). Any of these would show that she puts her success in the proper context. She's not denying it, but acknowledging that it doesn't make her a better person than anyone else—just better at one thing (and perhaps worse at others).

On the surface, modesty seems to be focused inward, on how people think of themselves. But as it turns out, it's more about how one sees and respects others. To be truly modest, you shouldn't deny your own triumphs. In fact, you have to be more cognizant—and considerate—than ignorant.

In the end, virtue does rely on honesty. I'm proud to have come to that conclusion, if I do say so myself!

Read Mark D. White, Ph.D.'s, PT blog: Maybe It's Just Me, But...