Thoughts On Self-Deprecating Humor
One social area people can feel uncertain about is poking fun at themselves. For one, they're not sure if it's okay to do at all. It seems like that style of humor could be humble, disarming, and entertaining, but they've gotten messages it can come across as weak and insecure. You'll hear advice like, "Never make fun of yourself. It's better to playfully tease other people instead."
I'll address that question right now: It's not always bad to use self-deprecating humor. It has a time and place. Unless you're hanging out with ultra-competitive, cutthroat people who take themselves very, very seriously and won't accept any potential sign of weakness, it's not automatically a faux pas.
However, there are definitely moments where it will work against you and not come across that well. That's the second way people struggle with it. They know it's alright in some contexts, but aren't sure exactly how to work with it. Here are my thoughts:
Potential benefits of self-deprecating humor
If you can pull it off properly, here are some of the good things that can come from poking fun at yourself:
- It can simply be funny. There are jokes that can only be made if you're drawing attention to one of your quirks or mistakes. Sometimes you don't want to leave easy comedy on the table.
- It shows you don't take yourself too seriously, and can laugh at your foibles. That can especially help around people who don't have a lot of patience for anyone who seems conceited.
- It can show you're a good sport, and can laugh at yourself after making a mistake or having some random, unavoidable minor misfortune happen to you.
- It can make you seem more confident, if you're able to point out your flaws and chuckle at them, while giving off a vibe you still think you're a worthwhile person overall.
- It can make you seem more human, approachable, and non-intimidating, especially if you're coming from a place of power. If your boss can laugh at themselves they seem like less of an imposing authority figure.
- It can be a good way to deliver potentially unflattering information about yourself. Like you can joke about being a worrywart, rather than somberly deliver that information as if it's a horrible character flaw.
- It can soften the way people look at your flaws, because you're showing you're aware of them, and don't treat them like Life Or Death.
- It can help diffuse tension. If you're having a disagreement with someone it may lighten the mood if you can get them to laugh about how opinionated you're being.
- It can take the sting out of a cutting remark. If someone insults you, and you agree with their premise and say something funny it can show you're not going to take the bait, and that what they said doesn't bother you. (Of course, this isn't always the best way to reply to a catty comment, but it's one option that can work under the right circumstances.)
Potential drawbacks of self-deprecating humor
If you make fun of yourself in a clumsy way or in the wrong setting it can backfire...
- It can make you look insecure and unconfident.
- It can draw unnecessary attention to your flaws or "flaws". No one may have thought twice about, say, your slightly big ears, but will certainly notice them after you make a bunch of jokes about it.
- It can come off as transparent and manipulative, if sometimes in a harmless way. If you have a more obvious flaw people may realize you're trying to jump in and poke fun at yourself before they can. It may seem like you're falsely trying to be humble, or fishing for sympathy or compliments.
- If you have a dry or understated delivery people may not realize you're joking, and just think you're being needlessly self-critical.
- It can work against you in settings where confident, self-assured people are rewarded.
- If you're in a leader or expert role, it can undercut your status and message. Your staff or audience may want you to seem knowledgeable and authoritative, and feel uncertain if you make a ton of jokes about how clueless and hapless you are.
- If someone's already leaning toward being a jerk to you, poking fun at yourself can give them a sense it's okay to rag on you even harder.
- Like with any kind of humor, it's possible your jokes may just not land.
When it's generally okay to use self-deprecating humor
These aren't the only places you can poke fun at yourself, but it's where this kind of humor is most likely to go over well:
- You've made a small, one-off, situational mistake, like spilling some food.
- You're poking fun at one of your minor foibles.
- You're hanging around friendly, good-natured people who you're pretty sure will get that kind of humor.
- If someone has made fun of you in a friendly way, and you want to play along and keep the bit going.
When it's not the best move to use self-deprecating humor
You may still be able to pull off this kind of humor in these situations, but the odds aren't as in your favor.
- You're in a setting where people would prefer you to act as confident and self-assured as possible, e.g., a workplace where employees are expected to have conviction in the ideas they propose; around a bunch of macho guys who would see it as a sign of weakness.
- You're around a bunch of jerks who will take your joke as a green light to insult you left and right.
- When you've been given a straightforward compliment. It's usually better to simply accept it with a "Thanks" rather than undercut it with some witty line.
Some tips for using self-deprecating humor skillfully
Aside from the context, it's often how you poke fun at yourself that determines whether it works or not. Here are some general guidelines:
- You may not be able to get there overnight, but try to make these jokes from a place of having some baseline confidence in yourself. It's not always the case, but self-deprecation can amplify to others the impression you already have of yourself. If you're fairly confident it can make you look even more self-assured. If you seem insecure it can make you appear even more down on yourself.
- Don't do it excessively. Less is more. The odd self-burn can be hilarious. Doing it all the time quickly makes it seem like you don't believe in yourself.
- Don't use self-deprecating humor right after meeting someone to draw attention to one of your obvious / "obvious" flaws. It really comes off as if you're unconfident about that aspect of yourself and trying to cut off criticism.
- Don't make fun of things that aren't a problem and no one should feel ashamed about, like your race, nationality, sexuality, religion, etc. Don't get me wrong, around the right, friendly company there are definitely times when it will work to poke fun at your religion or ethnicity or whatnot. I'm referring more to when you mindlessly, reflexively put yourself down over these things.
- Don't be overly harsh in your content or delivery, unless you really, really think you can pull it off. Otherwise you'll look like you're mercilessly trashing yourself.
- As I said already, unless you're a master of dry humor don't use an overly flat, matter of fact delivery, or people may not realize you're joking.
- Don't poke fun of yourself over things that clearly aren't true, like joking about what an out of shape slob you are, and clearly meaning it, when you're super fit. You'll seem insecure or not self-aware.
- Don't actually be fishing for sympathy, validation, compliments, attention, reassurance, etc. You might get away with it, but it may show through in your non-verbals that you're not just kidding around and that you're trying to finagle people into making you feel better.
- Don't be self-deprecating as a way to make yourself seem harmless and subservient. It's one thing to try to seem a bit endearing or down to earth, but there's no reason to try to lower yourself even further.