Self-Deprecating Humor: Use It or Lose It?
As you may already know from my leadership guide, I generally advise against using self-deprecating humor. Most of the time, it does not convey confidence and credibility. But as is the case with virtually all communication advice, context and motivation can change everything.
I know—I wish there was a formula. Rules that being with “always” and “never” sure make life easier. But while rigidly following rules may lead to excellence in some arenas (rocket science, maybe?), dealing with other human beings requires way more nuance. Excellence in communication means staying awake and aware to what’s going on right now and choosing the most effective approach in the moment.
So, with that in mind, here are some guidelines (not rules!) for assessing whether or not self-deprecating humor will help or hurt you and the impression you’re hoping to make.
Avoid self-deprecating humor when it stems from an actual lack of confidence. These attempts at humor are often not even funny. They make people feel awkward or obliged to argue with your unnecessarily low assessment of yourself. When delivered lightheartedly, you may get a few laughs; however, this type of humor often points to low self-esteem, a negative view of life, or a need to keep others at a distance.
You might put yourself down for any number of reasons, for example:
- You’re lowering the bar so others don’t have high expectations of you. “I’ll probably screw up like I always do. Ha!”
- You’re fishing for a compliment. “I’m so terrible at this, lol.”
- You’re putting up barriers for connection in order to protect yourself. “My life’s purpose is to be a cautionary tale for others.”
In all instances, this type of humor comes from a place of fear and scarcity. It pushes people away and does not convey confidence. In fact, research shows it can harm your professional growth and negatively impact your mental health!
If others don’t find your comments funny, it’s a good sign your self-deprecating “humor” is the result of low confidence. In order to communicate leadership, presence, and credibility, lose it.
Any type of humor, including the self-deprecating kind, that provides a pathway to connection and inclusion is a safe bet. Especially when you’re in a leadership role, exposing your faults and mistakes in a lighthearted and playful way can do just that. It levels the playing field by humanizing you.
When everyone is looking up to you, demonstrating a sense of humor and not taking yourself too seriously makes you approachable. And being willing to laugh at your blunders creates an atmosphere of safety by suggesting that perfection is not expected—assuming, of course, that you don’t hold others to a higher standard than yourself. Warren Buffett, for example, is famous for poking fun at himself:
“The managers warned me… I subtly indicated I was older and wiser. I was just older.”
The higher up the ladder you go in an organization, the more a little self-deprecating humor can help build trust and create connection with others. The key is to deliver the humor from a place of confidence! Weird, right? If you are beating yourself up in front of others, that destroys your credibility and isn’t funny. But truly laughing at yourself takes confidence. And people love it! Tell the story of the time you tripped and spilled coffee on your new boss or mispronounced a big client’s name throughout an hour-long meeting or didn’t realize until the very end of the day that your four-year-old had stuck a My Little Pony sticker on your butt that morning. (I can’t tell you how many stickers I have found on my person. If you ever see me with anything stuck on me, please do a good deed and tell me!)
When you have a solid foundation of self-worth, a little jab here and there won’t erode your sense of self—and letting others know that you have faults and make mistakes can actually increase trust when paired with confidence and credibility. So long as it’s not the only kind of humor you ever use, self-deprecating humor works when you have authority and power. In order to communicate accessibility and build rapport, use it.
Everyone could use a little more lightheartedness these days. Infuse some humor into your world and you’ll be doing a good deed! Just be careful with the self-deprecating type. Is it coming from a place of scarcity or a place of confidence? Does it push people away or create a connection? The right kind of humor at the right time can build bridges. Start building!