Jay Dixit

Brainstorm

Self-Deprecation Is a People Skill

Jay Dixit on the power of the word "psychology."

Posted Mar 14, 2008

When someone finds out I work for Psychology Today, they always react the same way. “Oh really?” they say. “Are you a psychologist?” This response is so reliable that my colleague Carlin Flora warned me about it my first day on the job.

“Ha ha, no!” I usually reply. “I’m not nearly that well educated. I’m just a journalist.” We at the magazine are not academics; many of us have undergraduate degrees in psychology, but for the most part we’re trained as writers and editors. “It’s like how you don’t have to be a chef to be a food writer,” I’ll sometimes add. “We interview experts when we’re reporting articles, but we’re not academic researchers ourselves.”

The other thing that happens is that people label you a psychology expert and probably give you more credit than you deserve. It’s like what Conan O’Brien says about how people pigeonhole him after they find out he went to Harvard:

You're in for a lifetime of "And you went to Harvard?" Accidentally give the wrong amount of change in a transaction and it's "And you went to Harvard?" Ask the guy at the hardware store how these jumper cables work and hear, "And you went to Harvard?" Forget just once that your underwear goes inside your pants and it's, "And you went to Harvard." Get your head stuck in your niece's dollhouse because you wanted to see what it was like to be a giant and it's "Uncle Conan, you went to Harvard?" (text/video)

There's something about the word "psychology" that changes the way people perceive you. My colleague Matt Hutson has written about how people are more likely to believe an explanation that mentions neurology. Maybe something similar happens when I drop the P-bomb.

When people find out I work for Psychology Today, they become hyper-attuned to the faintest trace of psychological insight in anything I say. This happens, for instance, whenever I give someone dating advice they find remotely helpful, even if the advice I provide is the most bargain-basement form of common sense. “Aha, you see!” they’ll say. “That’s why you work for Psychology Today!”

It doesn’t quite make sense. My dating advice is no better or worse than it ever was—and is probably far worse than average. But for some reason people feel an exaggerated need to connect my observational perspective to my job title. It’s funny how people attribute personality elements to you based on your job, even if those things were there all along.

Here’s another example. I recently caught up with Kien Dang, a friend from high school whom I hadn’t seen since graduation. He’d Facebooked me out of the blue, asking me how I was doing and saying he’d heard I’d left Canada and was living in New York. He’s now a psychiatrist, working at a hospital in Toronto with organ transplant donors and recipients. So when I was home in Ottawa over the winter holidays, Kien and I had dinner, along with our friend Sujatha Jahagirdar, another friend from high school who's now an environmental organizer in California. As we talked about our lives, we marveled at how different we were from the people we used to be.

“Look at you, Kien,” said Sujatha. “I mean, you’re a psychiatrist working in a hospital! Think about how far you’ve come. You got your medical degree, you specialized, you’ve developed all these people skills!”

"No, no,” said Kien. “My people skills are probably not nearly as good as you’d think.”

“Well that’s a case in point,” I said. “Self-deprecation is itself a people skill.” And it’s true. The smartest people I know are also the most humble, making others comfortable by downplaying their abilities.

They both turned to me. “Good pickup,” said Kien. “You got me!”

“See!” said Sujatha. “That’s why you work for Psychology Today!”