On Unintentionally Intimidating People

While most of us rightly want to be exceptional in some way or another, we often feel a lot of social and moral pressure not to think of ourselves as generally better than others. And, even more urgently, we feel pressure not to convey to others that we think ourselves superior and not to be primarily motivated by a desire to be generally better than others. Even as it’s understood that inevitably greatness requires beating out competitors in one arena or another, we certainly should not think of ourselves as better than people in general or be motivated by a general desire to outclass people in general. We should even be as gracious and modest as possible to those whom we best, lest we be sore winners.

I think these attitudes are mostly for the best, though I think I would seek to modify them in some ways. In this post, I want to focus in on how false modesty, an emotion I think people sometimes develop as a corrective against arrogance, can actually become a counter-productive kind of over-corrective.

With seemingly any power comes the power to hurt. We all know of many ways that powerful people can hurt others deliberately. But sometimes powerful people hurt others inadvertently because they underestimate their power and do careless things which cause harms they never expected, and sometimes never notice even after the fact. It is easiest for powerful people to unthinkingly hurt less powerful people because in those cases ramifications to the powerful are least likely to come or are least likely to be potent should they come at all.

One thing I have noticed is that an internalized sense of false modesty helps people underestimate their own power. Sometimes a relatively well-meaning person does not want to feel superior to other people or, especially, to feel like she is someone who has a lot emotionally invested in being superior to other people. This is likely due in some part to the various social and moral pressures against feeling better than others that I mentioned at the outset. So she might avoid indulging in feelings of great superiority because such feelings make her feel vainglorious or selfish or megalomaniacal or arrogant, etc. This can be a well-intentioned motivation. But when you do not viscerally feel the power differential between yourself and others, the drawback is that this might make you underestimate the truth of those power differentials and their possible perils. This makes it easier for you to fail to take proper care about the ways that those power differentials put extra burdens of responsibility on you to make sure you are benefitting, rather than harming, those who your power affects.

At one of the many schools where I have either taught or studied (I’m being as vague as possible to minimize people’s abilities to accurately guess who I am talking about—please don’t try, it’s not important), there is a powerful professor whose actions show he cares quite a bit about students. But at the same time his personality is extremely intimidating. It is very easy for him to come off as confrontational, dismissive, and flat out discouragingly critical. I once mentioned this to a tenured professor, a professor older and much more senior than I, and he laughed and said, “you know, I was just out talking with him and I felt like I was 12 years old again, trying to please my father.”

Now I have heard secondhand that this imposing professor has apparently been told a couple times that he intimidates people and his response apparently was amused bewilderment. He does not see himself as anyone to be especially afraid of. In his heart, I would guess that he looks at his accomplishments as good but modest and fairly obscure, in the grand scheme of things. In all his professional dealings which I have observed he seems to be a fair and generous person. He has never (that I have heard of) abused his power and behind the scenes I have even seen him use it to protect and encourage vulnerable students after a student came to him for help. But nonetheless he implicitly scares the crap out of many students with his demeanor and he does not compensate for that in the sorts of emotionally sensitive interpersonal gestures that students need in order to feel approval (or at least in order to feel safe taking intellectual risks in front of him).

The downside of his false modesty, in which he views himself as someone no one need be afraid of, is that it blinds him to the ways people are afraid of him and prevents him from proactively alleviating their anxieties and helping them grow. I know one student in particular who suffered a lot of intellectual paralysis, with real academic and personal costs, out of fear of his disapproval.

But when informed that he intimidates people, the professor in question apparently took it as an opportunity to reassert his modesty to whomever he was talking to and (I would imagine) to himself as well.

The right response for him, and indeed for all of us, is not to have false modesty but to pay special attention to the ways that we are indeed powerful and the ways that we can scare others. We need to remember that regardless of whether deep down inside we feel ourselves to be inadequate, harmless, or so upstanding as to only be capable of benefitting others, it is always possible that others are nonetheless quite vulnerable to us.

We have to accurately assess our power, not in order to puff ourselves up but in order to figure out how best we might use it to deliberately help others and how best to avoid risking hurting others.  And we have to remember that since we can be intimidating to others, we need to be sensitive to how that happens and proactively counter it, rather than laugh off such a prospect as a flattering suggestion that it is best not to believe lest it go to our heads.

In short, we need to learn the virtue of graciousness. And sometimes a precondition of that virtue is a proper sensitivity to power-differentials and to how they affect the needs of others and our responsibilities to them.

Your Thoughts?

As a follow up post to this: Meditations on How To Be Powerful, Fearsome, Empowering, and Loved

Posts on related virtues:

Rightful Pride: Identification With One’s Own Admirable Powers And Effects

The Harmony of Humility and Pride

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ty.gardner.prof tygardner

    This is an interesting topic to consider. I’ve recently been told that I may intimidate some faculty, but this message comes from another faculty member that intimidates and abuses power. It makes the message difficult to listen to objectively but, given your perspective here, it seems worth a round of introspection. I suppose the difficult step is figuring out how to use power without abusing it, particularly when I have no desire to do either.
    Who else may be unintentionally intimidating while feeling intimidated, or at least feeling the attempt at being intimidated, yourself?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      I think many of us, including me, feel like we can’t be intimidating because we so often feel intimidated. But it is quite possible (and likely) people can be both at the same time.

      I think the only way objectively to look at it is to candidly assess in what ways you either outstrip someone in an excellence (and so make them feel insecure) or the ways that you tangibly have an asymmetric ability to use your power to affect someone’s well-being (their career, their personal safety, whatever). In those cases, you have an objective advantage over someone and should probably assume they are more conscious of it than you are and more sensitized to indications that you will embarrass or hurt them than you are. You should in those cases, I think, be sensitive to communicate good will and gracious room to mess up in normal ways.

      Now as for someone with whom you perceive yourself to have equal or lesser power you can intimidate because they either they perceive you to have more power or because you’re a threat to their supremacy by being an equal. In that case, I think we should take measures to establish competitive relationships that are amicable and which envision scenarios where we can both win by working together. If you are sharing the department with a rival, maybe that means finding a way to focus rivalry feelings on beating another department rather than tearing each other apart.

      Now your case, intimidating someone who abuses power. That may be a good thing that they find you intimidating. If they are intimidated by someone who has the desire and wherewithal to thwart them because of that kind of threat to them, then that’s their own guilty conscience or abusive nature piping up.

      In your case, I would just suggest assessing how you objectively threaten each person whether desired or not. If you are a perceived threat in ways that are just (ways they should feel threatened—like, if students don’t study and fail their tests they should rightly feel threatened that you will use your power to give them an F, or if a colleague abuses their power they should feel threatened you will put a stop to that), then that’s fine. If you are a perceived threat in ways that are not fair (a student feels excessively threatened by your power as a professor itself and so is afraid to come to office hours or speak out in class for fear of judgment), then you need to proactively work against those fears and reassure them you use your power benignly. Or if a less educated or qualified person is intimidated by your superior education and is prone to projecting hostility and chest-thumping when you’re just trying to share knowledge and argue fairly, then you need to think about ways to actively put them at ease that you’re not lording your education over them.

      It’s a matter, I think, of taking objective stock of ways people are disadvantaged with respect to you and being sensitive to the fears that might be strongly on their minds and threaten to shut them down in ways that prevent their growth.

  • AnatomyProf

    This is one reason why I find graduate school a poor way to train people for a career in teaching. We learn much of the content we must pass on but few of the skills we will need in order to succeed in this pursuit. I’ve always found students easier to work with than faculty, probably because we share, but do not tend to discuss, many of the same inadequacies whether real or imagined.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ZenoFerox Zeno

    This problem is just a little too close to home for me. While I strive to be unthreatening and approachable (and often succeed), it’s nevertheless much too easy for me to become unintentionally intimidating. After all, in the school environment I really am Mr. Know-It-All, the guy with all (okay, most of) the answers; I have lots of education and experience and am seldom at a loss. It may be nice to have a reliable source of information about the topic or problem at hand, but it can also be just a little overwhelming.

    One partial solution is to give my students multiple avenues for seeking assistance, encouraging them to contact me by e-mail if they hesitate to ask questions in class or come to office hours, or to seek peer support from our drop-in tutoring center, where more advanced students help out the less advanced.

    The one big mistake would be to fail to recognize that the problem is real and can create a gulf between teachers and students (or between colleagues).

  • John Morales

    Now I have heard secondhand that this imposing professor has apparently been told a couple times that he intimidates people and his response apparently was amused bewilderment. He does not see himself as anyone to be especially afraid of.
    [...]
    The downside of his false modesty, in which he views himself as someone no one need be afraid of, is that it blinds him to the ways people are afraid of him and prevents him from proactively alleviating their anxieties and helping them grow.

    You write as if were a dichotomy; not so.

    Someone can both be a person no one need be afraid of and have people be afraid of them.

    (And you’re basing your claim on hearsay evidence)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      You write as if were a dichotomy; not so.

      Someone can both be a person no one need be afraid of and have people be afraid of them.

      Of course both can be true. The problem is that in our minds the temptation is to forget it for various reasons and I’m reminding people.

      (And you’re basing your claim on hearsay evidence)

      I am, because it doesn’t matter. I am using him as a salient illustration that impressed the issue upon me as something worth thinking about when I learned of that alleged incident. But it was something I thought about independent of the one example. This is by no means a literal indictment of him that I hope leads to him having consequences or something. I hope he never reads it or if he does never he realizes this is literally him. So, I have the liberty to say, I know on reasonably reliable word that he was told and the response of denial he was reported to have had was perfectly what I would expect and I didn’t observe him change in various outward respects. The bits where I presume to guess what might run through his mind and heart are all phrased in a way that makes utterly clear I am just speculating in a way that tries to illustrate my own observations of how people play down their accomplishments/fearsomeness.

      His case is enough for an illustrative anonymous anecdote. A personal or professional confrontation? No way. At least not for me, I am not close enough to him to contemplate that. An internet personal or professional takedown? That is way beyond what the severity of the problem in his case merits. His intimidating me is and has not been at all disruptive to my life or career, when all is said and done. To me he is just worth bringing up as an anecdote. Maybe that student I talked about should have figured out some way to really talk to him and end being afraid of him and get a more productive relationship with him. But that’s between them. I know the student above all people would not like me getting involved.

    • John Morales

      Thanks for the clarification.

      That said, I urge you to consider whether your employment of this particular example was an appeal to real-life*, and if so, whether it was meritorious to use hearsay rather than a hypothetical case.

      His case is enough for an illustrative anonymous anecdote.

      So it’s sufficient.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Yes, it’s a thin line in this case between an “appeal to real life” and a “hypothetical case”. It added a little more color to draw on my experience with a real person so that’s why I did that. I didn’t mean it at all to really be about him as an individual. It’s a widespread problem in human interaction. He’s probably not any especially worse than most people who have any power. That’s the point.

  • jackvance

    If I am perceived as intimidating, does that necessary mean that am intimidating (i.e., that I am behaving in an intimidating manner)? You mention a professor with an intimidating personality. I guess I’m not sure what that means. What about the person’s behavior is interpreted as intimidating?

    I’m not interested in being better than anybody; I just want to do my job to the best of my ability. I recognize that I have power in some arenas, and I seek to use it whenever possible to defend those who are being exploited or bullied. I didn’t have anybody willing to do that for me, and I want to be there for others whenever possible. And yet, I hear the intimidating thing quite often.

    I suppose I am okay with being perceived as intimidating. It certainly confers some advantages and few costs. I suspect that the perception comes as much from my appearance as anything about my behavior. I’d even suggest that the person feeling intimidated is half the equation (i.e., what is it about them that leads them to feel intimidated by me?).

    Perhaps I should “compensate for that in the sorts of emotionally sensitive interpersonal gestures” more than I do. I do try to do that to some degree. At the same time, I’m not really here to meet the emotional needs of students or other faculty. If someone is incapacitated by a fear of my disapproval, I’ll help them find someone else with whom they can work.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Insofar as your students’ optimal learning conditions do involve their emotional well-being, of course that’s your responsibility. Are you responsible for the entire faculty’s emotional well-being? No, but you are responsible for those whom you affect to the extent you have reasonable, low-cost ways to make things easier for them to thrive, rather than harder.

      You are right to intimidate those who need the discouragement lest they do bad things.

      You are right that sometimes people are intimidated because of their own issues. In those cases, though, part of being an excellent person means figuring out how to actually help them overcome their own mental and emotional barriers by not being yet another obstacle for them. It does not mean catering to them in ways that keep them weak. It means accommodating their insecurities just enough to make them feel comfortable so they can succeed so they can feel less insecure.


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