Male vanity is vital – to win the Ashes and for human survival
Daily Telegraph column
There comes a point in all our lives when we realise that we are hopelessly out of our depth, and it happened to me yesterday as I was trying, for the purposes of television, to interview an Italian politician.
Since we had earlier had some success in striking up conversations in the street I was having a go in Italian. Except this guy wasn’t speaking the sweet, slow Italian, in which every consonant is enunciated. He was speaking in a curious accent and so fast that the words were winging over my head like a flock of supersonic pheasants above a drunken shooter.
My comprehension rate was falling from just about getting it, to one word in two, to one word in five. And then, just when I thought my brain was about to explode, the Italian stopped. He looked at me quizzically, his velvety eyes boring into mine. I froze. I realised he wanted me to ask another question.
“Ma, ma,” I said feebly, which is the Italian for “But, but,” and as the sweat formed I asked myself why, madre di dio, I had been so rash as to attempt an interview in Italian. My command of the language was verging on the passable but it was not polished enough for a deep exploration of modern European politics, and certainly not at that speed. So why did I do it?
My friends, it was male vanity. It was the same unrealism that once impelled me to enter the school swimming competition. I will never forget that feeling of simple bewilderment, as I found myself churning at the back like a harpooned grampuss, while the other kids scythed through the water, their crawls perfected in the pools of St Kitts.
I say male vanity, because it seems that this phenomenon – a systematic overestimation of one’s own abilities – is particularly male. I found myself once playing croquet with a girl, and she asked me how good I was, and I said, “Huh! Yeah, croquet! Yup, croquet is one of the things at which I excel.”
Oh good, she said, and wiped the lawn with me, roqueting and croqueting my balls to oblivion. Every study I have seen bears witness to this difference.
Asked to give a candid self-assessment, women and girls will stick to “good” or “average” while men of identical abilities will declare that they are “very good” or “excellent.” Girls are much more reluctant to put up their hands and show off in class, and yet do as well, if not better in exams.
It is a gender distinction that seems to go very deep, as anyone who has children of both sexes will know. Now a female has written the most devastating account of this phenomenon ever published, and it is called Martin Lukes: who moved my Blackberry. It is a bit like Bridget Jones, only far crueller and funnier, and it is about a man, Martin Lukes, a marketing executive, and a slave to all the most embarrassing and useless bits of business jargon.
His creator, Lucy Kellaway, has a lethal ear for the way we male executives talk. He is always keeping people in the loop, and walking the extra mile, and calling on his subordinates to be better than their bestest, and events never happen in the future, but always “going forward”.
He is a “diversity champion” who refers to his “lady wife”. He is a hypochondriac who, on being passed over for promotion, decides that he has bowel cancer. But the main point about Martin Lukes is that he deeply and ineradicably believes that it is his destiny to be promoted to the very top and spends his days plotting and shafting to achieve it. He is a deeply pathetic figure.
Yet I defy any man who works in an office, any man who wants to get on, any man who secretly fancies his own capabilities – add them together and you have a whole lot of men – not to read this book without a shudder of recognition.
One way or another, we men are all Martin Lukes, and I have found the experience of reading this book so chastening that I have felt obliged to construct a defence of the male sex. Here it is.
I think we can quite easily posit not just an economic but an evolutionary explanation for this difference between the sexes in our capacity for self-evaluation. Martin Lukes is guilty of chronic and crass over-estimation of his own talents. But isn’t this very vice the foundation of capitalism?
Surely we need this male cognitive dissonance, this refusal to accept reality, otherwise people would never take the mad risks that have so benefited the human race – going up in aeroplanes, crossing the Atlantic, you name it.
Let us consider, as we must, the psychology of Kevin Pietersen, Ashes hero. It is not my impression that Mr Pietersen suffers from a shortage of self-esteem. He has a blue-skunk haircut, swings his bat like a club, and has a deep belief that he can not only pick out balls travelling at more than 90mph, but also hit them for six.
This Martin Lukesian optimism has regularly been proved wrong, and he has swung and been out. But in the last match, he swung that bat, and pow – without his self-belief, he might have blocked and poked, and we would not have regained the Ashes.
It is not too trivial to point out that this demented male self-confidence is also vital to human reproduction. It is the role of the male to refuse rejection, and to keep plugging on, in spite of all the evidence that he is getting nowhere, and without that male capability for self-delusion, the species would probably die out.
In fact, most women have probably long ago worked out that there is no point in telling men the truth about themselves, and coddling male vanity is a vital part of keeping the human show on the road. I think it was Dirty Harry who once said: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
On the contrary: in my experience that knowledge would be so shattering that it must be avoided at all costs.