I’ve been lucky enough to have spent this weekend in the beautiful city of Elche on the south-east coast of Spain. The town was the venue for this year’s Spain TESOL conference, an always-excellent gathering of English language teachers, and it’s hard to imagine a more perfect location for such things. Home to a UNESCO-protected orchard of over 200,000 palm trees, a castle that dates back hundreds of years and plenty of Roman ruins, it really is a lovely corner of the world. I ran a 90-minute workshop on Saturday morning and then gave an hour-long talk later on in the day. On Saturday evening, I went out with some teachers and various old friends and as is usual at such events, we started off by chatting about our day. A German friend of mine who was also talking at the conference asked me how my sessions had gone, to which I replied I think they both went pretty well ….. even if I do say so myself. On hearing this, he rolled his eyes, laughed and told me this was such a British way of saying things! “Why can’t you just do what normal people would do and say they went well? You know they went well. You know that I know that they went well. Why this false modesty? Why do you add even if I do say so myself?”
It’s a good question – and not the first time that fluent foreign friends have asked me about this strange phrase, so I’ve had the chance to think about what is wrong with us and why we can’t just say something was good if we think it was good! I think firstly there’s a very English dislike of boasting: Nobody wants to hear others talking too proudly about their own achievements! It’s just seen as being a bit vulgar, a bit undignified.
Coupled with this is a love of understatement – of saying things in a way that makes things seem less important, big or serious than they really are. This is maybe best exemplified by a conversation I once had with a Colombian student of mine. He passed me on the stairs at work and asked how I was. “Not bad, thanks” I replied, as I often do. Little did I know that this one short phrase would act like a red rag to a bull! “Not bad! Not bad!” he snorted. “Always not bad! You eat a delicious meal, it’s not bad. You see a beautiful woman. Not bad! You feel amazing, incredible. You say not bad! Crazy people, you English!”
So there’s a deep-rooted cultural fear of sounding too enthusiastic, but there’s else as well: a knowledge that if you start blowing your own trumpet and singing your own praises, someone else will stop you getting too big for your boots and will cut you down to size. Given our unhealthy obsession with class and our fear of anyone appearing to be better than we are, it’s very common for friends to stop each other from sounding too big-headed. As such, this kind of exchange is very common:
How did the talk go?
> Really well. It was great.
Even if you do say so yourself!
The idea here is that it’s not for you to say you were good. It’s for others to praise you instead. If you deserve it. Which you probably don’t! It’s a quick and easy way of keeping everyone at the same basic level and of preventing anyone in the group from getting ideas above their station. Given that we know our friends are likely to do this kind of thing to us if we are too enthusiastic, it makes sense to get the dig in first and put ourselves down . . . before someone does it for us!
Of course, you could argue – and trust me, friends of mine have over the years – that actually using the phrase even if I do say so myself is a form of arrogance in itself. It could be seen as basically saying that you’re so sure your talk was good – and are so sure that everyone else knows it too – that you don’t feel the need to make a big song and dance about it, but instead you play down your achievements in a way that only the truly confident can. Who knows? This may well be the correct interpretation.
Personally, of course, I couldn’t possibly comment.
It would be far too vulgar of me to do so!
Want to learn more about British language and culture? Take our ADVANCED LANGUAGE AND CULTURE course this summer.
- Are there any phrases like even if I do say so myself in your language? Why do you think that is?
- What would you say people in your country have a deep-rooted cultural fear of? Why?
- Is it normal in your country for friends to put each other down and cut each other down to size?
- Have you ever spoken at a conference? How did it go?
- Can you think of any buildings near you that date back hundreds of years?
It was interesting to read. Thank you. The idea that one doesn’t have to be very enthusiastic exists in my language too. It is expressed like this: “Too good is not for good.” or you can say in Bulgarian “I don’t want to boast, but….”or “In my humble opinion…” This is arrogant actually because it means one values their own opinion.Then why they say it is humble? You are right, we don’t want to give the chance to the others to ground us, so we do it ourselves. Human psychology…
Asking in Bulgarian “How are you?” you can hear in reply “Up and down” which means exactly “Not bad” but also not good. It is as to say “Don’t be jealous, people!” And “Don’t tell me about your problems, I have my own.”
Thanks for this Zorka.
It’s always interesting to see how things work in other languages.
One other common response to HOW ARE YOU? here is “HANGING IN”. which means something like I’m just about surviving! So very similar to the responses that seem to exist in Bulgarian.
Great read. Thanks for posting.
Interesting and very nice read. My eyebrows went up when I read the part about boasting, I don’t know in general who you were relating but I been living in the US and I’ve noticed the opposite; things like “fake it till you make it” etc but that’s just cultural expressions not implying any is better than the other, just interesting to note