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.

31 comments:

  1. *Hastily passes pillock-detector over Twitter profile* Hmm... think that's OK. I'm also from Essex, so it should be correctly calibrated.

    @m_wall

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  2. Mine says 'Jewess'. I'm neither Jewish nor female so the joke is richly textured, and it's a great word.

    Have to say I find the British self-effacement as frequently insincere and desperately in-groupish as American positivity. I imagine Guardian readers waiting for a chance to blithely espouse atheism while silently screaming PLEASE ACCEPT ME. Honesty, however, gets me every time regardless of how it's expressed.

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    1. "Honesty, however, gets me every time..."
      Gosh, poor old you!

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  3. Really interesting blog. Gosh, my Twitter biog is so classically Brit it's embarrassing (well, except that I use the word 'cheerleader', but I mean it ironically, of course: me and synchronised pom-pom waving don't really go together...). Being half-German, I wonder what a typically German biog would look like...

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  4. Google+ should be a goldmine when it comes to the 'bragging rights' on an individual's profile.

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  5. As an Australian I really enjoyed this. And of course I did not need to look up pillock. Maybe because my dad's Welsh :)
    As for the surprising lack of pillocks in the study, that might say more about the quality of the people following you...

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  6. Have to agree with nerkul on over-stated self-effacement. The "race to the bottom" is every bit as irritating as the "race to the top". It's facially insincere and doesn't actually make one look like a dysfunctionally insecure loser, just someone desperate to mask their ego and fit in. (Which suggests, of course, that they do have an ego below the false modesty.) Much like "I'm a nice guy", if you have to say it, it probably isn't true.

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  7. Nerkul and Anonymous
    The last thing I want to do is to suggest that the British are actually nicer than the Americans. I'm sure we're not. And you are right that self deprecation can be a front for smugness and self-satisfaction. My main point is that if there are cultural differences in what is acceptable, then we may unwittingly create an unfortunate impression if we don't know about them. And it works both ways: Americans can come across as brash or cheesy to the Brits, but Brits can come across as ineffectual or just weird - or can lose opportunities to engage with others by failing to indicate enthusiasm or expertise.
    I recommend the Kate Fox book to academic visitors to the UK as it makes it easier to fit in if you know what the cultural rules are (and it explains how to behave in a pub). But this doesn't make you a better person.

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  8. Very nice post. It's only fair to judge someone by their distance from the mean of their own subpopulation. As a friend likes to tell me, he's not late - he's Italian.

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  9. Paranoia sets in as I rush to check the pillock index on my own profile - have I been culturally infected by working with Americans for too long?!

    For fear of being too syrupy - not too shabby a post

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  10. I'm from up North, so scorn your Southern erudition, but that aside, good article. A shame our colonial cousins didn't 'get' it. I like to think I do not fit into any peer groups (so am not seeking to 'fit in') but we are all products of the milieu. Thus, even though I have no desire to be accepted, I see every trait you've exposed in my outlook. So much for non-conformity!
    Again, good article.
    Buck.

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  11. Amendment; "colonial cousins" was a lazy reference to the Americans, obviously. Sorry, 'ME', the Australian colonial. *cringes in embarrassment*

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  12. Many - not all - of the British are from another planet. Drama queens, bullies, arrogant, insecure, anti-social, rude, paranoid, insular, callous, unsophisticated, vulgar, over-sensitive, backward, un-emancipated, humorless and often bitter or acidic.

    Thank god for the exceptions. They do exist.

    My apologies for my anonymity. I have lived and worked all over the world, have been in the UK longer than anywhere else, except my home country.

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  13. Love this!! << Ah, have already revealed myself to be American.

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  14. Actually, my above description likely applies mostly to those in southern England. The ones up north do seem to tick more like normal human beings (whatever that is).

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  15. Ugh, I sound too much like my own description of the British. LOL

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  16. "a top intellectual", "highly successful", "award-winning", or "inspirational".

    I guess, that means these people would like to be like that.
    I am afraid they are quite new on the Internet and take the opportunity to show off a little.

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  17. Wonderful. Perhaps Twitter should enable a reader-country-specific translator that would present our profiles per native norms. So mine might become "Bumbling author who struggled through three books and is late with his fourth." Though even that sets off even my Yankee version of a false-modesty alarm. See? We Yanks can't help ourselves -- or, perhaps, can't help but do so.

    Your comment about Yanks sometimes perceiving Brits as 'just weird' reminds me of a scene in Austin Powers. Powers, attired (in the 90s) in his usual over-the-top 60s mod, is grooming himself before the mirror in a Las Vegas backstage bathroom. Enter Jim Belushi, playing a big brash Texan.

    Belushi, grooming alongside, asks, in a friendly manner, "You with the show?"

    Powers answers, "No. I'm English."

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  18. Excuse me, Anonymous!"Drama queens, bullies, arrogant, insecure, anti-social, rude, paranoid, insular, callous, unsophisticated, vulgar, over-sensitive, backward, un-emancipated, humorless and often bitter or acidic."
    I take exception to that. We are not humourless.
    Buck.

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  19. I run Blogging Against Disablism Day and every year when I am collating the list of participating blogs, I have to check that every link works, which often means entering blogs through blogger profiles.

    I'm absolutely fascinated by the different areas of identity people focus on anyway (an interest that becomes paralysing when I have to describe myself) but the thing that has amused me so much with my link-checking exercise is the way that non-Brits will frame their disabled status. Obviously, there's this resistance among disabled people against a triumph/ tragedy narrative of our lives, but some US disabled bloggers nevertheless reach straight for the syrup. So many of them do describe themselves as inspirational, courageous, brave, strong, overcoming great challenges, extraordinary - even the dreaded "special", which brings me out in a rash!

    My kneejerk reaction isn't merely to suspect pillockery, but because of the disability context, it almost seemed that these folks were demeaning themselves by playing up to this "othering" of disabled people. But then when I read their content, and of course over the years I've got more and more used to US/ UK differences, and I realised that some probably weren't even thinking about disability when they wrote those things - only simply how great they are, like everyone else.

    Like yourself, this phenomenon is probably exaggerated in my mind because it has jarred with me.

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  20. What a fascinating post - and you deserve a prize for doing the analysis.

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  21. Agree entirely on the cultural difference for self promotion... Australia falls closer to the UK theory of playing down achievements, we even don't like those who bignote themselves. We call this 'Tall Poppy Syndrome' where we immediately cut down anyone who may be crowing about their own success.
    Twitter does really prompt you to put your best foot forward, so you seem approachable and interesting. The cultural boundaries for that bio are indeed very interesting.
    Thanks for the discussion.
    (Australian - mate)

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  22. I'm from the US, but I have to say most of the same aspects of Twitter profiles bug me in the same way. I particularly hate "inspirational", because we are not all Oprah, thanks.

    Though I wonder how people from the US perceive some of those self-deprecating examples you quoted such as "a lazy pedant". I would usually turn up my nose at that one as being obviously false modesty, otherwise you wouldn't show off by using the word "pedant" in the first place. Makes me wonder if my USian status gives me an anti-intellectual bent against high-falootin' words! :)

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  23. Wonderful post, Dorothy. Not 100% sure about my Twitter profile, but I guess the potted profile on my blog bears out my Englishness, judged by the various characteristics you describe...

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  24. I think as an Englishman, Oscar Wilde got it right with "I have nothing to declare but my genius".

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  25. Do you remember 'How to be an Alien' by George Mikes? He writes about the self-deprecating and understated Brit ways at length in that book.

    It's here in case you don't know it but I am sure you do, things haven't changed that much .... http://lib.ru/ANEKDOTY/mikes1.txt

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  26. OMG, you said "dickhead". That is too funny!! I didn't know y'all had dickheads in England, too.

    I apologize to my son and my husband. Unless they start acting like one. They usually are decent sorts.

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  27. I think this almost tops your approach to locating the source of the leak in your roof several years ago. A few thoughts on further analyses (ignoring the lack of statistical power): given the similarity of the number of people who are pillocks (7/97 US and 2/153) and syrupy (7/97 US and 3/153 UK), one might ask oneself (if one was delaying the gratification of writing an NHMRC grant) if the pillocks and the syrups were the same people. If this proved to be the case, one might wonder if being a pillock made one syrupy, or if being syrupy makes one appear a pillock. Clearly, direction of causation requires an RCT, which I shall add to the NHMRC application right now.

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  28. Hmmn. I'm very late to this, but: 'Professor of developmental neuropsychology' - it's a bit... dry isn't it. A bit dusty. It's twitter, not the Eagle and Child - really, I'm surprised anyone stands for such underplayed boastfulness. Frankly I'd much rather be dutifully tuning into 'Majesty of Behavioural Gems - imparts awesomeness via... blogspot etc'. Must consider an unfollow.

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