With the prevalence and popularity of social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter, one can’t help but ask, Is the new modesty simply exhibitionism? When teens think nothing of sending semi-nude photos of themselves to their boyfriends (and vise versa), is modesty — as a concept or social value — even relevant or useful any more?
Modesty is defined as both freedom from conceit or vanity and a propriety (or appropriateness) in dress, speech or conduct. Which begs the question — who defines what’s appropriate? Well, we do, of course! What works for one generation may be considered inappropriate by another generation, so it’s usually not too surprising to find that as one ages, one becomes more conservative and protective of the status quo. It’s what has always worked for us. Why change? Change is hard, change is unpredictable.
Getting back to the definition, Gregg et al. (2008) found that “Modest people emerged centrally as humble, shy, solicitous, and not boastful and peripherally as honest, likeable, not arrogant, attention-avoiding, plain, and gracious. Everyday conceptions of modesty also spanned both mind and behavior, emphasized agreeableness and introversion, and predictably incorporated an element of humility.” How could the New Modesty, then, be exhibitionism?
Perhaps modesty, in its current formulation, is a thing of the past. Perhaps it should leave our society as quickly as Fantasia Barrino’s singing did (and if you don’t recognize that name, well then, there you go). Perhaps society no longer values attention-avoiding people as much as attention-seeking people. After all, is anyone known for having only one Twitter follower or one Facebook friend? Would Ashton Kutcher have made headlines if he was modest?
But there’s that pesky little thought in the back of my mind that asks, “What if modesty serves some psychological or societal purpose that isn’t readily evident?”
It seems like a lot of the 446 research citations in PsycINFO for “modesty” alone have to do with very specific analyses of modesty in different cultures. Which is no surprise, given how the concept of modesty seems innately culturally-bound. Biswas-Diener (2006) suggests that modesty, as a cultural value in America and other places, may be very much on the decline:
For instance, the virtue of ‘‘modesty’’ was endorsed as being ‘‘very important’’ by only 13.6 Americans and received the lowest of all ratings for the Inughuit (people). It is possible that modesty is changing in the degree to which it is valued by cultures.
Ellsworth (1994) suggested that cultures are dynamic and that values related to modesty have changed dramatically in America since the 19th century. It is possible that behaviors related to modesty function primarily as social harmonizers, a task less important to large, individualistic societies such as that in the United States.
Why should one want to cultivate modesty instead of self-promotion and attention-seeking behaviors? Well, the research has some concrete, rational examples of why modesty works in your favor. Blickle et al. (2008), for instance, found that “It is modesty, and early career employees’ ability to present it well, that will lead to positive affect (i.e. liking) and behavior (e.g. benevolence and generosity) by senior managers.” Want to get ahead at your job? For most careers, modesty will be your best chance.
Modesty still has a home even as our society’s values appear to be changing and heading intractably down the road of exhibitionism and self-promotion. And that’s the point — perhaps the New Modesty is simply something a little more direct and frank than what some of us are used to. Perhaps it’s not “exhibitionism” so much as trying to be more “real” and “in the moment” with the people we care about — our friends and family.
And like all values, it appears modesty is morphing into something different and new. Which isn’t all bad, especially if you work hard to make it look like you’re being modest.
Biswas-Diener, R. (2006). From the equator to the north pole: A study of character strengths. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 293-310.
Blickle, Gerhard; Schneider, Paula B.; Perrewé, Pamela L.; Blass, Fred R.; Ferris, Gerald R. (2008). The roles of self-disclosure, modesty, and self-monitoring in the mentoring relationship: A longitudinal multi-source investigation. Career Development International, 13(3), 224-240.
Gregg, Aiden P.; Hart, Claire M.; Sedikides, Constantine; Kumashiro, Madoka; (2008). Everyday conceptions of modesty: A prototype analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(7), 978-992.