Battling with ‘Britishness’

child drawing 250One of my childhood memories is of being at my Nana’s house and spending a lot of time and effort on drawing a picture of a ballerina in the art book that she kept for me. I must have been around four or five at the time. I remember being very proud of my work (I’d drawn criss-crossed ballet ribbons and everything!) and I took it in to show the grown-ups.

“Ooh now that IS lovely!” enthused my Nana. But when I agreed with her and told her how pleased I was with it, she told me that it wasn’t right to say such things and that I should say something like, ‘well I don’t really like the way the arms worked out’ or ‘do you think so? I don’t like it at all…’

This, as you might imagine, left me feeling really rather confused and not a little upset. I had put the work in and was pleased with the results – why should I then do myself down? But I took her advice on board and learned to play down my achievements and successes from then on.

I should point out here that my Nana was in no way trying to be unkind – this was the way that she had been raised and I think she was trying to teach me that it’s not socially acceptable to appear conceited. But her version of conceited was rather skewed. A keen amateur artist herself, she was famously self-critical, so she certainly took her own advice.

I was reminded of this the other day in a conversation about ‘Britishness’ – how, as a nation, we’re seen as self-deprecating and how this is the fuel behind a lot of our humour and the way we strike up friendships and do business together. Self-promotion is seen as rather ‘icky’ and something we don’t like to do much of, and people with an obviously high self-esteem often turn us right off and make us mutter stuff about being ‘a bit sure of themselves’ or (gasp!) ‘a bit American’.

However much of a national pastime doing yourself down might be, it’s important not to let it affect the way that you think about yourself. Our subconscious doesn’t discern between a cultural nicety and a concrete fact, so when batting back a compliment with a ‘oh no but I’m rubbish at…’ kind of a comment, we are hammering nails into the coffin of our own confidence.

So how can we tread the line between self-promotion and self-deprecation without challenging generations of cultural norms? Here are three things to try:

1. Learn how to take a compliment

It may sound obvious, but many people can’t do this. Practice with a friend or partner if you like. The aim is to just say ‘thank you’ with a smile after the compliment, and to resist the temptation to play it down or deny it. I was taught how to do this at a youth centre in my teens and it took a long time because I’d been faithfully following my Nana’s programming for the previous decade or so. I’m still incredibly grateful to Tony for having the patience to sit with me and help me rewire my brain on this. He pointed out that being able to take a compliment is like receiving a gift – you wouldn’t throw a present back in the giver’s face, so don’t do it with a compliment. Say thank you and take the praise.

2. Have a support group

It’s good to identify the people in your life who you can call and share your wins and achievements with. People who will celebrate with you and who won’t be jealous of you or judge you for being proud of what you have done. If you don’t have enough people like this, investigate groups (online and offline) where you can get positive support. And make sure that you are that supportive friend for others too – there’s nothing like a good excuse for a glass of bubbly wine after all!

3. Keep going

Although she was so self-critical (at least outwardly), my Nana didn’t give up painting. She went to her classes every week for years and hung up the pictures she didn’t completely hate around her house. Whether she was as damning of herself inwardly as she was out I’ll never know, but she didn’t give up – she just pushed on with the thing that she loved to do. So keep going. And as you improve, remember to take the compliments – you’ve worked for them!


Have you experienced this very ‘British’ self-deprecation? How has it affected you, and what has helped? Do leave your stories and thoughts in the comments below – I’d love to hear them!


You know, you look great today. And I love the way you share my blog posts… 😉






Battling with ‘Britishness’ — 5 Comments

  1. Thought provoking and fun Claire as ever. I think it’s good to be critical. In my experience it’s often a female trait to want to do better ie to want to make a difference/to improve performance and so on. Maybe if you’re a half empty glass person you might fail to see the good that surrounds you but I’m a half full glass person and whilst I do, there’s still so much more to do. If I ever think that things are good enough (which is perhaps what your Nana was suggesting) I think it’ll be time to give up the ghost. I’m not sure if that’s a British outlook but I am sure that Sandra will remind us to smell the roses as we go.

    • That’s a good point Steph. I’m not advocating that we sit back on our laurels, content with ‘good enough’ (although sometimes that might be ok if we’re struggling to juggle several roles and trying to excel at all of them in an unsustainable way…) but that we appreciate what we have done, where we have grown, and where there is potential to improve at the same time. What is important is that we don’t get sucked into the ‘modest’ vortex and believe our own anti-hype!

  2. Pingback: Does 'Britishness' affect you? | Bringing Up Brits

  3. Thanks for sharing Claire, I fortunately don’t suffer with being self depreciating, but I know a lot of people (men and women in equal measure) who do. A compliment is a gift, and people need to give themselves gifts each day and even self compliments and they will find taking them from others much easier! Great article. Ruth K- London

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