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.