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Self-Deprecating Humor is a Powerful Tool of Influence

Self-Deprecating Humor is a Powerful Tool of Influence

To influence others, you have to establish a rapport with them.  One surprising, but effective way of doing that is by poking fun at yourself.  Self-deprecating humor is a powerful tool of influence.

Influence at the Irish Rover


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Several years ago while I was still in seminary, a small group of my classmates and I went to eat at the Irish Rover Restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky.  We arrived, sat down to eat, and in a few moments, the waitress came to take our order.

She began cheerily enough.  But then she asked us if we were students at U of L.

“No,” I said.  “We’re students at the Baptist seminary over on Grinstead.”

“Oh, she said, he facing dropping.  “So, y’all are ‘Bible boys.’  Well, what do you want to drink?  Probably water, huh?”

The waitress’s curtness was uncalled for and unprofessional, but we let it slide.  Although there were some of us who could be uptight and pompous, the guys that I hung out with were genuinely sincere in their desire to love and accept other people no matter what.  But she didn’t know that.  Maybe that wasn’t her experience with Christians.  Maybe she had the Christian parents from hell.  Who knows?

Either way, when she came back with our drinks, one of my friends, John Gallman, spoke up, “Hey, what’s your name?”

“Tina,” our waitress said.

“Tina, that’s great,” John said.  “Tina, I need your help with something:  I have to make a tough decision.”

Tina furled her brow, pursed her lips, and put her hands on her hips.

“Oh yeah?” she asked.  “Fine. What’s that?”

“Well, I got two possible careers and I’m wrestling with which one to choose,” he said.

“Okay, what are they?”

“The first one is a pastor,”  he said.

“Great,” she said.  “Have fun with that.”

“Yeah, see here’s the thing,” John said.  “I don’t know if I’m cracked up for it, you know?  I’m a pretty messed up guy, you know what I’m saying?  Not sure I got the Right Stuff. I’m one fry short of a Happy Meal.”

Tina shook her head and tried to hold in her chuckle.

“Okay,” she said.  “So what’s the second option?”

John grinned.


Tina lost it.  She let out a belly laugh that echoed in the restaurant.

And with that, her whole disposition changed.  By the end of the night, she was epitome of “service with a smile.”

How did John do that?  How did he effect such a radical transformation in our server – taking her from Ice Witch to Miss Congeniality?

He didn’t take himself too seriously.  He playfully poked fun at himself.  He harnessed the undeniably persuasive power of self-deprecation.

Here’s why self-deprecating humor is so powerful:

Self Deprecating Humor is a Powerful Tool Because It’s Rare. And What is Rare Captures the Attention.

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Amy Schumer is a stand-up comedian, writer, producer, director, and actress.  The star of the film Trainwreck, she has received all sorts of critical acclaim, awards, and rave reviews.  Popular audiences love her. In this video posted by The Hollywood Reporter, she is asked why she thinks people resonate so much with her humor.  She says, “So many people today are so hateful.  We’re all so ready to burn each other at the stake.  So I thought I’d just burn myself.” She’s definitely gotten people’s attention.  Her approach is so unique and successful that she just sold the rights to publish her book for $10 million.

Self-Deprecating Humor is a Powerful Tool Because It Combines the Attractive Qualities of Confidence and Wit.

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Poking fun at yourself shows confidence?  Yes. It does.  We’re not talking about beating yourself up, okay?  This isn’t the same as someone who says, “Poor me. I suck.  I’m such a loser with nothing to offer the world.”  A truly confident person can have his imperfections and eccentricities roasted and not wilt like a flower in the sun.  They see their own foibles and and have the strength of character to laugh at them.  And they often know themselves so well that they are highly skilled in self-roasting.

Abraham Lincoln, certainly not known for his good looks, consistently ranks among the most popular Presidents and influential leaders of all time.  He was a public speaker without peer.  He was also self-deprecating.  Accused of being insincere by a political opponent, he asked, “If I was two-faced, would I wear this one?”  It takes a confident, witty person to zing themselves.  And those are the kind of people others are drawn to.

P.S.:  For what it’s worth, self-deprecating humor – a la the kind commonly modeled by Hugh Grant in his romantic comedies – is supposedly the most effective kind of humor for charming a woman!

Self-Deprecating Humor is a Powerful Tool Because It Disarms People, Establishes Trust, and Opens Them Up to Relationship.

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Schumer is right: Too many people in the world want to burn others at the stake.  No matter who you are, all of us have walls.  For you to be able to connect with others in a meaningful way, and exercise influence in their lives, those walls have to come down.  Well, there are few better ways to establish trust with another person than to use self-deprecating humor.  When you do that, the person knows that you’re not itching to fire bullets at them.  Why?  Because you’re firing them at yourself.

In the same way, poking fun at yourself shows them that you obviously don’t take yourself too seriously.  That means that you’re not an egomaniac.  You’re not self-centered.  You are other-centered.  Reassured of this, they are far more likely to drop their guard, trust you, and open up to you.  That is the moment when real connection occurs and you can exercise the most effective influence.

How well do you know yourself?  Are you aware of your own eccentricities and imperfections?  Well-versed in your failures and foibles?  Use this knowledge as ammunition–against yourself.  It will arm you with real firepower to impact and influence others.