Of the many ways we risk offending each other, arrogance is among the easiest to trip over by accident, and among the easiest to identify mistakenly. Part of the problem may be the importance of context in choosing how to behave, or how to interpret the behavior of others. Although some behaviors are almost certain to be regarded as arrogant, others can seem arrogant in some contexts, and seem acceptably confident in others. One area of difficulty is distinguishing arrogance from confidence.
The differences between arrogance and confidence can be subtle. Briefly, though, confidence rests on assessments of one's own ability to successfully meet a challenge or complete a task. Arrogance relates to an assertion about — rather than an assessment of — one's own ability or privileges relative to the ability or privileges of another or others. Confidence compares oneself to the challenge. Arrogance compares oneself to others.
Boasting, especially with exaggeration, is probably the most easily recognized tactic of the arrogant, but it's unlikely to be confused with confidence. Other tactics provide more "cover" to arrogant actors intent on asserting dominance with plausible deniability. Here's an introductory exploration of some of the differences between arrogance and confidence.
- Hobnobbing with the powerful
- Face time with the powerful can benefit both parties. For both the more powerful person, and the less powerful but confident person, time together can be an opportunity both to influence and to learn.
- The arrogant Boasting, especially with exaggeration,
is probably the most easily recognized
tactic of the arrogant, but it's unlikely
to be confused with confidenceand less powerful see face time with the powerful a bit differently. For the arrogant it's an opportunity to be seen as spending time with the powerful. And even if not actually witnessed by others, time spent with the powerful can provide material for later boasting.
- Namedropping out of context
- For the confident, mentioning the names of influential people in an appropriate context can be helpful in framing a question, illustrating a point, or validating facts.
- For the arrogant, mentioning those same names can be useful for asserting superiority over listeners by implying a relationship — especially a familiar relationship — with the people whose names are being dropped. Sometimes the arrogant will even imply an endorsement by the person mentioned.
- Knowing it all
- The confident display their knowledge only to the extent needed when asking questions, providing suggestions, or responding to queries.
- The arrogant display their knowledge for a purpose. They use it to establish or maintain superiority and dominance over their listeners, albeit often only in their own minds. In this pursuit, they offer sometimes-trivial notions out of context — or within context if the context can be sufficiently stretched. They steer conversations, situations, and discussions into areas where they believe they can dominate.
- Never acknowledging mistakes
- The confident don't shy from acknowledging mistakes or ignorance, because they understand that growth entails both errors and learning. They view making a mistake as an opportunity to learn.
- The arrogant cannot admit to mistakes or acknowledge ignorance to any extent, because mistakes and ignorance create difficulties for them in their pursuit of dominance of everyone around them.
- Other-deprecating humor
- Self-deprecating humor can ease tense moments by providing everyone a good laugh. The confident can execute it well. But it need not be hilarious — mild wit can be enough. Example: "Whenever I make a mistake, I remind myself that I probably didn't invent that particular way to goof up."
- The arrogant cannot indulge in self-deprecating humor because it conflicts with their objective of asserting dominance over all. Other-deprecating humor fits into the program nicely, even though its humor is lost on all but the arrogant. Example: "Whenever you make a mistake, it reminds me to be grateful none of it got on me."
Mistaking confidence for arrogance is a most unfortunate error. It prevents the people making such errors from availing themselves of whatever the confident person so misidentified might have to offer. The loss is most tragic when the people making these errors do so out of arrogance, as a defense against their own lack of confidence. Top Next Issue
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.