REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from the FLorida Jewish News

Eight pairs of eyes were starring at me, their expressions serious. “So, Miss Hirschhorn,” they continued their interrogation, “what would you say are your strong points?” I was being interviewed for graduate school and I knew I had to sell myself.

“I’m organized,” I began, “I’m a hard worker; I learn fast; I’m responsible; I get along well with people; I enjoy helping; I like to write; I’m not stupid…”

“Hold on, there,” the professor with the dark eyes interrupted. “Why did you do that?”

I was startled. “Do what?” I asked.

“It was positive, positive, positive all the way through your list until you got to the end. Then it was, ‘I’m not stupid,’ he pointed out. Why did you do that?”

Oh, boy, now they got me. Caught red-handed with humility. What an awful time for that. How am I supposed to sell myself?

Taking a deep breath, I said in a tiny voice, “I didn’t want to brag.”

“Well,” piped up a petite lady with honey-blonde hair, “if you did want to brag, what would you say?”

The air fizzled out of me like a tired balloon. “I’d say I was smart,” I admitted.

I got in. Humility lost; boastfulness won. Well, I suppose there were other reasons I got accepted for doctoral work that fateful morning 15 years ago, but, clearly, these people wanted to hear what I thought was the unadulterated truth out of my lips, no beating about the bush.

And so, the question is: Did I do the right thing the first time? Shouldn’t I have laid it on the line right up front and not presented myself like some sort of wimp who can’t accurately assess herself? And, taking this question further: When is it right to say, “I know what I’m doing,” “I’m good at what I do,” or “I’m in charge here and you’ll do it on my terms” and when does that become arrogance? Is there some sort of foolproof test to determine which is right in any given situation?

Let’s start with some definitions. “Humility” is nothing more than awareness of one’s capabilities. We become aware of someone’s pride when that person speaks up in some way. Although Moses led the entire nation out of Egypt, he was considered to be the humblest man on Earth. That’s because he was honest about his strong points while seeing clearly his limitations. He was humble—but he was proud, too. He asserted his authority when necessary many times over. So, we can say that an outcome of pride is the natural leadership the proud person takes in his or her areas of specialty.

“Arrogance” looks awfully much the same. The person is aware of his skills and talents in an area and assumes leadership in that area. The only difference is that those around him or her are bothered by it. For some reason, that control feels pushy and out of place. The observer is inclined to think, “Who does he think he is?” There seems to be a divide between the individual’s self-assessment and that of onlookers.

That runs us right into the next question: Who’s responsible for that—the person or the spectators? After all, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, wouldn’t that also be true for another person’s talents and management? Perhaps, when there is a difference of opinions, the arrogance lies not with the person in charge but with the viewers. Perhaps it is the viewers who have misplaced arrogance rather than the presumptive leader. How are we to tell?

How To Test For Arrogance

  • Here’s one clue: A person who knows his (or her) strengths, also knows his weaknesses. You’ll frequently find a person who is proud and takes leadership roles in one domain, deferring to others in different domains of activity. The arrogant person won’t do that. The arrogant person seems to know everything about everything and won’t give up a stronghold on anything. Thus, in judging who the arrogant person really is, ask yourself: Which one of these two people thinks he or she knows everything about everything? Which one has all the answers on all subjects? That’s one clue.


  • The problem with this clue is that sometimes one individual is really, really well versed on life. Being widely knowledgeable does not connote arrogance. What’s more, if the presumed arrogant person appears to be a know-it-all on topics that he has, indeed, specialized in, he has a right to be considered an expert on them. Oprah has interviewed thousands of people and has read hundreds of books; maybe she has a right to be considered an expert in many social issues. The clergy, too, could be considered experts on many social issues simply because of the number of people who have come to them with stories and problems in need of solution. So, a second clue is to ask: What is this person’s specialty? Perhaps his line of work entitles him to expertise.


  • Here’s a third clue: How do most people think about the individual in question? Is the supposedly arrogant one well regarded? Is she or he respected in the community? Does he rub many people the wrong way or is it just this one person who judges him to be arrogant?


  • Of course, there’s also a problem with this reasoning. There can be several people who feel the same negative way. In the history of psychology, when two people share the same delusions, it’s called a “follie au deaux” – mistakes by two (people). As we have seen from the ranks of skinheads and other fringes, there can be many people sharing a view—and they can all be wrong. Therefore, if more than one person feels he is arrogant, we must next ask: Who are these people? What do they have in common and what do they mutually object to in the one they consider arrogant?


  • Finally, what is the general demeanor of the person under question? Is he for the most part humble, gracious, kindly, thoughtful, and considerate? Good qualities usually go together (though not always.) Moses was both humble and proud. A few ne’er-do-wells thought he was arrogant—but they were wrong.

Let’s apply these clues to the original question: When is it right to let the world know who you are and when does it become arrogance? Had I been uniformly positive, I would not have seemed arrogant according to all three clues presented here. My own case is a good example of staying on the safe side and thereby avoiding being wrongly accused of arrogance, but you know what? I’m glad my professors had me ditch the false modesty. If you try not to sound like a know-it-all, are generally well-regarded, and have all-around good character, I say, go for it! Let the world know who you are! Hiding who you are is not a good formula for using what you have.

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