Toot your own horn — don’t let the modesty scam keep you down

by Debito Arudou

As per this column’s title, this month’s topic was chosen, well, “just because” it’s been on my mind.

Some weeks ago I was asked to give a speech at my current research institute. When I offered workshops on activism and racial discrimination in Japan in general, they asked for something more personal: “Tell us how you’ve made a difference in Japan.”

I said, “How can I do that without sounding boastful and self-aggrandizing?”

They had no answer. Thus this perfectly legitimate topic was oddly taboo only because I would be talking about myself. That’s when I became aware of the undermining effects of modesty and humility.

Modesty, according to dictionaries, is essentially a lack of conceit or vanity; humility is a lack of pride in oneself and a sense of deference.

These two words are associated with very positive and virtuous feelings, whereas their antonyms — arrogance, hauteur, egotism, conceitedness, etc. — are very negative. Within that contrast lies immense subliminal and normalized pressure to be humble and modest in society.

But there are negative aspects to that. Given my recent studies in sociology, where one thinks about what is “normal” in a society and what justifies the status quo, those alleged virtues can in fact be enormous barriers.

For example, if you’re giving a speech, have you ever noticed how social convention dictates that somebody else must introduce you and list up all your achievements — even if that results in omitting or misrepresenting important information? Nobody can ever know your life as thoroughly as you, yet you still can’t introduce yourself — because for some unquestioned reason you will “turn off” your audience.

For another example, if you’re doing research, you must reference other people and refrain from citing yourself — even if you’ve been the only one doing your kind of research in such breadth and depth for decades.

In Japan, the pressure to be reticent and deferential is especially strong: You essentially can never “toot your own horn” — even in job interviews! You have to wait until you are “discovered” and vouched for by others.

Mottainai — what a waste. Think of all the people you’ve come across in Japan with incredible talents who are languishing in obscurity. They remain unrecognized for all their hard work, unable to claim their rightful place in the canon simply because they’re too modest to tell people about it.

They wanly wait for others perchance to notice them, and if not, well, shikata ga nai. Years later, in seeps the twinge of regret for that effort and training for nothing.

But that happens everywhere, if you think about it. You have highly trained, disciplined and motivated individuals beavering away for lifetimes getting good at something, yet unable to make it “valuable,” i.e., lucrative (after all, you’re apparently not “professional” at anything until it earns you enough money). Why? Because most people have been raised to think that promoting oneself is egotistical.

Of course, some people get around those barriers. If you’re born with an ego the size of a rock star like Sting’s (or become a politician, where self-promotion is a job requirement — which is one reason why politicos are viewed so negatively), you’re innately impervious to the clique of critics, and switch off all that pesky modesty and humility.

Or, if you’re rich enough (and don’t want to pay the opportunistic self-help industry to help you reclaim your self-worth), you can hire a publicist, who will essentially act as the person introducing your speeches and tooting your horn.

Thus the rich inhabit a different level of “normal.” Think of the overweening and carpet-bombing publicity campaigns just before, say, Michael Jackson went anywhere. Media events revolving around people are basically modesty switcher-offers.

This is also why so many stars, celebs and politicians are able to keep their status “in the family” for generations: They have a self-sustaining publicity machine on hand to choke back the threat of obscurity. The egotists create their own elite social class because they don’t let humility and modesty get in the way.

Furthermore, consider the activists, who are at a particular disadvantage since they are not supposed to be celebrities or media hounds. They have to be self-sacrificing, fighting not for themselves but “for the cause,” rarely gaining the wherewithal (especially in Japan) to make their activism sustainable.

If due to humility (or fear of being seen as profiteering from the suffering of others) activists cannot embed themselves within a fund-raising group, then the status quo they’re trying to change is quite copacetic with that. Status quos by definition thrive on remaining unchallenged.

The point is, modesty and humility are in fact socially-imposed ways of keeping individuals disenfranchised, unable to reach their potential or a position of influence in a society. If they are ever “discovered” and “recognized” at all for their hard work and contributions, it will usually be in their twilight years (when they lack the energy to benefit from it) or, worse still, posthumously.

I believe this is by design. People are rarely able to change what’s “normal” in society when the “normal” forces them to be submissive and resigned to their fate. You are supposed to voluntarily give up your power for no reward — except the faint praise of being considered “modest” and “humble.” Suckers.

Look, will the sky fall if you praise yourself a bit and tell people what good works you’ve been trying to do? I say it’s time to recognize modesty and humility for what they are: scams to keep you down and keep society’s sense of normal unchanged.

You worked hard for what you’ve made of yourself; now become your own biggest fan and claim your kudos. For if you don’t tell others about your achievements, who will? And it might open doors both for you and for others.

Debito Arudou is the author of seven books and has been writing about Japan for more than 25 years (10 of them for The Japan Times), etc., etc. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community Page of the month. Send your comments to community@japantimes.co.jp