Impostor Syndrome and Cultural Rules

January 6, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Many years ago, I was talking with a successful business consultant. He had a PhD in business from a prestigious school, was on the faculty of another pretigious business school, and for several years now, corporations were paying him large sums to come in for a day or two. Still, he didn’t feel secure. “I keep thinking, What if they find out?”

I remembered that conversation when a thread on impostor syndrome showed up in my Twitter feed. What set people off was this tweet in response to someone who had tweeted about her own feelings of being an impostor.

True, it’s the individual’s problem, not society’s. Society doesn’t suffer if you feel like an impostor. But that doesn’t mean that social factors are irrelevant. What if impostor syndrome is more prevalent and more persistent among women than men? That would certainly suggest that the causes are social and not just psychological. In fact, many of the responses to this tweet argued that a person’s race, class, gender, age and other social variables might affect the probability that they would feel like an impostor. Or as Nathalie Olah in the Guardian (here) put it, “what seems more likely is that impostor syndrome is a rather natural reaction of anyone from a working-class, disadvantaged or minority background to the various biases they face on a daily basis.”

The studies on these variables are far from unanimous, if only because there’s no standardized way of measuring the crucial variable of feeling like an impostor. But I’d like to throw in one more variable — culture. My guess is that impostor syndrome is more prevalent and more deeply affecting in societies that emphasize success, societies like, oh I don’t know, the United States.

The British, by contrast, seem not so obsessed by success. In some instances, not being a success and not having the right stuff can put a person one up on the others in the room. I’m thinking here of Humiliation, a party game played by literature professors in Changing Places by British novelist David Lodge. Each person has to name a literary work, preferably one in the canon, that they have never read. You get a point for every other player who in fact has read it. The winner will be the one who has not read the classics that a lit professor would be expected to be familiar with — in other words, the biggest impostor.

Presumably, for the British and for less success-obsessed Americans the game is just a bit of fun. But for Howard Ringbaum, a success-driven American professor, the game creates an unresolvable conflict. “He has a pathological urge to succeed and a pathological fear of being thought uncultured, and this game set his two obsessions at war with each other, because he could succeed in the game only by exposing a gap in his culture.”

Ringbaum and Humiliation are fictions invented by a novelist. But Kate Fox is an anthropologist, and in Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour, she describes a similar game of “competitive self-deprecation” when real Brits talk about their home-improvement projects.

When showing visitors the results of your DIY efforts . . . a strict modesty rule applies. Even if you are highly skilled, you must always play down your achievements, and if possible play up your most embarrassing mistakes and blunders... 

‘I managed to burst three pipes just laying the carpet!’ 

‘We bought an expensive carpet, but I ruined it by cutting it four inches short, so I had to build some bookcases to cover the gap.’

‘You think that’s bad: it took me an hour and three cups of tea to put up a coat-hook board, and then I found I’d hung it upside-down!’

Here’s more British fun: In a dinner-party scene in the film “Notting Hill,” the competition involves not a specific area like literature or home-improvement but more or less the total self. Except for the newcomer in their midst – a famous actress (played by Julia Roberts), the guests all know one another well, and as the the host says, “I've long suspected, that we really are the most desperate lot of under-achievers.” At dessert time, there’s one extra brownie, and the host says he will award the brownie to “the saddest act here.”

The video is nearly four minutes long, but it’s worth watching.   

I can’t think of anything similar in American novels or films. Maybe such scenes exist, and in any case, the connection between cultural fictions and real life is not always clear. But the larger point is that impostor syndrome depends on the rules of the game. Where the rules of everyday life allow for the disclosure of personal flaws,  people will be less likely to feel like an impostor and that feeling will be less salient.

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