Friday, March 05, 2010

Comparative Loser

Many times I have conversed with a visitor who is much more famous and smarter than I am. We sit in my office and we/I try to find something of mutual interest that we can discuss. I am not a skilled conversationalist, but I can almost always find something to talk about for half an hour.

One of the things I am not tempted to discuss is the disparity in success or fame or IQ or amount of funding of whatever between the visitor and me. What would be the point of that?

It is therefore disconcerting for me when I find myself in the visitor's chair in someone else's office and they start the conversation with a series of self-deprecating statements about how they have not published as much as I have, and how I write better proposals than they do, and how they are basically not as successful as I am. This does not happen often, but it happens from time to time.

I hasten to note that this is not because I am so awesomely famous or well funded. My usual description of myself is "reasonably successful" as a scientist, and I think that is accurate.

I do not think the self-deprecation is a form of false modesty. The self-deprecating person is genuinely ripped up about their lack of productivity. I think these conversations stem more from insecurities than from anything specific about me or my career.

Even so, what I am supposed to say when confronted with these types of statements? I am more than willing to have a conversation about proposal strategies or ideas for new directions in research, or even to have a group wallow about some aspect of Science or Academia that is particularly controversial or nerve-wracking. If the self-deprecating person is a stressed out early career professor, I can go into mentor mode, if that seems to be a useful way to go. Otherwise, I try to steer the conversations to research-related topics that might be of mutual interest, or I ask a lot of questions.

It is possible that some "successful" visitors will want to tell you how amazing they (think they) are, but in the absence of such a conversational foray, here is a gentle request to those scheduled for an individual meeting with a visiting speaker:

Even if you feel that you are orders of magnitude less successful than your visitor in some professional capacity, even if you have the most raging case of impostor syndrome, even if you are in awe of the towering intellect of your distinguished visitor, and even if you can think of nothing more fabulous than being a short, unprepossessing middle-aged female science professor like your visitor, please tuck away these feelings and talk about Science or Students or Something else other than your (relative) lack of success.

Some visitor's egos may need continual care and stoking, but I think you will feel better, and everyone will have a more interesting half hour, if self-deprecation, whatever the reason for it, is not a major feature of the conversation.

26 comments:

Charl P. Botha said...

I disagree with your conclusion.

How about taking the gesture at face value, in fact just accepting your role as more experienced and successful by certain standards and giving some useful advice? The fact that your conversation partner is putting him/herself in this role might just indicate that they would genuinely appreciate your input. At least that's what I would think, long before coming to the conclusion that it's a strangely convoluted ego-stroking exercise.

Anonymous said...

While this has never happened to me (on either side) it seems to me that they are giving you a complement. So the proper thing to say is "Thank you" and move on from there.

Aurora said...

Good point FSP. No sense in exhibiting insecurities to a visiting speaker. Limit to acknowledging and congratulating the visitor for his/her accomplishments.

John V said...

I agree with Aurora. Most visitors can withstand unlimited and farfetched compliments, it is the self-deprecation that is sometimes the problem. Ditto for a litany of complaints, back-stabbing gossip, just like any conversation.

Self-depreciation is best suited to avoid the impression of being insufferable to someone who might well have that impression.

female Science Professor said...

I could be wrong, but a compliment (whether sincere or ego-stroking) would be a statement such as "You have published many interesting papers". I don't see it as a compliment if someone sighs and says "I know I should have published more papers but.." (list of reasons why they didn't). That's what I find disconcerting to hear when sitting in the office of someone I don't know.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure it varies, but I bet some of those who are self deprecating are (clumsily) trying to ask for advice about how to be more successful scientists. It's easier/less intimidating to ask a "reasonably successful" senior scientist than a superstar which may be why you get this a lot. I'm sure you are aware of that though and that there are also people who are just trying to suck up or something...

Anonymous said...

I first experienced this on one of my job interviews, where I spent most of my meetings with faculty being confronted with "why should I talk to you when its clear you would not take a job in our Department because you also interviewed in Department X". This sort of aggressive inferiority complex is especially bizarre in a Department that should be in recruiting mode. It also can make a seminar trip much less enjoyable, when everyone spends the entire time complaining.

The one plus: it reminds me I am at a generally great place where people enjoy what they do and like their colleagues and the University. Of course we complain, but try to restrict it to within the "family"

Mark P

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me that FSP's advice about (a) not doing this to a more senior visitor, and (b) thoughts on how to handle the situation as the visitor is very good!

As to why this situation might arise...

I don't know if this would apply to most situations, but perhaps young, frustrated, stressed, embarrassed profs need somebody to vent/explain their situation to. (Not everybody is lucky/savvy enough to have made strong mentor connections along the way!) Most of the time, they may feel a need to put up a successful, positive front to their colleagues, both at their institution and in their field, as they wouldn't want to give any negative impressions to anybody who might directly have influence over the tenure decision. Perhaps FSP presents an aura of a good listener and seems to fill a gap in their professional lives, if only for a few minutes?

I guess young faculty may alternatively feel like they deserve to be gently chastised for their poor performance and miss this motivational aspect from their previous work environment.

Also, sometimes people may feel like they're being treated "better" than they deserve, and it just doesn't "feel right" to them to assume that they are on FSP's level without something being verbally stated in the open.

Whatever the reason, I would imagine that these young faculty feel a little better after venting to FSP, even though they most likely know if was not a GOOD MOVE.

Doug Natelson said...

Some people are self-deprecating as a verbal tick. I can think of one very prominent person in my field who begins almost every talk with an apology about how lame and terrible the talk is going to be. It's not an attempt to fish for compliments or an expression of genuine insecurity (I don't think so, anyway) - it seems much more like a way to get the audience's attention.

Anonymous said...

I generally have no tolerance for self-deprecation in any aspect of life. My instinct is to walk away from the conversation. There is a difference between "I suck - you are awesome" and even a failing attempt at asking for advice from or complementing someone you aspire to be.

amy said...

I know a couple of people like this - one a friend from grad school, and one a family member. I agree that it's not false modesty -- they really feel bad about their own standing, especially when faced with someone more successful. Both of these people are women and they tend to feel worse when they talk to other successful women than when talking to men. It's sad, but also annoying to deal with because everything ends up being about them. I can't have any good thing happen in my life without both of them jumping immediately to a comparison with themselves, which makes me hesitant to share any good news with them. I have seen my friend from grad school act this same way to female visitors whom she has only just met. In her case, I think it's a combination of two things: a feeling of inferiority (which many of us are prone to), and a lack of boundaries. She has no sense of what's appropriate in a professional context, and she shares intimate details of her life with anyone and everyone.

I agree with your strategy: just steer the conversation to something substantive that you're both interested in.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if you notice this happening more often with female faculty. I personally have seen many female assistant professors 'whining' in front of visitors about how they should be writing more grants, publishing more, or making efforts to being more visible, but rarely a male. I'm an assistant FSP myself, and it kills me when one of my FSP colleagues starts whining in public.

Hope said...

This self-deprecation would be such a turn-off for me. I’ve heard of very successful people making self-deprecating remarks at the opening of a talk; I think this is a strategic move and different from what FSP is writing about. Really, I’m surprised that faculty behave like this … really surprised!

Perhaps, FSP, you’re wrong that this is not false modesty. They may not think of themselves as your equal, but maybe what they’re after, in the end, is for you to reassure them that they’re not really as bad as they think – that they’re being too hard on themselves, etc. In which case, it must really burn them that you refuse to play along – good for you!

Jacob said...

Pop psych warning...

People tend to compare up not down (millionaires don't consider themselves rich) and we have a tendency to perceive the way things "should" be rather than how they are.

Some people deal with this extraordinarily well, others very poorly. Faculty positions are often high stress, and tend to be occupied by people who have been traditionally high achievers and who may therefore feel compelled to find an excuse when they don't live up.

If you are visiting you may be seen as the safe person to vent on. It's not fair, or right, but, again, not all people are good at dealing with shortcomings-real or imagined. Guide the conversation away if possible, or preempt it by hinting that you write a blog and are always on the lookout for new material.

Thinkerbell said...

I kinda like what Jacob has to say on the matter, re. the comparing 'up' instead of 'down'.

I know I myself make self-depricatng remarks. At least, in the eyes of some other people. In my own eyes they are sometimes sarcastic or ironic, or even FALSE modesty. Apparently others assume I have low self esteem. I am actually quite autonomous and very well aware of what I can and cannot do. I myself appreciate a good decent (not over the top whining of course) self-depricating remark over any bragging 'see how good I am' self-absorbed arrogant attitude.

Anonymous said...

the self deprecating thing seems very unprofessional to me and I would be annoyed at someone doing it at me, especially when we barely know one another (as in the case of a visitor). It comes off as sounding like they are fishing for a compliment from you. But even if they're not it just seems unprofessional. Furthermore if it comes from women, who are usually already less aggressive and self-promoting than men, they do NOT need to further hurt themselves this way (I'm a woman by the way)

female Science Professor said...

I agree that this phenomenon may in some cases be related to the tendency of some people to make self-depracating remarks in talks, but there are differences in terms of who tends to do this in talks vs. in one-on-one conversations with me.

In fact, in my experience, it is most common for the self-deprecator to be a middle-aged man, perhaps because that affords the most direct comparison in age with me. Younger professors, especially women, tend to just ask me for advice directly in these one-on-one conversations.

Anonymous said...

self deprecating comments made by a speaker at the beginning of the talk (even if he is a middle aged white guy) are also annoying to me. It's like, what are you trying to get at, it's not all about you and what we think of you ("I am SO famous that everyone must be SO intimidated by me that I must lower myself a bit by making self deprecating comments). just get on with the content already.

Ms.PhD said...

Interesting post.

This happened to me on an pseudo-interview visit, where I was clearly junior to the two people who were doing it.

One was female, one male, both recently hired.

I had no idea how to respond. I tried to change the subject, repeatedly, but it really got on my nerves.

I don't care if they're fishing for compliments or if it's genuine insecurity, I'm not a therapist (although people seem to treat me like one an awful lot of the time??).

And I felt awkward giving them advice even when I had experience with some of the things that were troubling them. I wondered if I sounded arrogant.

I also wondered how they had faculty positions if they were so openly insecure and so clearly unprepared for the job.

This is when it first occurred to me that impostor syndrome might be the current "it" quality of science - like being thin is to modeling?

Anonymous said...

I wonder if this deep seated insecurity that so many faculty seem to have (which can manifest as self deprecation or as aggressiveness) is because the nature of academia is that each professor has to make their own isolated journey in their career. They may have students and postdocs working under them, and they may have peers and collaborators, but professors don't have team mates that they work side by side with consistently. Unlike say, in industry where you work in teams and there is a lot of interdependency that fosters collegiality. whereas in academia, someone who is your collaborator one day is your competitor or rival the next day. the academic's path is an individual one and there is no sense of shared purpose because each faculty member is on their own personal quest to do whatever it is they are doing. thus I can see how this leads to a lot of insecurity because of the feeling that everyone is alone.

EliRabett said...

Imposter syndrome has always been the driving force for scientists.

female Science Professor said...

Our career paths are isolated in the sense that there must be a substantial part of our research that is clearly initiated by each as an individual (even if the work is done by a group). And certainly there are professors who work alone or with a limited set of collaborators, but many of us work closely with colleagues, including some who are long term collaborators. This is not unusual and it is very much like having 'teammates'. It may be easier to develop a 'team' after tenure, when you don't have to worry so much about getting specific credit for your research.

Ms.PhD said...

re: self-deprecating in a talk - I was explicitly taught not to ever do this. It would be like coming out of "character" onstage.

Maybe that's also why I don't understand why people would do it in a professional conversation. Aren't we all supposed to "act" the part all the time when we're on the job?

Or as one of my "mentors" put it- don't let your guard down.

Anonymous said...

It may be easier to develop a 'team' after tenure, when you don't have to worry so much about getting specific credit for your research.

I tend to agree with the Anon@12:00 Am however, and disagree with the above statement by FSP. having worked in industry myself (and now a TT associate prof) everyone I know in academia has at one point if not more, back stabbed their "team mates" to steal credit, limelight or a bigger share of the limited resources. At the other extreme, the very senior tenured profs (that I know) tend to be so laid back and relaxed that they don't function well as 'team mates' either because they don't "deliver" on time or deliver what they promised which is also infuriating in and of itself. Having worked in industry, where the pace is fast and despite interpersonal conflicts the relative lack of spotlighting individual achievement made peoples less self-centered or "prima donna" like, I find academia to be an environment that actually discourages true team work because of the emphasis on individual achievement and individual recognition even though the work has to be done collaboratively.

female Science Professor said...

I have had a completely different experience, having worked successfully with several 'teams' over the years. There have been some difficult team members from time to time, but my experiences with research 'teams' have overall been extremely positive.

Bagelsan said...

Regarding the short bursts of self-disparagement I hear predominantly from (young) women, I think I agree that it's somewhat like a verbal tic; by starting a sentence with "Sorry, but..." or "This may sound stupid but..." they aren't necessarily sorry or afraid of sounding stupid so much as establishing, verbally, "I'm a female and I'm going to sort of overstep my bounds by opening my mouth now, please don't be offended by my presumption, here goes!" (At least, that's often how it is for me -- I often open with one of those obnoxious little phrases completely reflexively and unconsciously, just as if they were an audible open parenthesis that needed to appear before any statement I make.)

As for long and involved self-disparagement, I have no clue. I've only ever been on the receiving end of a sentence or two at most from someone who isn't a friend. That definitely seems to go beyond habit or reflex into actually poor self-esteem territory. (Or maybe it *is* an extension of the shorter stuff, where the speaker isn't just establishing how rude they are to open their mouth in passing so much as rolling over to completely show their belly in an abject display of conversational submission. :p)