Are female Olympic athletes less arrogant?

08:06, Jul 31 2012

I'm not hugely into sport, but I can't help but be stirred and excited by the Olympics.

On Saturday, I watched the Australian girls 4x100 freestyle relay team win a superb race; high on glee, endorphins and gold fever they could have been forgiven for gloating.

Yet they were sweet and humble; Melanie Schlanger even thanked her twitter supporters for helping them win.

I love self-deprecation.

It's probably my major form of humour. I'm so full of self-doubt I even put myself down seriously. I also find humility attractive in others. 

I loved the Olympic Opening Ceremony for its celebration of self-deprecation. But, if I were a world champion I'd probably think I was pretty fabulous.So what's going on with all this humility?

Perhaps it's cultural. Australians and Kiwis are big on not being too big headed. We are allergic to 'wankers' and those too full of themselves. 

Our Olympic hosts are similar and perhaps sent this trait over in the first fleet. 

In contrast, the Americans are so up themselves they can see self- depreciation as a 'major character defect'. 


When I lived in India I found the locals similar to the Americans. 

My friends in Delhi could never understand my self-doubt and visibly cringed when I put myself down.   One actually pulled me aside at a party and lectured "You have to stop this!  No one will want to know you.

Putting yourself down makes you even more unattractive."  When I laughed, she walked away in disgust.

Here's another factor. Femaleness.

Women are more likely to underplay their achievements. Perhaps we are less confident or feel that showing our strength is unattractive or unfeminine. 

Boys are more likely to be forgiven for cockiness (pun intended).  

Swimmer James Magnusson oozes self-confidence and charm. 

When he took his team to victory in the heat of the 100m freestyle relay, he shrugged and said "It felt pretty easy".

The Olympics commentator laughed and said "Don't you love his confidence? His cockiness? "  I wonder, would that commentator say that about a woman? 

It's interesting that the male team couldn't replicate the women's' success in the final. 

Magnusson looked stunned. Perhaps we can see female psychology at play here. I like to have low expectations and then be pleasantly surprised at success whereas men are more likely to use their confidence to psych themselves up and psych others out.

However we are living in an age where we increasingly value perspective and humility. It's rare to see anyone trumpet his or her brilliance like Muhammad Ali once did. 

Seeing him much diminished at the Opening Ceremony made me remember his audacious ode to himself; "I am the greatest!"  And his line "I'm a poet, I'm a prophet, I'm the resurrector of the boxing world'. 

Ali was a genius of rhyme and wit but imagine any current superstar sassing, "I'm young, I'm handsome, I'm fast, I'm the champion of the world.  All of you bow!" I'd love to see them try. For all my love of humility, I actually miss his spirit.
Muhammad Ali admitted he was using simple psychology because he felt humble people didn't get very far.   But I wonder if that's still true.  It seems we want our champions and celebrities a bit nicer now and not too thrilled with their terrific.

There's also probably a generational factor at play. I've always felt many baby boomers display a confidence that borders on arrogance. 

Probably because I'm a Generation Xer who learned to master the self put down. The Generation Y children of the Boomers have been told how fabulous they are from day dot and do seem strong and sure of their abilities.  Yet their 'hipsters' take self-depreciation to a whole new art form.

Hipster culture is built on masking the advantage that comes with class, education, beauty and brains.  Those into the indie culture are so self-aware of their own hype they've made nerdy, cool. 

And herein lies the secret to humility and self-deprecation. 

Only high status people can actually get away with it.  Social scientists at the University of New Mexico studied self-deprecating humour and concluded it's a form of signalling that can demonstrate overall robustness. 

According to Gil Greengross and Geoffrey Miller, the use of this type of humour by low-status individuals suggests depression, defeatism and low self-esteem. On the other hand, if someone has achieved high social status, they must show reasonable agreeableness to make friends and win support.

So, perhaps our athletes are being humble to stay popular. They don't want us to feel threatened by their brilliance (especially the women). 

Yet, perhaps I have more self-confidence than I previously thought: I'm actually happy to see some Olympic winners pump the air and crow. Let them bask in their glory. 

They've earned it and I'm not going to feel threatened by their success.  May they never echo Woody Allen who once said "My one regret in life is that I am not someone else."

Do you self deprecate to stay popular or put yourself down to lower your own expectations? Or are you confident and proud of it!

-Daily Life