American Swagger: Have We Earned It?

So I was watching tennis recently on TV (when I should have been making edits on my novel). Mary Carillo and Lindsay Davenport were calling a match between Angelique Kerber, the German player who is currently #1 in the world on the women’s tour, and Shelby Rogers, a 24-year-old American currently ranked #61. Carillo kept talking about how Rogers was so much better than Kerber, who has been in a slump since winning two Grand Slam championships (Australian Open and US Open) and an Olympic silver medal last year. She pointed out that Rogers hits so much harder, plays with more confidence, acts like she belongs there. Kerber wasn’t being aggressive, going for her shots, playing with risk.

Kerber won the match pretty easily.

Carillo announced to Davenport that other than Serena and Venus Williams, not enough players on the tour now have “swagger.” She missed those who “strut” on the court. Davenport, said, “Really?” In her playing days, Davenport was never particularly known as a strutter, though she won three singles and a number of doubles Grand Slams and got to #1. She was a power player, but she could appear laconic and get down on herself. In response to Carillo’s question, she tried to think of current players who strut. Of the three she came up with, two were Americans, both ranked outside the top 20 (one outside the top 100), one of whom has never won a tournament.

It made me think. Don’t you have to earn your swagger? Is it enough to just “believe you belong” or should you need to prove it?

In this country, apparently it’s the latter. It doesn’t matter that you know nothing about government or foreign policy or economics. You believe you’re the best, so voters think you must really be and elect you president. And then are mildly surprised when it turns out — shock! — that you actually don’t know anything.

When I was growing up, I was taught that humility was a virtue. Singing your own praises meant you had a swelled head; if you did good things, others would say good things about you. If they didn’t, what you did wasn’t good enough. This was not all that great for my self-esteem and didn’t make me inclined to keep trying things I didn’t excel at right away. But it did keep a lid on the braggadocio, not just of me but of the world around me. We had plenty of pretenders in powerful positions, but at least they thought they had to get some talent around them, even if, as David Halberstam’s ironic title, The Best and the Brightest, was meant to convey, smart people don’t always make smart policy.

In recent decades, we have learned the importance of building kids up (before we start tearing them down), which is a good thing, though certainly unequally applied. Certainly, my nieces and nephew (who are not strutters) emerged from adolescence with healthier self-awareness and less residual angst than my sisters and I did.

Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, who made the breakout film Beyond the Lights, among other things, says the swagger she learned from sports is the key to her success: “Swagger is the belief that we belong in any setting. That we can succeed in any setting. That it is okay to want to be the best. To be in charge. To lead. To have say over our own bodies. To demand equal pay. … Without swagger, I’m just that shy girl who can’t find her voice. With it, I am the baddest chick in the room.”

But there is a difference between believing you’re worthwhile and insisting you’re the best. And if you clearly aren’t the best at your chosen pursuit, could believing you already are even keep you from actually getting there?

At least some scientific evidence suggests it could.

In 2013, BBC News reported that the American Freshman Survey, which began in 1966, “asks students to rate how they measure up to their peers in a number of basic skills areas — and over the past four decades, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of students who describe themselves as being ‘above average’ for academic ability, drive to achieve, mathematical ability and self-confidence.” However, the report suggested, students actually know less and work less hard than students of bygone eras: “while the Freshman Survey shows that students are increasingly likely to label themselves as gifted in writing ability, objective test scores indicate that actual writing ability has gone down since the 1960s…. while in the late 1980s, almost half of students said they studied for six or more hours a week, the figure was little over a third by 2009….”

The BBC story is based largely on research by the psychologist Jean Twenge, who in the past year has gotten very famous by overusing the word “narcissism.” But Twenge makes the point that a swimmer trying to learn a particular turn “needs to believe that they can acquire that skill, but a belief that they are already a great swimmer does not help.”

Author, and television writer and star Mindy Kaling says, “Entitlement is simply the belief that you deserve something. Which is great. The hard part is, you’d better make sure you deserve it….People talk about confidence without ever bringing up hard work. That’s a mistake.”

I had just started to think about this phenomenon when I caught part of a This American Life episode called “In Defense of Ignorance.” In one segment, “Ignorance for Dummies,” the reporter talked to David Dunning, half of a research team who did a famous experiment at Cornell in the 1990s. (Not that famous — I had never heard of it — but there is apparently a whole effect named for it, “Dunning-Kruger,” which unsurprisingly is quite au courant right now.) The researchers gave quizzes to a group of undergraduates, and then asked them how they did.

“They did this experiment four times with four different groups of students, and it happened every time. Bottom performers [those hovering between 11% and 13%] thought they were at least above average. And in 1999, Dunning and Kruger published their findings in a paper called ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It.’”

The researchers found the effect replicated in various settings. Speaking of medical interns doing catheterizations — audible gasp — Dunning said: “80% of them think they know this technique so well they can teach it to other people, whereas zero of their instructors agree. In fact, 50% of their instructors say, no. This person needs still to be supervised whenever they do this.” Reporter Sean Cole responded: “Oy gevalt!”

Swagger is our national trait. We swagger militarily. We like people who swagger professionally. Susan Cain, founder of Quiet Revolution, says, “Today we prize leadership skills above all, and nowhere more than in college admissions.…If college admissions offices show us whom and what we value, then we seem to think that the ideal society is composed of Type A’s.” In another annual survey, the Pew Research Center asks people in 10 European countries, four Asia-Pacific nations and Canada, how they see Americans. Here’s the result:

I am shocked — shocked! — that in every country but Spain, fewer than half of the respondents saw us as violent.

Of course, it’s also gendered. Google “What are the most desirable traits in an American man?” and the first response is likely to be: “Leadership and intelligence matter a lot more than most men think… Even if you don’t have a lot of money, potential wealth goes a long way.”

If you search for “Swagger AND relationships”, one of the less disgusting results says: “Every man needs to have some sort of swagger to their demeanor. This is the mindset that separates the weak from the strong, that makes a man stand out from the crowd. When Darwin stated the human law of survival of the fittest he intended to mean that the fittest must have a certain repertoire to them known as swagger.”

And it has everything to do with our inability to forge a politics around class solidarity: “A nationwide survey found that 21% of Americans believe that it’s ‘very likely’ or ‘fairly likely’ that they’ll become millionaires within the next 10 years,” reports Forbes magazine.

But does anyone actually want to be in relationships with swaggerers? There seems to be an assumption that people can turn swagger on and off, do the trash-talking and chest thumping after the game and then put it away and be nurturing, sharing partners and parents. Science, as well as common sense, says otherwise.

“People high in self-esteem claim to be more likable and attractive, to have better relationships, and to make better impressions on others than people with low self-esteem, but objective measures disconfirm most of these beliefs. Narcissists are charming at first but tend to alienate others eventually,” reports Business Insider.

Our progressive movements are also not immune; we’re products of this culture, even if we can’t stand it. People who insist that fighting “fascists” in the street is the only correct strategy say, “People won’t respect us unless we show we are tough,” or more succinctly, “Everyone wants to be on the winning side.” Others assert that everyone should listen to and follow them because of their organizing “track records.” Well, my friends, I’m sorry but your track records are just not impressing me right now.

I see a lot of smart put-downs and pithy quips, the stuff of virtual swagger. But the people doing the hardest work don’t seem to engage in that. They aren’t saying, “If only you idiots had listened to me, you wouldn’t be in this situation.” (Perhaps it’s Passover — mmmm, matzo — that has me thinking about the characterization of the “wicked” son as the one who removes himself from the community.) They don’t have 8 million Twitter followers, and thus aren’t getting their own TV shows or six-figure book contracts. In US cultural terms, they may not look like leaders. But they’re mostly likely to be the ones I will follow.