Self-deprecation is also other-deprecation

An interesting post by Tanya Khovanova. You should read the whole thing, but this is the part that stood out to me.

Another guy tells me after I explain a solution to a math problem, “I didn’t realize it was so simple.”

Actually it wasn’t simple. When I explained the solution, it may have seemed simple, but that was because I was able to explain it to him with such clarity. People tend to downgrade their opinion of the problem, rather than upgrade their opinion of my ability. It actually affects my reputation as a mathematician.

Another guy said to me (and I quote!), “I am so dumb. I tried for a week to write the program that computes these numbers and you did it in one hour. I feel so dumb. I didn’t expect myself to be so dumb. Why am I so dumb?”

After the fourth “dumb”, I started wondering what it was all about. Many guys try to compete with me. And they hate losing to a woman. It creates a strong motivation for them to discard my brilliance and to explain away my speed, even if they have to claim temporary dumbness.

This is something I have to work to keep from doing, although I hope that I don’t do it in a gendered way. It’s interesting to think about why; here’s what I’ve come up with.

(1) Every hill looks shorter from the top. When I see a really good explanation, the matter being explained looks trivial.

(2) Especially when I was a kid, there was a lot of pressure not to look like the high-achieving freak. So I have a reflex to grab opportunities to knock myself. At this point, I make a pretty deliberate effort to counter this. A line I use a lot is “I think I should be able to do X, but I’m arrogant.”

Whatever makes it tempting, though, Tanya is right that it is insulting. Whether someone has just grasped a point faster than you, or if they have grasped it more slowly, either way it is more complementary to them to speak well of your intelligence, and thus implicitly of theirs.

Go over to Tanya’s blog to read about the other two guys!

8 thoughts on “Self-deprecation is also other-deprecation

  1. Wow, I really don’t know about some of this. Usually I think I am pleased if I manage to explain something so well that it looks simple. For example, I believe that the problem tackled in my thesis (which at one time was considered notorious) was made to look a lot simpler after I gave my solution, and that actually makes me feel rather proud.

    And “unbelievably amazing”? Off-hand, to me, that really looks like it was meant as a genuine, straight-up compliment.

    These particular situations are hard to judge, since we don’t know what the actual mathematics was.

    The “I’m so dumb” thing doesn’t sound too tactful, but I really couldn’t positively say it sounds like a case of gender-bias.

  2. Yeah, for any one of these examples, I agree that is hard to be certain whether gender bias is present. I imagine that’s what makes the situation frustrating.

    At the same time, when Tanya says that she notices a pattern of subtle difference in the way she is treated, I think there probably is a genuine pattern, even if she has not characterized every instance correctly. (And, symmetrically, there are presumably instances she hasn’t noticed.)

    What struck me about the part I highlighted, though, is that we don’t need to analyze the gender dynamics here. The way these guys are talking is very easy to fall into, but, especially for the “I’m so dumb” guy, is rude. So I thought it was worth a post pointing out why it is good to avoid it.

    Look at it another way. If you can combat gender bias by speaking more highly of yourself, then that must be the easiest thing ever proposed to fight inequality!

  3. I think this sort of “oh that’s totally trivial” attitude is especially a problem with teenagers and decreases as people mature. I try to emphasize when I’m teaching and this attitude comes up that “it’s not that math is easy, it’s that we’re all really smart.” (Well, this is at Mathcamp and in upper-level classes. In calculus you have the opposite problem that people think everything is too hard.)

  4. Definitely, I agree with Tanya’s point. On the whole, math people are more awkward than the general population, and this leads to moments of awkward/patronizing/whatever behavior, even if it is unintended… I think everybody would agree with that. What a lot of people don’t seem to notice is that women definitely get more of it than men. Tons more of it.

    On the other hand, I find the tone of… I don’t know… what’s the opposite of self-deprecation, self-precation? of the post, rather off-putting. Even (or perhaps especially) if you have earned it, talking about how clever you are, or how good at exposition you are, etc… is unseemly. Maybe this is a cultural thing (we all come from different parts of the world, different backgrounds, etc, and have different standards about what is OK in the appraisal of oneself, and in the publically aired appraisal of others). It seems to me that one could make exactly the same point without talking as favorably of oneself.

    When people react like that to something you do, it’s insulting. Whether you’re good, whether you’re bad, it’s insulting because the reaction is actually indifferent to your abilities, but specific to your membership in a group that you have no control over. (Direct praise is often deployed with similar effects.) If you’re *really* good, I suppose it’s *really* insulting, but do you really need to say that to make the case? I don’t think so.

    When people talk about gender stuff in math, there is a lot of emphasis on how various women are just as insanely good at it as the most insanely good men. Of course this is true, but I think the emphasis on excellence is sometimes counterproductive. The mathematical community is full of men who are not excellent, but merely adequate. Whatever standard you use, if it is meaningful, then necessarily most men in math are just adequate or below adequate. To the extent that discussions of gender equity focus on how exceptional women can be, or how demeaning it is to excellent people to treat their excellence as something that requires external explanation, I think we are missing a fundamental point. Exceptional is just that, exceptional. It may be helpful to separate the need to acknowledge excellence from the underlying gender issues. [FWIW this is not unique to gender stuff. There is a similar problem when mathematicians get involved in education. Try this out: start a discussion about teaching in any university, and set your watch by how long it takes for the topic of discussion to switch from teaching mathematics, to how to identify and/or encourage mathematically gifted students. Start a discussion about K-12 education reform in the USA, and see how long it takes for somebody to bring up the lack of widespread math circles and/or olympiad culture in the USA. Look up any article about teaching in a publication that is not explicitly educational in focus, and see how many paragraphs of it you have to read before the entire issue of *teaching mathematics* has been conflated with the issue of teaching mathematics to the mathematically precocious.]

  5. Some possible positive suggestions: (these occasionally help better than cautions; on the other hand, they clearly aren’t binding)

    * Instead of saying “I’m so dumb”, say “Golly! you’re so clever!”

    * Instead of deprecating *yourself* criticize your method: “I’d never have thought of that, because… ” for example, you were busy thinking about some other tool whose uses are allarmingly similar, but wasn’t well adapted to the problem at hand. Incidentally, I often find students get stuck just at the appearance of a question, and don’t bother writing anything down. In this case one shouldn’t say “I’d never have thought of that because I’m too terrified”! Instead …

    * Acknowledge the goodness of the method used: “Hmm.. I should try that for something else I’m stuck on… ” if applicable.

    … any others?

  6. It is much worse in theoretical physics. At least in mathematics, one cannot argue with a theorem. In a physics culture that is vastly removed from experiment, everything is opinion. You can be dismissed simply for not being a mathematician, or for being too much of a mathematician, or for not knowing that string theory must absolutely without question be correct …

  7. I’m afraid for Tanya, that there’s much much more to call out in academic culture, no? But it’s a good first step.

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