Humility is a luxury the privileged can afford

I had the privilege of participating in a science communication conference last week (12, December 2018). Some of the speakers beautifully and convincingly articulated the argument for the importance of academics communicating their work with non-academics as well as other academics from different disciplines and how to do it. Alan Alda’s talk, in particular was deep,insightful and thought-provoking.

Alda’s “Communication is not something you add to science; it is the essence of science” captures his key message that communication is an essential part of doing science and not something separate and extra. There is very little dispute regarding the importance of sharing one’s work with the general public as well as scientists, and with academics outside one’s field. However, there is very little guidance as to how one ought to go about it. Alda’s talk during the SCI:COM conference in Dublin provided some of the most insightful advice by far that I have come across.

Alda suggests, talk TO and not AT people. This seemingly obvious but powerful statement is a way of shifting the mindset from “giving a talk” or “delivering a lecture” which treats knowledge as something that can be simply dispersed to communication as two-way shared activity.

Science commination is a reciprocal process that involves both the speaker and the audience. It is vital that the communicator pays attention to the person that they are communicating with. “It is up to you,the communicator, to ensure that the person is following and to bring them onboard.” And this requires understanding your audience. As Alda puts it: “the speaker needs to listen harder than the listener”.

Communication, Alda argues, is not about me figuring out the best message and spraying it at you, it is building a reciprocal dynamic relationship that changes both the speaker and the audience. Effective communication is understanding your audience and knowing how to connect with them. In order to do so, we don’t start with crafting the best message; we start with awareness of the audience.

Good science communication, Alda emphasises, requires reputation, which is intrinsically connected to trust. Speaking from a position of authority is different from speaking as an equal fellow human being. Your audience is more likely to trust you when you speak as a fellow human and this requires humility, which brings me to central point of my blog.

I wholeheartedly agree with Alda’s approach to communication and also think that humility is a virtue that needs to be highly valued.However, whether humility is viewed as a virtue is dependent on societal stereotypes, hence my conflict with it. Humility doesn’t yield trust and reputation for everyone and I speak from a perspective of a black woman in academia. 

In academia, we often have an ideal representation or an image of what an ‘intellectual’ looks like. This is typically a white, middle-class, cis, male. Society’s stereotypes make this group of people automatically perceived as authoritative. Academia’s structure means that people who fit the stereotypically ‘intellectual’ are seen as as unquestionable experts. And for the privileged who fit society’s ‘intellectual’, where coming across as authoritative is the default, humility and speaking to their audience as a fellow human, gains them trust. On the other hand, academics that don’t fit society’s stereotypical ‘intellectual’ often have to work hard to simply prove that they are as capable of their white male counterparts. In an academic environment where looks, gender and race are part of ‘fitting in’ and getting acknowledgements as an intellectual, humility, which is an admirable character for the white male, can be a way of proving that you are not capable, for a black woman. When the default assumption is often you might lack the capacities due to your race or gender, humility might seem like conforming people’s assumptions. Humility, downplaying one’s skills and achievements, for the black woman who already struggles to establish herself as an intellectual, can be a self-imposed punishment which underestimates her intellectual capacity. Humility, then seems, a luxury that the privileged can afford.

Having said that, I must emphasize that the problem is not humility itself but societal stereotypes and rigid academic structures. I still think humility is a character we need to treasure, both in academia and outside. I just hope that we gradually challenge these stereotypes of what an expert intellectual looks like, which will then afford minority’s the luxury for humility and not punish them for it.



  1. Thank you! I think I understand your point. The victims of discrimination have been handed a mandate to do much more to get their jobs done, in the sense of having others listen to you and respect you. It may even end up impossible, because the normal hurdles people assume of expertise and approachability often aren’t nearly enough.

    Two I hope complementary points. WEB Du Bois’ “double consciousness” hints at a way that the oppression and discrimination inherent in so much of regular life exacts a toll on a person’s sense of self, and their faith in their ability to break through, given their extra burdens in a given situation. It’s hard work to break through, and even a small hit on our sense of self makes it much, much harder to do so, both in terms of expended energy and technique. Feminist philosophy addresses this a great deal; I’ve seen it play out in meetings and in activism, where some at the table are literally not physically heard when they speak. It’s like having to use different language and different body language from what is natural to you to get even something simple across, like you have to stand and use pantomime to have a chance of getting the same thing across as your neighbor who just blurts three words in their chair– and even after all that work, you suffer a much greater chance of being misinterpreted anyway. It discourages one from even trying. I remember falling asleep every night exhausted when living in a foreign country, after struggling all day to get across simple things poorly; something of that is in the situation. This extra mandate requires one to strike out with an unnatural aggression, directness, and insistence to get one’s point (and worth) across. And it has to happen just as the world is telling us, and perhaps rubbing off on us, that we aren’t worth listening to.

    Humility is a strange word, one we unfairly task with getting across conflicting things. To do so masks the word’s value, which is occluded amid America’s tendency to worship power and aggression. We all desperately need the strengths of humility: the ability to hear others well; our sense of proper place for ourselves and our ideas; and a gift for taking in ideas that aren’t ours, or that conflict with ours. Discrimination shouldn’t be able to take that strength away from us. Humility shouldn’t mean being passive; not docile, or resigned, or tame, or weak-kneed; it’s too important to be dragged down and distorted that way. Some of the most beautiful experiences I’ve witnessed, that move me even now writing this, have been with African-Americans who are clearly humble, but who engage actively, not letting those around them discount their ideas, their dignity, and their experiences without a clear and measured reaction. MLK, and I think even the irascible James Baldwin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Toni Morrison all seem examples to me. Humility ironically lends a remarkable power to their words and insights, and it helps ameliorate the above process of unwittingly taking in the oppressor’s unconscious prejudices. A humble person may be quiet or not, insistent or not, explicit or not, as they feel the case demands, but their ability to suss out truth and to build relationships effectively is unaffected, or less affected, by another’s weaknesses in perception and character. They have overcome in perhaps the most important way: they are influenced when they choose to be, while they are as clear as they can be, in a situation they can’t control, about the worth of their ideas.

    Humility is a kind of right sizing of expectations, no matter what roils around and in us. It is a vast reservoir of strength, an engine of wisdom, a place where no oppression can touch us. If one is humble, oppression forges us. It can also afford us the best opportunities to change others if they’re ready, by being large when others are small, and inspiring others to see through their prejudices at last, to truth.


  2. At the risk of using a detestable word: Preach.

    Even as a female engineer, this is the primary hurdle. I’ve been told on numerous occasions that I should be more humble, by those same people who ignored and disregarded me when I was. 10 years of my professional life were wasted in what amounted to a banishment room, until I realized that the only difference between myself and the men I worked with who were moving up and out was that no one was going to sing my praises. I had to do that myself, as well as defend and demand that my ideas and work be accredited to me.

    I wish I could say I held the same value for humility that you possess, its positivity is inspiring. For me, the lesson I took from a professional life of diminished success is that humility is indeed a virtue born of privilege, and as such it has no place in my life.


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