Saturday 19 November 2011
Your Twitter Profile: The Importance of Not Being Earnest
I’m always fascinated by the profiles of people who follow me on Twitter. One of the things I love about Twitter is its ability to link me up with people who I’d never otherwise encounter. It’s great when I find someone from the other side of the world who’s interested in the same things as me. There are, of course, also those who just want to promote their product, and others, like Faringdon Motor Parts and Moaning Myrtle (@toiletmoans) whose interests in my tweets are, frankly, puzzling. But the ones that intrigue me most are the ones with profiles that create an immediate negative impression - or to put it more bluntly, make me just think "Pillock!" (If you need to look that up, you’re not from Essex).
Now language is one of my things - I work on language disorders, and over the years I’ve learned a bit about sociolinguistics - the influence of culture on language use. And that made me realise there were at least two hypotheses that could explain the occasional occurrence of offputting profiles. The first was that I am being followed by genuine pillocks. But the other was that there are cultural differences in what is regarded as an acceptable way of presenting yourself to the world. Maybe a turn of phrase that makes me think "pillock" would make someone else think "cool". And perhaps this is culturally determined.
So what, to my British ear, sets off the pillock detector? The major factor was self-aggrandisement. For instance, someone who describes themselves as "a top intellectual", "highly successful", "award-winning", or "inspirational".
But could this just be a US/UK difference? The British have a total horror of appearing boastful: the basic attitude is that if you are clever/witty/beautiful you should not need to tell people - it should be obvious. Someone who tells you how great they are is transgressing cultural norms. Either they really are great, in which case they are up themselves, as we say in Ilford, or they aren’t, in which case they are a dickhead. When I see a profile that says that someone is "interested in everything, knows nothing", "a lazy pedant", or "procrastinaor extraordinaire", I think of them as a decent sort, and I can be pretty sure they are a Brit. But can this go too far? Many Brits are so anxious to avoid being seen as immodest that they present themselves with a degree of self-deprecation that can be confused by outsiders with false modesty at best, or neurotic depression at worst.
A secondary factor that sets off my negative reactions is syrupy sentiment, as evidenced in phrases such as: "empowering others", "Living my dream", or "I want to share my love". This kind of thing is generally disliked by Brits. I suspect there are two reasons for this. First, in the UK, displays of emotion are usually muted, except in major life-threatening circumstances: so much so that when someone is unabashedly emotional they are treated with suspicion and thought to be insincere. And second, Polyannaish enthusiasm is just uncool. The appropriate take on life’s existential problems is an ironic one.
I was pleased to find my informal impressions backed by by social anthropologist Kate Fox, in her informative and witty book "Watching the English" (Hodder & Stoughton, 2004). Humour, she states, is our "default mode", and most English conversations will involve "banter, teasing, irony, understatement, humorous self-deprecation, mockery or just silliness." (p 61). She goes on to describe the Importance of Not Being Earnest rule: "Seriousness is acceptable, solemnity is prohibited. Sincerity is allowed, earnestness is strictly forbidden. Pomposity and self-importance are outlawed." (p. 62). Fox doesn’t explicitly analyse American discourse in the book, but it is revealing that she states: "the kind of hand-on-heart, gushing earnestness and pompous Bible-thumping solemnity favoured by almost all American politicians would never win a single vote in this country - we watch these speeches on our news programmes with a kind of smugly detached amusement." (p 62).
Anthropologists and linguists have analysed trends such as these in spoken discourse, but I wondered whether they could be revealed in the attenuated context of a Twitter profile. So in an idle moment (well, actually when I was supposed to be doing something else I didn’t want to do) I thought I’d try an informal analysis of my Twitter followers to see if these impressions would be borne out by the data. This is easier said than done, as I could find no simple way to download a list of followers, and so I had to be crafty about using "SaveAs" and "Search and Replace" to actually get a list I could paste into Excel, and when I did that, my triumph was short-lived: I found it’d not saved Location information. At this point, my enthusiasm for the project started to wane - and the task I was supposed to be doing was looking ever more attractive. But, having started, I decided to press on and manually enter location for the first 500 followers. (Fortunately I was able to listen to an episode of the News Quiz while doing this. I started to like all those eggs with no Location recorded). I then hid that column so it would not bias me, and coded the profiles for three features: (a) Gender (male/female/corporate/impossible to tell); (b) Self-promotion: my totally subjective rating of whether the profile triggered the pillock-detector; (c) Syrupy: another subjective judgement of whether the profile contained overly sentimental language. I had intended also to code mentions of cats - I was convinced that there was a British tendency to mention cats in one’s profile, but there were far too few to make analysis feasible. I was a victim of confirmation bias. So were my other intuitions correct? Well, yes and no.
For the analysis I just focused on followers from the US and UK. The first thing to emerge from the analysis was that pillocks were rare in both US and UK - rarer than I would have anticipated. I realised that, like mentions of cats, it’s something I had overestimated, probably because it provoked a reaction in me when it occurred. But, I was pleased to see that nonetheless my instincts were correct: there were 7/97 (7.2%) pillocks in the US sample but only 2/153 (1.3%) in the UK . The sample size is really not adequate, and if I were going to seriously devote myself to sociolinguistics I’d plough on to get a much bigger sample size. But nevertheless, for what it’s worth, this is a statistically significant difference (chi square = 5.97, p = .015 if you really want to know). Syrup followed a similar pattern: again it was rare in both samples, but it was coded for 3/153 of the UK sample compared with 7/97 of the US. I’d coded gender as I had thought this might be a confounding factor, but in fact there were no differences between males and females in either pillocks or syrup. Of course, all these conclusions apply only to my followers, who are bound to be an idiosyncratic subset of people.
My conclusion from all this: we need to be more sensitive to cultural differences in self-expression. Looking over some of the profiles that I categorised as "pillock" I realise that I’m being grossly unfair to their owners. After all, on a Twitter profile, the only information that people have about you comes from the profile - and your tweets. So it really is preposterous for me to react negatively against someone telling me they are an "award-winning author": that should engender my interest and respect. And, because this is a profile, and not a conversation, if they didn’t tell me, I wouldn’t know. And we really ought to cherish rather than mock those who try to bring a bit of love and kindness into the world. But somehow….
I hope that Americans reading this will get some insight into the tortuous mindset of the Brits: if we come across as dysfunctionally insecure losers it’s not that we really are - it’s that we’d rather you thought that of us than that we were boastful.