Telling It Like It Is…Wisely

I received an email the other day. Basically, the issue was this: how do I tell people about my accomplishments without coming across as arrogant, but also without selling myself short?

It’s a great question, and a tricky balance, especially for women in the workplace who need to present themselves as qualified and competent, without coming across as a diva.

Double-standard alert: if a man confidently states what he’s done, what he knows, and what skills he possesses, he’s often referred to as ‘confident and straightforward’. But that’s another post.

For men and women, I’ll offer these time-tested Old Money practices that will allow you to put your best foot forward without stepping on any toes. Mixed metaphor alert!

First, go slowly. In a social situation, you want to reveal things about yourself step-by-step. If you can ask questions of the other person first, get the lay of the land, then measure your responses to their inquiries based on that, great. Old Money Guys and Gals are notoriously reticent to discuss personal details until they’ve known someone for awhile. Say, ten years. (Wink, nod.)

In a job interview or professional environment, you may be asked to talk about yourself. You may not have the opportunity to learn more about the other person or group. Note my comments below, and apply them to each situation–social or professional–appropriately.

Second, be vague. A few Yale alumni I know will, when asked where they went to school, simply reply, “In Connecticut” or “In New Haven”. This kind of ambiguous response offers some advantages. It gives the conversation a chance to move on if there’s no real interest from the person asking. Second, it gives the Yalie a chance to take measure of the person asking: do they know Yale is in New Haven, Connecticut? Do they know New Haven is in Connecticut? Or are they a fellow Ivy Leaguer? Third, it comes across as discreet, which is an important factor in all of this.

Third, preface your response. “I was fortunate enough to attend Tulane…” “I worked really hard and managed to graduate 3rd in my class, majoring in economics…” Phrasing your accomplishments diplomatically allows other people to get the message, you’re smart, along with an additional message: you’re smart enough to be modest and discreet.

Fourth, tag the facts with perspective. When you’ve stated things about yourself that are true and present you and your work in a good light, tag them with a qualifier: “…But as much as I learned, there’s still so much I don’t know about the subject…” This will give the listener the idea that you have kept things in perspective.

Fifth, share the credit. “The entire department at the school was really great, very helpful, and always available when I had questions, which was often…” Smart people know that achievement rarely happens in a vacuum. Acknowledging it will only make you look, yes, smarter.

So, to summarize: do not exaggerate. Do not sell yourself short. Shoot straight, just be diplomatic when you do.

  • BGT




8 thoughts on “Telling It Like It Is…Wisely

  1. Hello Byron,

    An interesting topic and some of the comments are going to be equally interesting.

    Some years ago I did two separate year-long tours in the sub-Antarctic. Recruitment required firstly, a job-skill they were looking for. Then an invitation to undergo a physical which was the same level as an Air Force pilot minus the centrifuge and those particular aspects pilots require. Then the biggie. Psychometric testing which included what we called a ‘stress interview’. It starts as a simple, friendly, Paris-cafe conversation. It might not end like that. And the ending depends on oneself. But keep in mind, one is trying to ‘sell’ oneself !

    In the end what are they looking for ? They are looking for a normal, balanced person. Not a hero, and especially someone who will boast of their achievements. (Pilots have told me the Air Force looks for the same. A ‘normal’ balanced person. )

    I suspect, rather hope, people interviewing others for other positions are looking for the same. I know I would.

    That’s my ‘tuppence worth.



  3. In the work place I avoid talking about myself but follow the advice of an HR executive I met early in my career. “When a project is successful a leader is busy looking out the window watching the clouds go by and letting his team take all the credit and glory. When a project goes “bad” a successful leader will be the one to take full responsibility. It’s hard at first but keeping your ego in check is very liberating. At a memorial day picnic some one asked us if we our proud of our sons high grades and honors that were in the paper. My wife just said: “ It’s expected now what do you want a Hot dog or a hamburger.” The only time it’s necessary to speak about accomplishments is when looking for employment and thankfully that doesn’t happen very oft

  4. I never say a word. Usually, if I’m with a group of people someone will bring something up, but I don’t reveal anything until asked. I also find a lot of people use google….so once again, there is no reason for the topic of ‘me’ to arise. I’d rather hear about THEIR accomplishments, etc. and actually, when I meet someone I don’t say ‘What do you do?’, but rather ‘what do you LIKE to do? What are your hobbies?” I am not my job or what I’ve achieved. But I DO have a funny story….One evening a lady asked me where my husband attended college and I said, ‘Oxford’ to which my husband replied “No…Cambridge.” After all these years how did I NOT know he attended Cambridge???? Ha!!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.