Bryan Caplan  

When to Be Meek

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If you're not getting what you want out of life, people usually advise you to speak up and demand what's coming to you.  You'll never get anywhere just saying "please" and "thank you."  You've got to stand up and assert yourself.

Strangely, though, most of the people who offer this advise aren't getting what they want out of life, either.  If they've really got a foolproof strategy to get ahead, why don't they practice what they preach?

The answer, naturally, is that "demanding what's coming to you" sounds a lot better in theory than it actually works.  Standing up for yourself is a high-risk strategy.  Yes, it occasionally pays off, but it's far from a sure thing.  Sometimes you get nothing but aggravation.  And sometimes the whole approach backfires.  How?  Being demanding causes other people to dislike you.  And when people dislike you, they treat you worse.

This doesn't mean that the meek will inherit the earth.  But it does mean that meekness is underrated.  Although you won't rise to the top of the heap by being meek, you probably won't get hurled to the bottom, either. 

"Stand up for yourself" isn't just overrated; it's also misdirected.  We're quickest to dispense this advice to the people least likely to benefit from it.  Consider: If you have wealth and power, standing up for yourself tends to work well.  But we usually advise the wealthy and powerful to be gentle and generous.  Perhaps we're just advising them to use their status ethically.  But we often couch such advice in prudential terms: "A smart CEO knows that a happy worker is a productive worker."  If, on the other hand, you're poor and powerless, standing up for yourself is normally disastrous.  If you have little to offer, you have to rely on the goodwill of others.  And one of the surest ways to make a bonfire of your accumulated goodwill is to embrace a bad attitude.

Charles Murray's Coming Apart doesn't directly discuss the value of meekness.  But my analysis is very consistent with Murray's.  My speculation:

A major difference between the professional and working classes is that professionals appreciate the wages of meekness.  They realize that if you want to move from high school to college, from college to an entry-level job, from an entry-level job to a promotion, you must get in the habit of saying, "Thank you, sir.  May I have another?"  Even if you're elite in absolute terms, you ascend the hierarchy by showing deference to people who are even more elite than you are.  The working class, in contrast, is dysfunctionally assertive.  Maybe they put pride and machismo above success; maybe they falsely believe that pride and machismo are a shortcut to success.  In either case, as Murray emphasizes, one of the best ways for elites to help is to preach the meekness they've so often and so fruitfully practiced.

Consider this one such sermon.


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COMMENTS (30 to date)
Noah Smith writes:

Wait, what's the evidence that the working class is assertive? I haven't observed that.

Chuck Rudd writes:

I'm a waiter at a mid-tier restaurant (where the higher classes eat when they want something cheap and the lower classes eat when they're celebrating), and I see pretty stark and generalizable differences between the children of lower classes and those of higher classes. Goes without saying that there are exceptions - snobby rich and very meek poor.

But those at the lower end of the spectrum tend to be more demanding, and their kids are demanding. Fewer "please" and "thank you's". They tend to have less patience, and I suspect that this stems from a socialization towards resource competition. They're used to fighting for space at the figurative trough of life.

And as Bryan says, the lower classes are less well-heeled towards displays of submission. Instead of asking, they prefer taking. This preserves their self-perception.

Kevin writes:

This definitely rings true for me.

My family (immediate plus extended) has a considerable range of income/SES, and they often offer me career-related advice. My parents (relatively low SES, working class) are forever telling me to stand up for myself and generally be more assertive towards my colleagues/bosses/employers in my academic work. Meanwhile, my higher-SES extended family often suggests that I simply do my best, get along as best as possible, and only raise issue if I'm treated severely unjustly. I basically always follow the latter's advice.

Just running an introspective, I can't imagine being where I am now if I employed the former strategy. I've met those kinds of people in my work, and it's like they're marked men/women - their future career options are limited because they keep badgering people most likely to give them opportunities.

Pandaemoni writes:

I would guess you'd be aware of this, since a George Mason professor was a co-author but this study was interesting:

"Not surprisingly, the biggest salary increases went to those who negotiated in the most competitive manner, acting purely out of self-interest. This could mean trying to use a job offer from another firm as leverage or even misrepresenting some facts. This type of negotiation often left both sides feeling on edge.

But it’s not all about the money, the study’s authors found. Those who were willing to cooperate with their new employer and sacrifice some monetary compensation for non-salary benefits felt better about the outcome and their role at the company. They also gained in other ways. “When they collaborate, they raise their salary a bit; get some non-salary benefits like more vacation, better healthcare, or help with education expenses; and walk away thinking it’s a win-win,” says one of the study’s coauthors, Crystal Harold, an assistant professor at Temple University’s Fox School of Business. When companies don’t have a lot of money to offer, the collaborative approach is an especially useful tool at the negotiating table.

http://www.strategy-business.com/article/11115?gko=f225b

The article has links to the paper itself.

Evan writes:
The answer, naturally, is that "demanding what's coming to you" sounds a lot better in theory than it actually works. Standing up for yourself is a high-risk strategy. Yes, it occasionally pays off, but it's far from a sure thing. Sometimes you get nothing but aggravation. And sometimes the whole approach backfires. How? Being demanding causes other people to dislike you. And when people dislike you, they treat you worse.
This article by John Cheese has some excellent things to say about the sort of people who advise you to stand up for yourself:
If you look at the posting history of these types of people, you can always pick out the emotional baggage they're bringing into a thread like that. They're suggesting that a person tell their boss to ---- off and then walk out of their job because that's something they really want to do themselves ... if it weren't for the fact that they're smart enough to know that they need a paycheck, and burning that bridge means having a gaping scar on their work history. So they tell you to do it instead as a means of experiencing that fantasy through your actions.
Peter writes:

I'm not sure I agree with that analysis at all. I find the so called professional meek are often extremely passive aggressive with little professional pride and tyrants when they get in actual position of authority, que civil servants, middle management, et al. Basically you succeed by not being the tallest nail whereas in the skilled trades you can often succeed by merit.

Lori writes:

Of course it's simply axiomatic that if "you're poor and powerless" it follows that "you have little to offer." I guess there's a time to be meek, and there's a time to be incredibly arrogant. It's also easier to kick 'em when they're down, when you're up.

Lewis writes:

Do you have close, personal experience with the American working class? Like, do you have cousins who go to jail sometimes or work in food service as adults? Or have you, in your post-college life, volunteered with working class teenagers? It's not a precondition for researching the topic but I think it should be a precondition for sermons about specific behaviours. Otherwise, it's very easy to go adrift, theorizing from vague impressions or pushing published research farther than the authors intended.

Lori writes:

I think his statements rest on the Iron Laws of Economics. Prices contain all information therefore those who are poor and powerless have little to offer. QED.

Seem writes:

I think you have the causality the wrong way round. Working class people adopt agressive machismo in an attemp to gain some status/respect that they don't have from money. Although counter productive, giving off an air of 'I might stab you' does generate a wary respect from richer people around you. Sadly, our society admires (in a sense) a capacity for violence as much as wealth.

Telnar writes:

I think this advice aggregates two very different elements of meekness, only one of which is suitable for those of higher ability than their current status:

-- Polite deference to those with greater current status when socially expected
-- Unchallenging acceptance of one’s current status

While deferring to those with greater current status might well work even for those whose lives are on an upward trajectory, accepting their current status is less likely to.

Meekness broadly implemented will damp signals. Someone who believes that he can usefully signal ability beyond the reference group he’s probably being considered in will need to find a way to make that ability clear. This can be done without aggression, but elements of it will be inconsistent with a meek style.

Of course, not everyone excels beyond his reference group. Those who don’t have little to lose by damping signals.

Ollie writes:

This post is meant to be satirical, right?

A parody of what libertarians believe?

jb writes:

I think y'all are forgetting the context. If someone is giving advice to John about 'you need to stand up for yourself' - it's most likely because John is complaining (i.e. bitching) about a lack of respect, lack of pay, lack of justice, etc.

Essentially, this is a way to say 'I'm tired of listening to you. Stop bitching, John, and do something about your situation'. Either he gets what he wants, or he gets fired, but either way, he stops complaining to me.

And this is perfectly fair, I think - if John is quietly accepting of his low pay, there's no need (and I doubt anyone except a wife/partner) would tell him to demand more. But if he's complaining, others are well within their rights to point out that bitching is easy, dealing with the issue is hard, and people who deal with problems generally do better in life than people who passively (or passively-aggressively) don't deal with issues, and instead bitch and moan in private.

Very few (any?) rich/successful people got that way by complaining (except maybe the Winklevoss twins). Most of them deal with issues and challenges, and rise above them. That, generally, is what separates the successful from the unsuccessful - a resolve to push through issues, problems and bad luck. Manage one's own fate, rather than let fate control you.

Having said this - the majority of the people who pursue a "stand up and demand what's yours" strategy get slapped down, or only have limited success. The odds are against them. But we don't see the odds - we see the winners, who occupy seats of power by using that strategy. So we assume "stand up and demand what's yours" is always the correct strategy. Realistically, it's impossible to know.


Randy writes:

"Maybe they put pride and machismo above success; maybe they falsely believe that pride and machismo are a shortcut to success."

I don't think that thought of "success" has much to do with it. The working class doesn't "succeed" - we "survive". And part of the reason we survive is that, when hit, we hit back. Its the same reason that a bee stings - so that next time you will watch your step.

Floccina writes:

Great post and great comments.

I have a friend who was a hard worker (though indelicate) who liked to tell his bosses off and as a result would get fired often. He particularly liked to tell his bosses of their breaking of the labor laws and of their OSHA failings. I told him that he needed to consider his options before addressing his bosses. BATNA is important. I also like to remind him that he might not like to hire himself.

Ollie's post begs for details. I am open to evidence that Bryan is wrong but you brought none.

Llama writes:

I like Seem's comment. Maybe substitute "sadly" for "currently".
@Ollie: One could ask the same of your comment. Substance please or else there is no way to respond that is not offensive.

Chuck Rudd writes:

Paul Willis' "Learning to Labor" is an interesting ethnography on working-class school-age kids in Britain. Willis draws a parallel between "the lads" who rebel against the authority of their teachers and the formal versus informal structure of working class mens' shop-floor etiquette.

http://books.google.com/books/about/Learning_to_labor.html?id=3zmVaLrGIDEC

EastEasy writes:

This post mixes up the concept of assertiveness and bad behavior, as if they were the same. They aren't. Non-assertive people may not sink, but they drift down to the bottom of the barrel.

One can be assertive AND have good manners. But the non-assertive meek will be drowned out in any competitive commercial environment.

Waldo writes:

It's the old adage, "don't tell me, show me." Success is progressive and cumulative, the progeny of stable self-esteem, strong work ethic, and professional demeanor. The meek person who suddenly blurts out demands because he feels he has been passed over, is a natural born loser.

guthrie writes:

Here's my issue with Bryan's point (similar to what EastEasy said). Meekness does not always imply that one does not 'stand up for oneself'. Assertive does not always mean 'arrogant' or even 'aggressive', and it’s not necessary to conflate assertion with ‘a bad attitude’. There are good natured ways to 'demand what you think you deserve', and very bad natured ways to be 'meek'.

Confrontation is never easy. If you're alone in a room, someone else just entering will likely slightly raise your blood pressure.

If you understand that most confrontations involve a status transaction, and all status transactions between people begin with the physical (which is my assertion here)... posture, eye-contact/blink rates/pupil dilation, position of the head in relation to the shoulders... then it's plausible to say that if one learns how to adjust these physical cues, one can then learn to address whomever in whatever manner they so choose and increase their chance of 'success' in subsequent encounters.

Say we’re approaching your boss for a raise. We can storm in, raise our voice, toss her desk papers on the floor, call her names, or what have you. This will likely have the opposite effect than what we intend.

We can also approach our boss, standing at the door until we’re specifically invited in, and when we do, shuffle, not make sustained eye-contact, touch our face periodically, stand behind the chairs unless asked to sit, and if we do sit, we sit on the edge of the seat, and so forth. No matter how many 'pleases' and 'thank you's' are inserted into our sentences, no matter how many facts we bring up, and unless our work is absolutely stellar, it won't compensate for our bearing. We may not get fired like the above character, but we won't likely get a raise either.

These are rather extreme examples highlighting a larger point. When one allows anger or bravura to drive our confrontations, then just the act of making the demand sours the interaction because it's indicative of insecurity. When one allows fear to creep into the interaction, the interaction itself may be drastically different, but the result is essentially the same. What one needs is courage combined with humility, which is what we typically understand as 'confidence'.

Let’s approach the boss again. This time, we adjust our posture, holding ourselves erect, but perhaps tilting our head slightly and holding a smile. We make sure our toes are pointed out, and that when we speak, our head is still. Perhaps we imagine there is warm, glowing ball an inch beneath our chest. You now address your boss, maintaining eye-contact. We ‘relax’ in the chair without making it seem as if we’re in our own living room. As if we’re comfortable with this space which isn’t our own. With these few simple adjustments, you have just raised your likelihood of a ‘successful’ outcome, and we’ve barely said a word. While none of these strategies can guarantee how the boss might respond, she won’t have bad behavior or awkward bearing as an ‘out’ to deny or reject your demand.

There are many more examples I could conceive of along these lines. Colloquially, I’ve had this work in my own life when these (and other) techniques have been put into practice. When I have failed to practice the above, I have by-in-large failed in my more intense encounters.

As a corollary (or perhaps a coda), it’s an old joke that diplomacy is the art of telling someone to go to hell in such a way that they will look forward to the trip. The point of the joke, the reason why it’s funny, is that it’s actually possible.

Elvin writes:

Some small observations:

Whenever a "big name" or "rain-maker" new employee was brought into our firm, we all knew that they had a really good salary compared to us. However, when times got tough, unless these "big names" were outstanding performers, which was pretty rare, they got cut the quickest.

So, it seems to me that those people who were overly assertive about salary demands, bigger offices, bigger spending accounts, etc, also had higher expectations placed on them. Management tolerated them less when failure occurred. Big salary/perks = big target.

Another story I've heard is that if you come in with an offer from another firm and your firm matches it, you tend to get a very low salary increase next year.

Finally, when I made my big mid-career move, I actually took a smaller salary. The chance to work on something I really wanted to was worth the move. Fortunately, I've been well rewarded for the risk I took.


Mark V Anderson writes:

I have to agree with some posters that some evidence is in order that blue collar workers are more assertive.

I think it is true that professionals are expected to be more meek in their opinions, at least in front of the boss. At least anyone who expects to become a manager some day learns quickly that metaphorically kissing butt is very good for one's career. I think that blue collar workers are much less likely to have that aspiration so they don't need to pretend to be as meek.

Although I have little direct knowledge, I suspect the poster that said that trades are more often measured by merit to be totally incorrect. I have been a professional most of my life, with a few years at unskilled factory work. But the experience I have had, and from what I've heard of the good old boys network, I suspect that blue collar work is just as controlled by cronyism as with professionals. It's a different culture, but it comes to the same thing.

Chuck Rudd writes:

Mark:

I think it is true that professionals are expected to be more meek in their opinions, at least in front of the boss. At least anyone who expects to become a manager some day learns quickly that metaphorically kissing butt is very good for one's career. I think that blue collar workers are much less likely to have that aspiration so they don't need to pretend to be as meek.

I agree, but playing politics is part of the game. Everyone at the top knows that it is going on, but saving face and biting lips is required to stay on the ladder. More and more from the working class are not willing to play politics. They think it is selling out or fakery. In truth, it is, but those are part of the dues that people must pay to earn a good income. I think this anti-sell out ethos has grown among that lower class.

Mupetblast writes:
They think it is selling out or fakery. In truth, it is, but those are part of the dues that people must pay to earn a good income. I think this anti-sell out ethos has grown among that lower class.

This is kind of the essence of conservatism, at least in the institutional if not the social sense. And while I agree, because I only have one life to live and don't want to spend it a broke pariah, I still respect folks who won't put up with kissing ass, laughing at the boss's bad jokes, etc. There's a refreshing honesty there.

Caution that I'm not saying I admire the kind of person that would beat the hell out of someone for accidentally stepping on their new shoes. That's lower class pathology at its worst.

blink writes:

Deference is a learned cultural trait and so becomes an excellent signaling device, a quick proxy for elite education. I think that cursing/swearing fits in the same category. It may also signal valuable traits like cooperativeness and a low discount rate. Shamus Khan's book Privilege is on point.

Ollie writes:

Floccina, regarding your "evidence" about your "friend":

I too have a "friend." She is both working class and meek. Satisfied?

To be honest, I didn't see much evidence in the post. See Noah's comment.

Marcus writes:

The argument seems to be:

"Standing up for oneself" is counter-productive if you are an individual low-skill worker. Showing deference to your superiors will reap benefits when your superiors compare your cooperation with the relative defiance of the other workers.

But given that we accept the low skill workers tend to have more pride (i.e., they covet "respect" or status because of their low wages), why would workers hear the advice "You should be more accepting of your place and cooperate with your boss/company" and actually do so? It seems if this advice become more widespread and the low-skill worker class has too much pride, they would tend to defy that advice ("You want me to just lay down and take this???") and form unions.

GIVCO writes:

I second jb, telling someone to stand-up for themselves is how I tell a colleague to either do something about it or just shut-up, but in either case leave me alone.

And "meekness" isn't what's necessary in the professional world, it's temperament. Assertive without anger, deferential without obsequiousness, humorous without buffoonery, polite without intrusiveness, etc etc.

UppityWorker writes:

You wrote:

The working class, in contrast, is dysfunctionally assertive. ... One of the best ways for elites to help is to preach the meekness they've so often and so fruitfully practiced.

Now, let's try that another couple of ways and see how it reads:

Women, in contrast, are dysfunctionally assertive. ...One of the best ways for elites to help women is to preach the meekness they've so often and so fruitfully practiced.

Or

Hispanics, in contrast, are dysfunctionally assertive. ...One of the best ways for elites to help Hispanics is to preach the meekness they've so often and so fruitfully practiced.

Or

Blacks, in contrast, are dysfunctionally assertive. ...One of the best ways for elites to help blacks is to preach the meekness they've so often and so fruitfully practiced.

In other words: Some self-appointed "elite" should tell us lesser beings how we should behave. Why? Well, for the purpose of getting along in hierarchies controlled by -- tada! -- that very elite.

Sorry. Your advice may be useful for underlings who want to climb half-way up corporate ladders. But that's not how some of us define "getting what [we] want out of life."

And as a successful libertarian woman from working-class roots who believes that people can make it on their own merits, I find such stuffy elitism shameful and darned near laughable.

Bob Murphy writes:

I'm not saying this post is right or wrong, Bryan. All I'm saying is, when we all get locked up for opposing the regime, you'd better hope the other inmates don't see this post.

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