74. On Modesty and Being British

July 27, 2012

Isn't it so typically British that while everybody knows who founded Microsoft and Facebook, few have heard of the quiet Englishman who invented the World Wide Web? But modesty, a national value, underwent a severe challenge on the opening night of the Olympics. A good time to take a closer look?

We British like to be modest. Immodesty, or even worse, boastfulness, is a crime punishable by social ostracism. Any primary school child will tell you that.

We like to be modest about money. If someone says, what a great jacket you're wearing, we like to say 'Oh thanks! I got it half price in the sale at M&S.' Or, 'Do you like it? Only �5 from Oxfam!'  It's much less likely that we will say, 'Thank you, I got it from my couturier in Bond St. Only �2000, can you believe it?' 
Even if it's true.

As Kate Fox says in her brilliant anthropological study 'Watching the English',

'When you have undeniably paid full price for something undeniably expensive, you should ideally just keep quiet about it.'

We like to be modest about our achievements. When praised, we like to deflect. Bradley Wiggins, when congratulated on being the first Brit ever to win the Tour de France, said 'Well, you know, I couldn't have done it without my team-mates.' Or we like to underplay. 'Oh it was nothing, a fluke really.' Or we like to make a joke about it. 'You should have seen my last attempt!'

So where does all this leave us when, suddenly, we find ourselves in the international spotlight and Danny Boyle and co put on a show of extraordinary extravagance and unabashed self-glorification?

The answer is, for many, somewhat uncomfortable. And exposed, ambivalent, confused. But also pleased. Because although we may have cringed at the blatant flouting of what Fox calls 'our unwritten codes of modesty, restraint, diffidence, polite egalitarianism and general hypocrisy,' actually we rather like being seen as great. Who doesn't? Did we really want something quiet and unassuming and not nearly as good as the Chinese? Of course not. And in fact, when brought face to face with it, we are rather proud of our music, our countryside, our heritage, our children's literature, our humour, and yes, our NHS.
Very proud even.

Modesty is undeniably a wonderful thing. It's a gift that one person gives to another. By engaging it you allow other people to feel comfortable in your presence, however important or rich or clever or funny or successful you are. But it shouldn't be confused with thinking you're no good, or with hiding your qualities. If you have a habit of minimizing your talents and achievements there's a danger that you start to believe what you're saying, and that doesn't serve anyone.

'Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, "Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?"
Actually, who am I not to be?' 

Marianne Williamson, as quoted in Nelson Mandela's inaugural speech 1994

Try this:
If you were going to put on a truly extravagant ceremony to celebrate you, your life, your achievements, and your talents and qualities, what would it be like?

Enjoy! In secret, obviously. 

Anita
 

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