Your Twitter Profile: The Importance of Not Being Earnest

I’m always fascinated by the profiles of people who follow
me on Twitter. One of the things I love about Twitter is its ability to link me
up with people who I’d never otherwise encounter. It’s great when I find
someone from the other side of the world who’s interested in the same things as
me. There are, of course, also those who just want to promote their product,
and others, like Faringdon Motor Parts and Moaning Myrtle (@toiletmoans) whose
interests in my tweets are, frankly, puzzling. But the ones that intrigue me
most are the ones with profiles that create an immediate negative impression -
or to put it more bluntly, make me just think "Pillock!" (If you need to look
that up, you’re not from Essex).

Now language is one of my things - I work on language
disorders, and over the years I’ve learned a bit about sociolinguistics - the
influence of culture on language use. And that made me realise there were at
least two hypotheses that could explain the occasional occurrence of offputting
profiles. The first was that I am being followed by genuine pillocks. But the
other was that there are cultural differences in what is regarded as an
acceptable way of presenting yourself to the world. Maybe a turn of phrase that
makes me think "pillock" would make someone else think "cool". And perhaps this
is culturally determined.

So what, to my British ear, sets off the pillock detector?
The major factor was self-aggrandisement. For instance, someone who describes
themselves as "a top intellectual", "highly successful", "award-winning", or "inspirational".

But could this just be a US/UK difference? The British have
a total horror of appearing boastful: the basic attitude is that if you are
clever/witty/beautiful you should not need to tell people - it should be
obvious. Someone who tells you how great they are is transgressing cultural
norms. Either they really are great, in which case they are up themselves, as
we say in Ilford, or they aren’t, in which case they are a dickhead. When
I see a profile that says that someone is "interested in everything, knows
nothing", "a lazy pedant", or "procrastinaor extraordinaire", I think of them
as a decent sort, and I can be pretty sure they are a Brit. But can
this go too far? Many Brits are so anxious to avoid being seen as immodest that
they present themselves with a degree of self-deprecation that can be confused
by outsiders with false modesty at best, or neurotic depression at worst.

A secondary factor that sets off my negative reactions is
syrupy sentiment, as evidenced in phrases such as: "empowering others", "Living my dream", or "I want to share my love". This kind of thing is
generally disliked by Brits. I suspect there are two reasons for this. First,
in the UK,
displays of emotion are usually muted, except in major life-threatening circumstances: so much so that when someone is
unabashedly emotional they are treated with suspicion and thought to be
insincere. And second, Polyannaish enthusiasm is just uncool. The appropriate
take on life’s existential problems is an ironic one.

I was pleased to find my informal impressions backed by by
social anthropologist Kate Fox, in her informative and witty book "Watching the
English" (Hodder & Stoughton,
2004). Humour, she states, is our "default mode", and most English
conversations will involve "banter, teasing, irony, understatement, humorous
self-deprecation, mockery or just silliness." (p 61). She goes on to describe
the Importance of Not Being Earnest rule: "Seriousness is acceptable, solemnity
is prohibited. Sincerity is allowed, earnestness is strictly forbidden.
Pomposity and self-importance are outlawed." (p. 62). Fox doesn’t explicitly
analyse American discourse in the book, but it is revealing that she states: "the kind of hand-on-heart, gushing earnestness and pompous Bible-thumping solemnity
favoured by almost all American politicians would never win a single vote in
this country - we watch these speeches on our news programmes with a kind of
smugly detached amusement." (p 62).

Anthropologists and linguists have analysed trends such as
these in spoken discourse, but I
wondered whether they could be revealed in the attenuated context of a Twitter
profile. So in an idle moment (well, actually when I was supposed to be doing
something else I didn’t want to do) I thought I’d try an informal analysis of
my Twitter followers to see if these impressions would be borne out by the
data. This is easier said than done, as I could find no simple way to download
a list of followers, and so I had to be crafty about using "SaveAs" and "Search
and Replace" to actually get a list I could paste into Excel, and when I did
that, my triumph was short-lived: I found it’d not saved Location information.
At this point, my enthusiasm for the project started to wane - and the task I
was supposed to be doing was looking ever more attractive. But, having started,
I decided to press on and manually enter location for the first 500 followers.
(Fortunately I was able to listen to an episode of the News Quiz while doing
this. I started to like all those eggs with no Location recorded). I then hid that column so it would not bias me, and coded the profiles
for three features: (a) Gender (male/female/corporate/impossible to tell); (b)
Self-promotion: my totally subjective rating of whether the profile triggered
the pillock-detector; (c) Syrupy: another subjective judgement of whether the
profile contained overly sentimental language. I had intended also to code
mentions of cats - I was convinced that there was a British tendency to mention
cats in one’s profile, but there were far too few to make analysis feasible. I
was a victim of confirmation
. So were my other intuitions correct? Well, yes and no.

For the analysis I just focused on followers from the US and UK. The first thing to emerge from
the analysis was that pillocks were rare in both US and UK - rarer than
I would have anticipated. I realised that, like mentions of cats, it’s
something I had overestimated, probably because it provoked a reaction in me
when it occurred. But, I was pleased to see that nonetheless my instincts were
correct: there were 7/97 (7.2%) pillocks in the US
sample but only 2/153 (1.3%) in the UK . The sample size is really not
adequate, and if I were going to seriously devote myself to sociolinguistics
I’d plough on to get a much bigger sample size. But nevertheless, for what it’s
worth, this is a statistically significant difference (chi square = 5.97, p =
.015 if you really want to know). Syrup followed a similar pattern: again it was rare in both samples, but
it was coded for 3/153 of the UK
sample compared with 7/97 of the US. I’d coded gender as I had
thought this might be a confounding factor, but in fact there were no
differences between males and females in either pillocks or syrup. Of course,
all these conclusions apply only to my followers, who are bound to be an
idiosyncratic subset of people.

My conclusion from all this: we need to be more sensitive to
cultural differences in self-expression. Looking over some of the profiles that
I categorised as "pillock" I realise that I’m being grossly unfair to their owners.  After all, on a Twitter profile, the only information that people have about
you comes from the profile - and your tweets. So it really is preposterous for
me to react negatively against someone telling me they are an "award-winning
author": that should engender my interest and respect. And, because this is a
profile, and not a conversation, if they didn’t tell me, I wouldn’t know. And we really ought to cherish rather than mock those who try to bring a bit of love and kindness into the world. But

I hope that Americans reading this will get some insight
into the tortuous mindset of the Brits: if we come across as dysfunctionally
insecure losers it’s not that we really are - it’s that we’d rather you thought
that of us than that we were boastful.