How to Live a Modest Life in Modern Times

Nature has a way of helping humans grasp what it means to be humble. (Photo: Freedom 2 Dream/Shutterstock)

Modesty can be a fraught word. For many it's only ever used in the context of clothing — and almost always women's clothing, rarely men's. Despite what online searches might suggest, the concept has never been about clothing and sexuality. It's a much larger idea.

In fact, the first entry in the dictionaries I looked at defined modesty via actions or intent. Merriam-Webster defines the word as "the quality of not being too proud or confident about yourself or your abilities," and the Oxford English Dictionary as "the quality or state of being unassuming in the estimation of one's abilities."

In many ways, modesty may seem antithetical to the modern era in which we live. Or at least it's no longer part of the American ideal. Selfie culture abounds, people who haven't done much of anything are celebrities, and being an Instagram model is a real thing. In almost any business endeavor, from writing to cooking to carpentry, the current advice is to self-promote to the nth degree, to become a "rockstar" in your biz. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean being the best writer, chef or carpenter; it means selling yourself as if you're already wildly successful, inspirational and brilliant. Even if you're just starting out, the advice is always "fake it 'til you make it."

Where modesty comes more freely

New York Times columnist David Brooks writes that while some other countries share America's overconfidence (Serbia, Chile and Israel share our high self-esteem, according to studies), others are the opposite. Brooks cites South Korea, Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan and Morocco as more self-effacing, proving that while there is, of course, some variation between people within a country, some cultures are more pronounced in this characteristic.

And American immodesty is increasing, as Brooks describes:

"In a variety of books and articles, Jean M. Twenge of San Diego State University and W. Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia have collected data suggesting that American self-confidence has risen of late. College students today are much more likely to agree with statements such as 'I am easy to like' than college students 30 years ago. In the 1950s, 12 percent of high school seniors said they were a 'very important person.' By the '90s, 80 percent said they believed that they were."

(And if you haven't heard Brooks elaborate on these ideas in the video above from the 2011 Aspen Ideas Festival, it's worth a listen.)

People relax at Eidsvoll square in front of the Storting building, the parliament of Norway, in Oslo
Even the public spaces across Scandinavia — like this square outside Norway's Storting building where parliament meets — hint at the polite, modest culture. (Photo: Alex Polo/Shutterstock)

Other cultures seem to balance the benefits of modernism with the ideals of modesty: Many point to Asian cultures and Nordic countries, where modesty in both personal achievement and for the group or business you're a part of, is the norm. Norway even has a word for it: Janteloven.

"Janteloven (the law of Jante) at its simplest describes the way that all Norwegians (and in fact, other Scandinavians too) should behave: putting society ahead of the individual, not boasting about individual accomplishments or being jealous of others," writes David Nikel on the Life in Norway blog.

The word is commonly linked to a 1930s novel in which these ideas about modesty are explicitly spelled out, but most Norwegians who have written about it suggest the idea existed long before the book, going back to the country's small-town, agrarian roots. In those communities, where everyone knew everyone else, bragging was looked down upon.

Today, Janteloven is still a cultural phenomenon, on display as recently as the last Olympics, when Norway's many medals caused some anxiety among Norwegians. As the New York Times aptly explained:

Elsewhere, these historic results would yield the kind of street parties where strangers high-five one another until their hands hurt. In Norway, celebrations have been far more subdued. The most raucous it has gotten so far is a lot of joyful shouting at the television.

In Japan, the word for modesty is Kenson, and it infiltrates many aspects of life. Blogger Michele in Japan goes into detail:

An example of cultural modesty my colleagues brought up is that when they’re talking to me, they’re dropping the usual 'appellations' they’d normally use when talking among themselves (e.g. ‘professor’ or ‘sensei’). So they just call themselves by surname (despite their differences in ranking) as a way to make me feel more comfortable, that is, as an attempt to be very polite to me. The underlying assumption is that I would feel somehow distressed by being in a situation where certain people are higher than me in the social scale. So, with an act of respect and kindness, japanese people ‘lower‘ themselves to a position that normally wouldn’t be theirs.

The power of humility

A man with hands over his face.
Modesty isn't about promoting low self-esteem, but more about speaking of yourself and your accomplishments without overblown hyperbole. (Photo: iascic/Shutterstock)

There are some heartening examples of real-life modesty in America: the Iowa basketball player who purposefully misses a free throw to preserve another player's record, or how Bing Crosby responded to Japan's surrender at the end of World War II: "I guess there’s no room for pride here. We’re just happy it’s over. We are humbled. We had brave soldiers. We had great allies. We’ve been blessed with great resources. Now we hope to be worthy of this peace," Crosby said.

Modesty is worth thinking about and — I'd argue — cultivating. In his op-ed, Brooks suggests our overconfidence could be contributing to the worst of our current culture, and I agree:

"I wonder if the rise of consumption and debt is in part influenced by people’s desire to adorn their lives with the things they feel befit their station," Brooks writes. "I wonder if the rise in partisanship is influenced in part by a narcissistic sense that, 'I know how the country should be run and anybody who disagrees with me is just in the way'."

His point, that being more self-centered leads to poorer public engagement and citizenship, is an important one. After all, we're all in this together.