Insecurity, like blood, will out. It makes us feel so vulnerable and exposed that we eventually expose ourselves and become vulnerable. Like a scarlet sock in the load of white wash, insecurity has the irksome power to stain our speech and writing, interfering with the immaculate poise we’d like to project.
Yet if you know what linguistic tics to look for, you can recognize self-doubt (and perhaps bleach the fuchsia from your pants before anyone notices). Insecurity has several linguistic calling cards, and learning to spot them may help you both assuage others and more skillfully present your self to the world. Below are a few tips for getting the insecurity out of your words—and maybe picking up some confidence in the process.
First, beware overcompensation. Nothing announces an inferiority complex like the bugle of self-promotion. In a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science (described by Wray Herbert), researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard report that people at the edges of a given group are more likely to use language that emphasizes their membership in the group. Central figures are less likely to assert their belonging.
One study compared the websites of top universities and top master’s degree universities. All the schools have graduate education programs, unlike “mere” colleges, which teach undergraduates only. But the researchers thought the master’s institutions might be less secure in their status, since they don’t hand out Ph.D.s. Volunteer judges kept track of how often each website referred to its institution by name (“Harvard”) and how often it alluded to “the university” or “Harvard University.” The results: Master’s universities invoked their prestigious university-ness more often than universities that offered Ph.D.s. Worrying that you stand at the periphery of a privileged group makes you want to emphasize that you really do belong.
Next, the researchers conducted the same analysis on the websites of big and small international airports. International airports enjoy a higher status than domestic ones, so the hypothesis was that the smaller international airports would defensively underscore their globalism, whereas large international airports would adopt the careless hauteur of Harvard You-Know-What. Lo and behold: While the smaller airports used “international” in 70 percent of all self-references, the heavies employed it in fewer than half.
Finally, the researchers returned to academia, those halls aswarm with precisely coded language and the affairs of the ego. They asked a sample of Harvard students to list “things you think of” when either describing their school to others or imagining it in the privacy of their own heads. The same went for a group of University of Pennsylvania students. The test was whether Harvard kids used the august phrase “Ivy League” more or less frequently than the Penn kids, given Harvard’s reputation as the quintessential Ivy League college and Penn’s as the league’s red-headed stepchild. Consistent with the other studies, the Penn students were much more likely to invoke that hallowed circle of institutions than their Harvard peers.
Wait, you may be saying. Does this explicit labeling have to stem from insecurity, or might it simply seek to resolve ambiguity? We assume that big sprawling airports offer international flights. Smaller airports may simply have an interest in informing people when they supply services that aren’t self-evident or intuitive. Likewise, if not everyone knows or remembers that Penn belongs to the Ivy League, then there are practical reasons to spotlight the association.
Yet the researchers’ interpretation of their findings feels at least partially correct to me. I remember screaming my lungs sore for my swim team as a kid, even inventing my own cheers about the Edgemoor Dolphins. Why? Because I was a terrible swimmer, with the aquatic mobility of a suitcase. Not for me the languid nonchalance of the freestyle record-breakers, with their sleepy-eyed assurance that their belonging could go unsaid. I had to prove my Dolphin-ness. In the same way, that telltale understatement—“I went to school in Boston”—is aggravating precisely because, by design, it oozes the insouciance of royalty.