McKean’s Inversion

For no particular reason, I thought of an observation that lexicographer (and old college pal) Erin McKean had about the word “classy,” the gist of which was that if someone used the word to describe themselves, it was often quite obvious that they were in fact the opposite. Someone else calls you “classy”? Maybe you are. Call someone else “classy”? Maybe they are, too. Call yourself “classy”? It’s what you’re trying to sell yourself as, not necessarily what you are.

It occurs to me that this idea has application outside of the word “classy,” since I’ve often found that the adjectives people use to describe themselves exist on a spectrum with “aspirational” on one end and “delusional” on the other, with otherwise very little correlation to who they actually are:

“I am a humble man.”

“I’m punctual.”

“I’m a funny guy.”

And so on.

As there already exists a “McKean’s Law” with respect to words (“Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error”), allow me instead to suggest what I will henceforth label “McKean’s Inversion,” to wit:

The adjective a person says they are is frequently the thing they are not.

To put it in writing terms, it’s a fine example of “show, don’t tell.” Classy people don’t need to assert they’re classy, they do classy things. Funny people don’t have to assure you they’re funny, they simply make you laugh. Kind people don’t need to verbally advertise their kindness, because it’s evident in their lives. All of which is to say the way to be seen as funny, or kind, or humble, or classy, is to be that thing. And if you are, chances are pretty good other people will note it.

In any event, keep McKean’s Inversion in mind the next time you have the urge to tell rather than show what you see as your own best qualities. People may not have a term in their head for McKean’s Inversion, but, believe me, they know it exists.

126 Comments on “McKean’s Inversion”

  1. I was going to suggest the qualifier “positive adjective”, but then thought about it for a second.

  2. This can also apply to inanimate objects. For instance, the envelopes that say “Important!” on them never are. The important ones are plain white.

  3. This 100x to dating ads. Instead of being into cheezburgers, I’ve developed an internet weakness for things like The An(n)als of Online Dating and Date Wrecks and other such sites. Lots of people go out of their ways to describe themselves as “classy” or “a nice guy” or “funny” and combined with the rest of the profile or e-mail…it’s painful.

  4. Well I self describe as a verbose nutjob on occasion. Anyone who disagrees gets slapped with any appropriate food stuffs at hand whilst I recite the Jabberwocky. Agreement usually ensues.

  5. Huh, I’ve always heard McKean’s Law referred to as Muphry’s Law, for obvious reasons.

  6. I guess the corollary would be, the thing they say they aren’t is frequently the thing they are.

    The one I keep hearing these days is “I am not a racist.” Something that people who aren’t racists rarely feel compelled to say.

  7. Hmmm. It might be worth declaring the existence of a class of “McKeanic adjectives”.

    Some you can trust because they are hard to be delusional about: “I am tall,” “I am male,” “I am awake,” etc.

    Some I’d expect to be true or false with about equal frequency: “I’m fat,” “I’m unreliable,” “I’m a slob”. They tend to be negative.

    And some… some are the ones we’ve been talking about – classy, humble, funny, etc.. These are the McKeanic adjectives!

    (McKeanic? McKeannic? McKeanian?)

  8. Today at work, my boss was talking about the budget for an event and she said, “the problem is, I have exquisite taste.”

    Cue awkward silence.

    But in this case, I think it was less an example of McKean’s Inversion than plain ol’ misuse.

  9. My rules:

    1. Never drink wine with grapes on the label.
    2. Never eat anything that has “Food” in the name.

    What does McKean’s Inversion mean for a certain organization that tells us every five minutes that it’s Fair and Balanced?

  10. Another way of expressing the same thing is one I’ve used for years: “Facta, non verba.” (Deeds, not words.)

  11. John, for instance, never needs to assert he credits his sources.

    I had someone recently repeatedly assert how honest they were. No, they weren’t running for office, but I did keep checking my wallet.

  12. And how, exactly can one apply McKean’s Inversion to the interview process? Hmmm?

  13. Wait, so people are interpreting “I’m a bloody idiot” as meaning I’m neither bloody nor an idiot?

  14. same thing with tough guys, you either are or aren’t, don’t go around saying you are a tough guy especially if you can’t back it up

  15. I apply a version of this rule when writing and editing scientific manuscripts: attempts to highlight particular results by saying they’re especially interesting, or important, or significant, are almost always a bad idea. Either the reader will disagree about that characterization, and take against you for trying to mislead them, or you’ve made enough of a case for your characterization that the characterization itself doesn’t really need to be made – and, indeed, upon encountering this superfluous characterization the reader could interpret its inclusion as being a sign of condescension.

  16. “The adjective a person says they are is frequently the thing they are not.”

    Corollary: The more often they say it, the less likely they are to be correct.

  17. See also “German Democratic Republic”, “Holy Roman Empire”, and “Computer Science” :)

  18. I notice it a lot with pseudonymous online handles, ie, if someone’s handle is “VoiceOfReason” there is an excellent chance he’s an intolerable blowhard.

  19. Jamie@16: There’s an old saying, “If a man speaks of his honor, make him pay cash.”

    There are management gurus teaching a method for interviewing job applicants that tries to bypass the McKean Inversion. You don’t ask candidates to talk about themselves, you ask them what they did or how they acted in certain situations during previous jobs. It’s pretty enlightening, but how you word the question can make it fun, too. Like the application to work in childrens’ ministry at a megachurch in central Ohio that asked, “Have you ever been delivered from sexual immorality?”

    Lots of nervous laughter in the room that day.

  20. John @ 23:

    Or with certain Internet Libertarians who loudly proclaim how they’re being rational &c when it’s plainly obvious they’re really just religious about their political philosophy.

  21. So are we never, ever supposed to describe ourselves in positive terms? This seems … unhealthy.

  22. @Sihaya #29 and @Mark #9: I think that the take away is that you should not describe yourself at all.

    BTW: Does McKean’s Inversion apply to anything that starts with “For no particular reason”? I assume there is a particular reason somewhere for this post.

  23. Chris@ #30: But we’re asked to describe ourselves pretty often, I think. Job interviews, Facebook descriptions, etc. Who we are does pop up in conversation, and we can’t just say, “Wait, I’m going to call my buddy John. He’ll describe me for you.”

  24. Billy Quiet’s post booted into moderation because 1. I am away from home and on my phone, 2. leaving aside the difference between saying one feels humility on a certain matter and describing one’s self as humble, the rest of the post was off-topic cue card reading. Not every thread has to be about how much you hate [insert politician here), folks. Billy, if you want to try again, a little more on point this time, go ahead.

  25. I note that people often try to claim respectability through association. Most commonly, through religious or political affiliation. As a businessman, I run into people who wear their Christianity on their sleeve as a way of trying to gain your trust (obviously this has the opposite effect on the nonreligious), Such people have a high “con man” quotient. The secular equivalent of this seems to be the “trust me cuz I’m a good Liberal” con. These people frequently work in politics & get rich off the graft.

  26. The “I’ve got class” / “you’re a classy guy” thing came up in Murder by Death, which I was watching last night. David Niven did the upper-class “Dick Charleston”, Peter Falk as the low-class detective, “Sam Diamond”.

  27. Like Rupert Murdoch: “This is the humblest day of my life”, he said, after interrupting his son.

  28. No problem.

    Actually, I don’t have a cue card or a teleprompter. It was absolutely the first quote that I looked up for him, and it is accurate and (I think) perfectly on topic.

    I can say, in regard to choosing screen names that reflect something you are not, I am a Billy, and the Quiets thing is a nickname that is neither ironic, nor self-chosen. Hopefully, “Muleface” is a better example of the inversion law :)

  29. I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.

    I’m just a bill, yes I’m only a bill. And I’m sitting here on capital hill.

    I’m… having… the time of my life. no I never felt this way before.

  30. MuleFace@36: “I note that people often try to claim respectability through association.”

    Why not? People try to assign guilt by association all the time.

    I wonder if it’s the same people.

  31. If you apply McKean’s Inversion to profiles, the whole website implodes….

  32. There’s a whole song in My Fair Lady that derives a great deal of its humor from this inversion — “I’m an ordinary man” sung by Professor Higgins.

  33. Used to have a boss who would say “Lord knows I’m no prude” just before saying something prudish. She did this a lot.

  34. @Sihaya

    A job interview is not quite what I had in mind. You obviously need to sell yourself to potential employers. However, your potential employers will call your friend John if you list him as a reference.

  35. Also appropriate to the commercials for TV shows that say “Very Funny!” but never are.

  36. Ell @47.

    Sort of like a friend of mine who will always say ” Now, I’m not trying to piss you off..” just before I want to beat him with a large stick of hickory smoked bacon.

  37. When I lived in West Virginia, people often started a conversation with “I’m a Christian.” As in the guy that I bought my house from that promised to install the railing he said he would so we could close; “I’m a Christian, so I will install that railing.” Three months later I installed the railing.

    Don’t tell me you’re a Christian. If you are one, I will figure it out.

  38. Re: 18 : I’m a bloody idiot.

    For idiot, you recognized you were wrong, so you are not an idiot, you just made a mistake. For bloody, I assume that is just a bit of emphasis on idiot, like a super-idiot.

    Probably the best way to learn about people is to ask them what OTHER people are like or how OTHER people would respond to a situation – a number of studies have shown your sense of what other people do is a good predictor of your own behaviors (and attitudes closely associated with behavior), even if you are derisive or judgmental about those ‘average’ folk.

  39. But I AM punctual! I am, I am, I am!

    Okay, so it’s just because I’m have this anal obsession with never being late. But still, shouldn’t I at least get credit for it? Jeesh.

  40. Heather: As I dinged Billy Quiets for going political in the thread, I am at least going to wave a finger at you now.

    (waves finger)

    Go and sin no more.

  41. See this is why I never agree with people when they offer me an, increasingly rare, honest compliment (as opposed to a tennis ball compliment that they expect you to slap back to them, man I hate that), I’m afraid as soon as I agree with them I cheapen the aspect they’re complimenting. Or maybe I’m just reeeeally neurotic.

  42. @ 59 my apologies. I was drinking and watching the debate.I was “het up” as my grandma would say.

    my x husband continues to tell me he’s changed…how’s that?

  43. #60: You don’t have to “agree” with a compliment someone pays you. Saying “thank you”, and continuing the original topic of conversation, conveys sincerity without making it appear like you were either fishing for the compliment, or totally self-absorbed. I’m not perfect by any stretch, sometimes I’ll say something like “I like to think so”, or, in a more humorous vein “I’m glad you noticed”, but I only do that with people I know really well, who know me equally well.

  44. “I may not be a smart man, but I know…” that “No self-respecting man respects himself.” [JJ Brannon, 1985, after SL Clemens, GK Chesterton, and W Rogers]


  45. Looks like a generalized form of my specific experience that letters that begin “I have an excellent sense of humor” will always be from humorless people.

  46. I’m rich! I’m wealthy! I’m independent! I’m socially secure! I’m a happy miser!

  47. I’ve broken McKean’s rules many times. Partly because I didn’t know any better and partly because I didn’t think. I will probably break the rules again in the not too distant future, but I am aware these rules exist and I try to remember them.

  48. “Mature” is the example that immediately springs to mind. I noticed back in my teen years that anyone who talked about being mature … wasn’t.

  49. I noticed this a while ago in national pretitles; Democratic Republic of the Congo, People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, United Kingdom, etc. Of course, the really old example in that set is the Holy Roman Empire, often described by clever-dick historians as “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”.

  50. Is this why writing a resume feels like you’re being an utter ass? ‘I’m honest, trustworthy, reliable, have great attention to detail, excellent dress sense…’

  51. Democratic Republic of the Congo, People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, United Kingdom,

    Well, “Queendom” sounds odd and we’d only have to change all the headed notepaper and UN nameplates again in a decade or two anyway. There’s always the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And, of course, v “Pravdye” nyet pravdye, v “Izvestiye” net izvestiye.

  52. I am a racist, somewhat involuntarily. I try to act like I wasn’t. For instance, I don’t go to racist meetings, or anything like that. It’s a matter of feeling rather than believing. And it rarely comes up in conversation, either way. I suppose it would come up in conversations at the meetings.

    If you’re funny but also blue as heck with it, sometimes it will be better to tell people that, than to demonstrate.

  53. I once had a guy in an interview ask for “five adjectives that best describe me.” That was immediately after he’d asked me a bunch of other questions that I lovingly refer to as the “psychology-style” interview.

    What do people even want you to say to that type of thing? Are they trying to apply the inversion? E.g. “Well this guy said he was well-organized and intelligent, therefore he is obviously a slobbish idiot.”

    Maybe next time I should refuse to answer and explain McKean’s Inversion instead. Sort of like “taking the Fifth.”

  54. Fletcher @#68 referreth to, the example of “the Holy Roman Empire, often described by clever-dick historians as ‘neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire’.”

    Actually, it was Voltaire, who if he ever described himself as a clever-dick historian, clearly was not one. “Ce corps qui s’appelait et qui s’appelle encore le saint empire romain n’était en aucune manière ni saint, ni romain, ni empire.” (“This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”)

    If you’re ever unsure of the origin of a particularly clever quote, it was probably Voltaire.

  55. I am legion.

    I am the eggman.

    I am Number Four.

    I am, I am, Iam Superman, and I know what’s happening.

    I am perhaps in a silly Friday mood :-)

  56. When applying for jobs, I have always avoided any variation on the sentence, “I am creative”, and tried to find a way to show, not tell.

    And as far as, I used the site briefly after getting divorced, and I often wished for a filter to cull out anyone whose profile said, “I like to have fun.”

  57. Inspired by the “Iowa Debate Discussion Thread” does McKean’s Inversion also apply to statements of the form “I am(am not) a #political_group_id, but I…”?

  58. Paul @ 71: I am a lier…

    (singing) “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything…”

  59. Okay, so why do socially savvy people know that it’s more respectable to ding themselves than compliment themselves? The Dunning Kruger Effect that Carlos cited @#37 showed that while the dumb and untalented overassess themselves, the smart and talented underassess themselves. If I make a small mistake and say, “I’m an idiot,” the object of the conversation usually either responds neutrally or positively. Is it because I’ve displayed the positive trait of humility? Does the conversant know from experience that people who self-assign traits are usually wrong, and subconsciously assume I’m probably pretty smart based on that? Is it a sort of reverse Tall Poppy syndrome, wherein the person assumes that I’m elevating those around me by cutting myself down a little (also a play on the phenomenon known as the Theory of Limited Good)?

    We are socially more attuned to the idea that self complimenting is bad, but self bashing is good. If you think your country, your state, your city or your school are alright out loud, then you must think that all others are crap, and therefore be jingoistic, the logic goes. Some people who cheer their school, city, state or country seem to think that they have to fulfil this jingoism, too. If you think you’re awesome at something, someone is usually pretty sure to explain why you’re wrong. It’s not really socially acceptable to let anybody know you’ve got a bad case of good self esteem.

    I think Scalzi’s observation is right, and it’s true that people who compliment themselves are usually wrong. But is that because it’s true for anybody, or is that because only the socially inept and not-too-bright aren’t conditioned to the consequences of the self compliment?

  60. I have to disagree with Voltaire. It was an empire. It was a small, badly run empire, but there was acquisition of neighboring statelets and an attempt to govern them. Sometimes there was even success in governing!

    (Obviously, compared with the great empires (e.g. Rome, the Mongols) it’s nothing much.)

    Re: interviews. Speaking as a hiring-manager sort, when prospective candidates try to tell me how awesome they are, McKean’s Inversion applies, until they give concrete examples. “I work hard to save my employer money. There was this time when….” and the story about how they found an inefficiency and it saved the company $X.

    The strength of McKean’s Inversion is in proportion to the strength of the assertion. Flat statements of positive “fact”–I’m no racist, I have a good sense of humor, I’m very likable, I’m a good leader–are most likely to be incorrect. The more modulated they are (but still remaining positive), the more likely they are to be true. “I try not to be racist but our culture makes it hard to realize when it’s happening”; “I like joking around and people seem to enjoy it”; “I feel like I have a lot of friends”; “people seem to follow my suggestions a lot.”

  61. Sihaya @80: Probably because the idea is that if you have those fabulous qualities, they will be evident and you don’t have to alert people to their existence.

    When you make a mistake and say “I’m an idiot”, what you’re really doing is apologizing rather than stating an objective quality about yourself. You’re not introducing yourself to somebody and saying “By the way, I’m a total idiot” right off the bat in the way that somebody trying to puff themselves up might say “I’m a pretty funny guy”.

    John @23: Any pseud using “voice of” also trends in that direction.

  62. Sihaya@80:

    Because people who know more than average about a topic also know how much more they don’t know about a topic.

    So, for instance, someone who has never tried to write a book thinks it can’t be very hard. “I’m literate, and writing a book is just putting down words, right? That’s easy!”

    Whereas someone who has actually written stories and books–or at least tried to–has learned through experience that there’s more to it than just putting down words. At the bottom is “are those words in something resembling grammatical order?” with increasing gradations of “are these the best words to say what I want to say” and “does this sentence follow this one best” and “do I need more/less detail here.” And that’s without getting into the larger structure of a book, or plotting, or characterization, or any of those big things that are almost impossible to summarize in three words as part of a very long sentence in a blog comment. ;-)

    So someone asserts they’re funny but is wrong…because they have no idea what “funny” is. They don’t know that there’s a difference between a pratfall and a snarky comment. They’ve never even heard of the concept of timing. And they fail to realize that just because something makes them laugh, it won’t necessarily make others laugh. Half the joke is still in their head and never made it to the people around them, perhaps because the joke-maker doesn’t understand the rules of conveying a joke (much as a non-writer doesn’t understand how complicated it is to make a story believable to readers).

    “I’m humble.” At the moment the person says it, they might really be feeling it. (Many are just mouthing the words they believe people want to hear.) But they then go on about their life and stop feeling it. It’s true when they say it, but it’s not true in general for them. But the listener of such a statement expects such an assertion to be a general characteristic, true all the time.

  63. so why do socially savvy people know that it’s more respectable to ding themselves than compliment themselves

    This can be overdone as well, though. The “I’m so dumb” from someone who clearly isn’t can smell of someone angling to be complimented. “I’m so dumb!” “No, you’re not; you’re smart.” It becomes a social ritual.

  64. I have often thought along the line of what Sihaya#80 wrote, in that I think there is this underlying christian “I am sinner” theme to much of this. It goes beyond of inaccurately measuring ones actual level of humbleness, and more to a cultural dislike of pride. I feel as though if one tries to asses their own value, they place at gods level and we all secretly wait for this person to “get theirs”.

    I the one cliche I despise hearing myself use is, “Let me be honest with you…..” (insinuates I normally lie).

    I recently heard that poor people take great pride in their frankness, it I feel it heit too close to home for me personally. Cheers! Great thread John, and as a general rule, paraphrasing a line from the movie adaptation, the world speaks in hopeless cliche, no one says anything anymore.

  65. This was really obvious when a former friend of mine learned about 3 anti-gay verses in the bible and said he was a theologian.

  66. mythago@#82 – Well, we all tend to compliment or bash ourselves in context. Even the “I’m not a prude,” or “I have a good sense of humour,” people are usually saying these things as either a response or an introduction to some concept. I don’t introduce myself to a new person by going, “Hi, I’m mediocre at math, but I’ve been paid to write, so I guess I’m baseline competent at that. Also, I can hula, but don’t ask me to salsa.”

    E@#84 – That’s interesting, but after you’ve done well enough, don’t you get to admit that you’re good even while you enjoy your state of perpetual sophmorism (and it is enjoyable to always learn something new about your field)? Somebody asks me, from time to time, if I’m good at my hobby. “I’m good enough to know how I can improve,” or, “I take advanced classes and used to perform at the proAm level,” are my two most ready answers. “Show, not tell,” only goes so far. I’m not going to spend an hour navigating the borders of my talent with others. If somebody asks Scalzi at a party, “Are you a good writer?” what does he say? “I’ll ask my publisher.”? Heck, replying, “Yeah, I’m good,” would sound better to us than saying, “I’ve won some major awards, I’m a bestseller, and I get hand cramp at booksignings.” Simply saying, “Yeah, I’m good,” sounds better to us because we know the context, but it might sound like a pompous answer to the random party converser. In other words, it’s not easy for Scalzi to answer the question accurately in any social situation, even though it’s obvious that he *is* good and he’d have to be an idiot not to know it. The social attitude towards bragging matters more than the obvious fact of evaluatable quality.

    Yes, David @#85, but why do we feel the need to think about that social ritual at all? Why is it so conventionalized that you actually feel the need to stop yourself from contradicting that person when it’s gone too far? Why does it get to go so far, when generally the braggart gets stared daggers pretty quickly?

    I guess I got started on this idea yesterday both with Scalzi’s topic starter and with Slate’s discussion of great books, and some people’s inclusion of the Beowulf epic on that list. In one scene in the story the characters participate in ritualized bragging. Some scholars have reached the conclusion that there was a time and place when bragging was expected – when communication was slow, people were far apart, and so if you didn’t toot your own horn, no one else would do it. And so, when you sat down to dinner, bragging was part of the evening’s entertainment. I actually find it kind of fascinating.

  67. What a good writer does is to express what we’ve always been thinking better than our thoughts. This article proves that john scalzi is a good writer. Bravo.

  68. I am a physical therapist assistant. It is almost universally true in my experience that any patient that says “I am not a whiner” is, in fact, a whiner. It is also usually true that those who apologize for being “wimps” are no such thing.

  69. It’s like a boss I had once. He came around to introduce himself and started by saying “Hi! My name is $Boss. I’m a people person!”. He then spent the next 2 years showing us how that wasn’t true.

    That’s why my motto is “If you have to tell me you are, then you probably aren’t.”

  70. Hmmm… there must be a link between this and the frequency with which the pet peeve of a person is a habit that they themselves are guilty of. It’s Friday though and all I can think about is hitting the road for the mountains. If anyone would like to expand on this idea, I will be happy to read the thread when I get back!

  71. Sihaya@87:

    “I’m good enough to know how I can improve” is exactly on point. It is statement that you are good enough to know there are people who are better at it than you. There is sufficient lack of self-aggrandizement that it is more believable.

    The people with Dunning-Kruger syndrome tend to fall into McKean’s Inversion because they just don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

    This, of course, only covers people who really do think they’re funny, not racist, humble, etc. but are completely wrong. Some people claim to be X even when they know they’re not. (“Humble” and “truthful” strike me as the most likely culprits, for what should be obvious reasons.)

  72. While it’s not precisely the same structure as McKean’s Inversion, I’m reminded of a conversation I had recently where I was told, “We may be assholes, but we’re the good kind of assholes!”

    I was not aware that there was a good kind of asshole. Learn something new every day.

  73. In my job (as a management/IT consultant) I come across a lot of businesses that have been encouraged to state their corporate vision, values, mission statement etc. Almost without exception, the business’ true values as reflected in their actions are the antithesis of the ones they proclaim. e.g. the business that says “we encourage people to be entrepreneurs” actually stomps down hard on anyone who gets out of line. They are wish-fulfilment not an accurate description of the company. So inverting the values statement gives an interesting insight into the way in which a business is run.

  74. I have always felt that way about someone saying, “I’m really a smart guy/girl”. Invariably, this is never the case. In my crass old age, I’ve, quite often, began responding, “Oh, yeah, prove it.” Which, more often than not, gets looks of discomfort and/or panic.

  75. DGL #75, parallel to the comment among political scientists that in France the Radical Socialist Party (one of the oldest political parties in the world) has not been radical in 100 years, socialist in 150, or a party ever.

    And clever sayings in English originate about as often with Wilde, Dorothy Parker, or various magazine writers of the 1920-60 era as with Voltaire.

    Is “I am not an X but [obviously Xish thought]” or “I am really Y but [completely unY thought]” really just a shorthand for “Excuse me, I need to fart in this church?”

  76. MikeT #77 One of the more pleasant memories of my dating around years, someone who I liked a lot but we really weren’t the people for each other, attracted my attention with a personal which concluded “AND I HATE FUN!” She was, of course, more fun than most other people I met in those years.

  77. there’s a line in a wilco song that explains this:

    “all my lies are always wishes”

    and a a Bertrand Russell quote that pretty bluntly sums up why those who feel the need to convince the world they are something they are not are often vocal

    “”The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser men so full of doubts.”

    actions really do speak louder than words.

  78. stoic, I think you’ll also like this quote, by the art critic Robert Hughes. He gets to the point faster (and with more wit) than Russell, which is hard to do!

    “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”

  79. I’ve always thought of this as “McQueen’s Law”, specifically in the context of Steve McQueen and “coolness”. Steve McQueen never said that he was cool. He didn’t need to (neither does Johnny Depp or Paul Newman or anyone who has played James Bond). In fact, saying that you are cool proves that you are not. Can you imagine Samuel L. Jackson calling himself cool? No? That’s because the dude is cool. Now picture Charlie Sheen. Can you imagine Charlie Sheen calling himself cool? All too easily, is my guess. Is Charlie Sheen cool? No, Charlie Sheen is not cool.

    See how this works?

  80. I’m reminded of one of my favorite Churchill quotes: ‘He is a modest man, with much to be modest about.’

  81. I’m a day late and there are over one hundred posts so not many will probably read this, but I like it and think it’s fitting.

    From “Tao Te Ching” verse 3 by Lao Tzu
    circa 6th century b.c.e.

    Overpraising the gifted leads to contentiousness
    Overvaluing the precious invites stealing
    Craving the desirable loses contentment

    The natural person
    desires without craving
    and acts without excess

    By not doing
    everything is done

  82. Yes, David @#85, but why do we feel the need to think about that social ritual at all? Why is it so conventionalized that you actually feel the need to stop yourself from contradicting that person when it’s gone too far? Why does it get to go so far, when generally the braggart gets stared daggers pretty quickly?

    Because one’s an assertion (“I’m ____”) and the other’s a negotiation.

  83. Ok, one other I like from above mentioned book that may fit the topic

    Verse 7

    The great integrity having had no birth
    expresses it’s immortality
    without pronouncements

    The wise are heard
    through their silence
    always self-full through selflessness

  84. ajay 70: And, of course, v “Pravdye” nyet pravdye, v “Izvestiye” net izvestiye.

    I learned that as v ‘Pravde’ nyet iszvestiyi, a v ‘Isvestiye’ nyet pravdi.

    Lila 90: What about the person who says “don’t let me wimp out” and “I don’t want to be a whiner”?

    The Other Keith 94: I was not aware that there was a good kind of asshole.

    As a gay man, I’m very tempted to explain this to you, but will refrain.

  85. I had to describe myself at one recent job interview with 5 adjectives. I chose “interesting, ethical, intelligent, approachable, and hard-working.”

  86. McKean’s Inversion reminds me of an enduring rule of stand-up comedy: don’t laugh at your own jokes. If you’re really funny, your audience will laugh. If you’re not funny, your own laughter (which translates into, “Hey, I’m funny, ain’t I?”) will do you no good.

  87. 107: ah, you may have learned it from someone with a slightly better grasp of Russian noun endings…

  88. It also changed the word order…

    MelC @ 109: I don’t laugh at my OWN jokes, but if I’m relating something I found funny, I sometimes can’t avoid it.

  89. Mr Scalzi

    Can we then conclude that Larry Bird was not a very good basketball player because he talked so much trash? Perhaps we can also conclude that Mr Ali wasn’t a very good boxer… because of the way his insisted he was The Greatest.

  90. Nate @112: Check the definition of ‘frequently’. You will find that it is not synonymous with ‘always’ or ‘invariably’.

  91. > “I am a humble man.”
    > “I’m punctual.”
    > “I’m a funny guy.”

    You forgot my favorite example.

    “With profound gratitude and great humility, I ” — B Obama

  92. Can you imagine Samuel L. Jackson calling himself cool? No? That’s because the dude is cool.

    Samuel L. Jackson is not “cool”. Samuel L. Jackson would not describe himself as “cool”. Samuel L. Jackson describes himself as a “Bad Motherfucker”. Are you seriously going to appeal to McKean’s Inversion and claim that Samuel L. Jackson is NOT a “Bad Motherfucker”? This one example is sufficient to demolish the general applicability of McKean’s Inversion, which only can be legitimately applied to the mediocre, the deceitful, and the insecure.

    Vox Day
    Internet Superintelligence, Arrogant Bastard, and Award-Winning Cruelty Artist

  93. reminds me… I need a BMF wallet. I wonder if Scalzi has a BMF wallet… I bet Bakker does.

  94. This seems to me to be just a restatement of the fairly evident fact that many people are terrible at self assessment, and quite a few are also liars.

    So, yes, many times when someone says “I am (adjective)” they are mistaken. And many times they are wrong. And also many times they are right. In all cases, the listeners will need to decide for themselves based on something other than the fact that the statement was uttered.

    I do not, under any circumstances, think that the fact someone said “I am (positive adjective)” means that they are less likely to be that. So I disagree with a lot of comments here. I also think that sometimes when someone says “I am (negative adjective)” it is a form of reverse psychology meant to make you think they’re actually not that. But in my experience, it frequently is true, especially if the negative adjective is one you suspected already before the statement was made.

    More often, when a person makes a negative statement in this format, it’s a thinly veiled request for compliments or reassurance. I have to admit I find this annoying. I’d much rather listen to a person brag than listen to them whine about how bad they are and listen to other people say “no you’re fine” all day.

  95. “Don’t let your misgivings gnaw at you, no saint ever knows that he is one, he has to be told. It is a holy paradox that anyone who thinks he is a saint never is”
    page 359, paperback edition, RAH’s “Job, A Comedy of Justice”

    taking this opportunity to tell you mow much I enjoyed Fuzzy Nation– and my most treasured copy of Little Fuzzy is the 40 cent Ace paperback which I have had since 1972.

  96. On the flip side from the negative and more towards the aspire bit of this “McKean’s Inversion”. One of the first lessons that reverberated against my gut feelings in rehab, was the ‘fake it until you make it’. I didn’t like the idea that much due to another saying “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” and where it originated from. Now that I’m further down the road I can attest to the positive feelings that can come from “I am happy.”, while it is blatantly false most of the time, it does start to sway the actions I take and my feelings after saying it.

  97. This law is true. I’ve done the research and found that men who claim “I’m a bad motherfucker!” are in fact good people who have never engaged in incest.

  98. I see an unaddressed nuance here. In the original situation, rather than an indicator of a general quality, it is the very act of using the word to describe oneself that goes against the meaning of the word. I would suggest “McKean’s paradox ” for this variant.

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