Americans Don’t Brag

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.

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Americans Don’t Brag — 16 Comments

  1. I’m aware of one reverse instance of this, as an American who occasionally applies to academic jobs in the UK. British academia runs in part on government grants that are doled out on a competitive basis, even for humanities research. Any hiring department wants to know that you have the potential to bring in the money. Therefore, I am told, it is expected that you will not only list all grants and awards on your CV, but that you will also indicate the cash value of each. The stereotype is that Americans are much happier to discuss money than our British friends are, yet to me as an American this just feels so tacky. It’s counter-intuitive to me.

    • In my field, in the united states, it is indeed common to list dollar amounts for grants on your CV. I think this is a disciplinary thing, not a regional one.

    • In the sciences here in America it is standard to list grants and awards with the dollars for each on your CV. Is this not what they do in the Humanities? Interesting!

      • Generally not, but it’s common, as you say, in the sciences and some of the social sciences. But the listing of dollar amounts is not bragging in any case, in any context–it’s presentation of facts/evidence. To do or not is just field convention.

    • Listing dollar amounts is very common in the sciences and some experimental social sciences, and is really a field convention. The humanities tend not to do this, but nobody would be horrified if you did. It doesn’t fall into the bragging continuum–it’s just presentation of evidence.

    • That’s interesting — in Britain, I have never seen anyone list £ amounts for their grants, only the names and durations of the grants. I suspect it’s because many grants such as postdoc fellowships don’t come as fixed amounts directly to the grantee, but rather they go to the host institution to cover the overheads (to the institution) + the grantee’s salary. So you never really know how much was awarded to you in total.

      In contrast, I have read hundreds CVs of Americans working in US institutions in similar fields to mine (both humanities and sciences), and they always list precise dollar amounts for their grants. Maybe indeed it’s a disciplinary thing…

  2. I suspect it’s overccompensating for a certain perception of Americans. Certainly in Britain i would never write the phrases you quote and expect to be taken seriously. But you’re right that we don’t understand the difference between bragging and self promotion. My gut response is that the two are synonymous…

  3. I wonder if the tendency to use grandiose words has anything to do with the way English as a foreign language is taught in some countries. I worked with an editing client from Greece who was fond of majestic words and odd idioms, and I figured he must have learned them early on and they sort of “stuck”. I’m sure I do the same when writing in Spanish.

    • “Majestic words”! What an amazingly apt phrase! I’m not sure about this, but I wonder if people speak in a more flowery majestic way in Spanish and that’s getting translated?

  4. I tend to agree that the pomposity results from overcompensation in the case of scholars from Western Europe. As one of them I usually have the feeling my cv will never look as “outstanding” as that of my colleagues in th US, not to speak of my recommandation letters. In the case of South Asia, though, it has historical roots. The history of Classical India is full of very local rulers calling themselves “king of kings”:-)

  5. I’m Cdn and have run into this on several fronts – the UK where reference letters do little more than acknowledge they know you (stick to the facts, almost no adjectives), and the US, where things tend to be a little more vigorously self-promoted than I’m used to (this needs to be toned down slightly in Canada or people will think you are arrogant).

    I’m mostly found ‘inappropriate tone’ from East Asian students – either way too casual or way too formal.

  6. This sounds to me like it could also be the result of too much experience writing grants and not enough writing job applications.

    Your first example is almost word-for-word what our research office grants advisor person revised into my first grant application as a new postdoc (in Australia). In the section on “benefits to the university” I had written something like:

    “My research will raise the university’s profile in this area.”

    The research office rewrote it as “My cutting-edge research will put the university on the map as a leader in the field” or very similar. “Cutting edge” was certainly inserted, and “leader in the field” got added all over the place.

    I think everyone here at least expects that sort of overblown nonsense in grant applications (partly because reviewers have to give numeric scores for things like “innovation” and “benefit to Australia”), but the tone is completely wrong for job applications.

    • Australia is hilarious like that!

      My Dean of Law had this phrase he’d whip out each public occasion, ‘We’re going to treat you to a feast of ideas!’ And don’t get me started on the whole ‘innovative approach’ thing, and that top 100/top 5000 graduate satisfaction rating crap they spew out each year!

      They actually played a ten minute promo video – at my Masters graduation (yes, still with the marketing as I was out the door) – about how f—ing innovative they were!

  7. As a french professor having dealt a few times with american graduate student applications here in France, I am very surprised at what you say. We consistently find the american applications exaggerately bragging and boastful. The letters of recommandation, in particular, often verge on the ridicule with excessive promotion in comparaison to french standards. Similarly, the cover letters we receive often make the writer seem arrogant and conceited, again in comparaison with those received from national students. I therefore find it surprising that you encounter exactly the same problem the other way around. So either, as you mention it, the bragging you see comes from over-compensation to try and meet american standards, or else it could be related to the insecurity felt by those who apply as “strangers” to an academic milieu of which they are not part of and for which they feel underqualified – whatever the nationality of either party.

    • good point! please do check out my post, How To Write a Recommendation Letter. I echo much of what you say here about American-style recommendation letters!

  8. When I came to the US six years ago from Germany I not only had to learn to self-promote, I had to learn to use more positive language and what felt like a lot of adjectives in general. After concerts, lectures, dinners I listened to Americans and how they phrased praise. I quickly found out that you have to add a lot of “amazing”, “fantastic” and the like so you won’t sound like you didn’t like it. A simple “this was good” didn’t cut it.
    In my experience Americans don’t brag more, but the language conventions are certainly different.
    It is difficult to write a job letter in your native language. In a second (or in my case third) language it is even harder to find the right tone. I think for many internationals the braggy tone is a result of following American stereotypes (and experiences) of cultural differences in how praise for oneself and others is expressed and over-correcting, because the language skills are lacking the last little something.

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