What is humility anyway? And why do some cultures value it and others, like mine, scoff at it?
All I can do is put in my two cents. And here’s what I think.
Humility is courteous.
And humility is honest.
It’s a courtesy to others because we’re all susceptible to shame and embarrassment. We all have egos. Cultures that value humility recognize this. And they recognize social cohesion depends on collaboration. Not intimidation.
So all of us here in the States know the American who struts onto the court to shoot a basket the second someone else shows serious skill. The American who rattles off strings of molecules when a friend starts explaining tort reform. We Americans are always ready for a Talent Throwdown, a Genius Faceoff.
But in Asia, people prefer to spare each other’s feelings—rather than tote their abilities like loaded handguns. Folks keep quiet when a colleague makes a minor error—or even a major one, as in the recent Asiana Airlines crash hearings. Sometimes humility can go too far. But most of the time, there’s just no reason to throw our weight around when someone else has the floor.
To tell the truth, as strongly as I identify as an American, I’ve never felt at home in our regular ego contests. And it’s not just because I like people to get along.
It’s also because it feels dishonest to make too much of myself.
“Because really,” as my friend said, “who are we? We are no one.”
Sure, there are plenty of times I could contribute an interesting story or piece of information to a conversation with housemates or friends. But I first have to take into account what the other speakers are trying to accomplish. And if they’re American, more often than not, they’re aiming for Wittiest Speaker of the Year or Best Anecdote of the Hour. And they enjoy that.
If I do speak up, I end up saying whatever most readily comes to mind. Which is dull and forgettable or something about Elizabethan England or the Thai language—or some other piece of evidence I can marshal to support their point. Because what I’m trying to say is, I hear you. And here’s some more wood for your fire.
But Americans don’t recognize this conversational style—where the other participants are aiming primarily to connect with and support one another.
Instead, they see the Shakespeare quote as yet another gauntlet.
I simply find my fellow countrymen and women exhausting.
I prefer to sit in the corner and let them conclude I am dull and overly polite and perhaps even a little stupid.
And I recognize that though I know a great deal, it is nothing compared to all I do not know.
Does this make me humble? I doubt it very much.
But I hope it makes me honest.