Americans don’t brag. That’s not true; Americans brag all the time, about many things–money, sex, the fish that got away. However, we don’t brag as much as you’d expect in our job applications. This may seem counterintuitive, considering the global American reputation for being over-confident, over-assertive, and loud. Self-promotion, however, which IS a generally accepted American cultural practice, is not bragging. This is a fine distinction. And I’ve come to understand it’s one that troubles many international clients.
I’m an anthropologist. What I do at TPII is a kind of applied anthropology, although I rarely call it that, and didn’t conceive it in that way when I began the business. Only after a bit of time passed did I begin to recognize that I was extracting the insider, taken-for-granted, unspoken cultural practices of American academic hiring, and holding them up for scrutiny and analysis, in a highly anthropological manner.
But I don’t overplay this hand. I don’t want to exaggerate a “cultural” analysis of the American academy. I don’t think it’s helpful. I’m really not here to analyze. I’m here to describe and explain.
So when I work with clients, I don’t usually spend time connecting my suggested edits to American cultural norms. However, there are exceptions, when I come out and bluntly state: “you’re doing something culturally problematic for an American context.” Where this happens most often: some international clients’ tendency to brag in ways that might alienate American search committees.
At issue are claims that to an American ear/eye appear wildly — even laughably — grandiose. Examples:
- I am doing exceptional cutting-edge research that will put your department on the map as a leader in the field.
- My unique approach has never been seen before in the discipline and has garnered effusive praise and widespread imitation.
- My numerous articles in the leading, highest-prestige journals have been enthusiastically received by countless colleagues in the field and prompted many requests for collaboration.
- My pathbreaking conclusions will finally correct the persistent and tragic misunderstandings that have long plagued the study of this topic.
- Many top-ranking presses will eagerly invite my important manuscript for publication.
To an American ear, language like this feels cheap and overblown. One of the main culprits here are adjectives and adverbs that are hyperbolic and grandiose. While cutting these won’t solve the whole problem, it’ll solve a large chunk of it. Read the posts, “This Christmas, Don’t Be Cheap” and “Grad Student Grandiosity” for more on how to identify and fix these.
I note that clients from Western Europe and South Asia seem to struggle with this issue the most. I am not an expert in these regions and I cannot speculate why my clients from these places are the most likely to depend on this kind of language in their job applications. I only know: they do. My American clients are by no means immune to the problem of bragging, of course. But it’s not usually as patterned and persistent. Which is what finally alerted me to the cultural nature of the issue. Many of the examples that I use in the Grad Student Grandiosity post came from international clients from those two regions above.
As I said above, I think there are different causes for this phenomenon. As an anthropologist of Japan with background in the study of East Asia more generally, I know that some of my East Asian clients turn to grandiosity in an anxious attempt to compensate for cultural norms in that region that emphasize diffidence and humility. These clients tell me that they are painfully aware that they must “toot their own horn” in America; they just have no idea how. They sometimes overcorrect. In other parts of the world, I surmise that it must be accepted professional behavior to make effusive claims of this kind, and they operate as effective professional communication practice. Or maybe everybody is over-correcting based on stereotypes of Americans? I’d be very interested to hear from readers: is this true? what insights can you share?
But on the American academic job market, all applicants come up against what I call the Academic Skepticism Principle. Nobody accepts claims at face value. If you can’t stand up at a major American conference and announce, “My perspective on Austen is pathbreaking and widely-imitated! The field of Austen Studies will be fundamentally transformed by my conclusions, and academic presses are clamoring for my book!” then, you shouldn’t say that in a job application letter either. Your case for yourself must be the same, in all of these American scholarly contexts. It must be based on the presentation of evidence.