Deflect Criticism with Self-deprecating Humor

“Self-deprecating humor came naturally to Lincoln. Once, after being called ‘two-faced’ by another politician, he responded, ‘If I had two faces, why would I be wearing this one?’ ” Francis B. Carpenter, portrait painter of Lincoln.

Did I ever tell you the joke the Chicago newsboys had on me? Replying negatively, he related: A short time before my nomination I was at Chicago attending a lawsuit. A photographer of that city asked me to sit for a picture, and I did so. This coarse, rough hair of mine was in a particularly bad tousle at the time, and the picture presented me in all its fright.

  After my nomination, this being about the only picture of me there was, copies were struck to show those who had never seen me how I looked. The newsboys carried them around to sell, and had for their cry, “Here’s yer Old Abe; he’ll look better when he gets his hair combed.” Story told by Lincoln to Albert P. Chandler, Assistant Secretary of War.


Acknowledge Your Flaws

Can you remember the last time someone made fun of you because of some physical characteristic that you had? None of us are immune. Aren’t we all too tall, too short, too fat, foo skinny, too young, or too old?

This type of comment seems funny to the critic, but it can sting the recipient.

Here is Lincoln’s two-step response for this type of criticism.

Step 1) Look deep inside yourself and acknowledge the fact that, yes, you do have certain physical characteristics that make you distinct. Maybe not as distinct as Quasimodo, but it’s something that catches the eye.

Step 2) Use self-deprecating humor to deflect criticism.

There is great power in looking inside of ourselves, acknowledging who we really are, and in making fun of ourselves.

Abraham Lincoln had a target on his back because he had two unique traits.

1) He was very tall and extremely thin. He stood six foot four inches tall and weighed only 170 pounds.

2) His face was so homely that it could frighten and intimidate others.

Yet, despite being called string bean, scarecrow and gorilla, Lincoln was bullet proof from this type of criticism because he was better and funnier at criticizing himself than were his adversaries.

A Story to Break the Ice

Lincoln was invited to speak to a conference of newspaper editors in Chicago, some of whom were his fiercest critics. To break the ice he told this story:

One day I was riding along a mountain trail on my horse.

From the other direction came a woman on her horse. She stopped her horse and looked at me.

“I do believe you are the ugliest man I have ever seen,” she said.

‘That may be true, madam, but there’s not much I can do about it,” I replied.

“No, perhaps not, but you might at least stay home.”

The audience of editors laughed with Lincoln instead of at him. Lincoln’s goal was not just to respond to criticism, but to show that he was a big enough man to laugh at himself, and in the process, disarm his critics and often win their friendship.

“Do I not destroy my enemies by making them my friends?” Lincoln once observed.

Responding to Frenemies

Recently, two so-called “friends” of mine made fun of me for being too skinny.

“Terry you looked like a broom wearing glasses,” said one person.



“Terry it’s so windy today, I’d better tie a sting to you before you fly away,” said the second one. Apparently no ‘funny’ criticism is too ancient to use.

Okay, I get it. I’m skinny. I used to be defensive about it, but over time I have come to see these comments as an opportunity to convert “frenemies” into friends, and I developed this reply,

“In my defense, my doctor told me that I weigh the exact right amount for someone this awesome.”

Another time, I was a substitute teacher at a school when one student said to another student,

“I’m working with the old guy.”

After glancing around the room and finding no one older looking than myself, I thought,

“He must be talking about me!”

The remark caught me off guard, but it also motivated to come up with a Lincoln-esque response. After some internet research, my new response to ‘old guy’ comments is,

“There is still no cure for the common birthday,” to quote John Glenn.

A Complete Inventory of My Flaws

Some other flaws that I proudly possess, beyond being rail thin, are: my industrial sized ears; I drink a lot of iced tea (I go through iced tea faster than most women go through cotton balls); one of my eyes looks slightly larger than the other (great to give someone the “evil eye” or to impersonate Jack Elam); and, my hair is disappearing faster than a toupee in a hurricane. My only hope for fame may be a possible spot at Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum.

When we acknowledge our flaws in humorous ways, it makes it easier for others to relate to us. It indicates that we have a light heart and a humorous outlook on life, and we become someone that other people like to be around. It’s like changing the friendship ‘stop light’ from red to green.


Upcoming Pesentations:

Feb. 10, 2018, International Speech Contest. Pen To Podium Toastmasters. Hardesty Center, 1100 S. Alvernon. Tucson, AZ, 9:00 am.

April 14, 2018. “Publish or Perish.” Pen to Podium Toastmasters. Hardesty Center, 1100 S. Alvernon. Tucson, AZ, 9:00 am.

October 20, 2018. How Abraham Lincoln Used Stories to Touch Hearts, Minds and Funny BonesPrescott Valley Public Library (7401 E. Civic Circle), 1:00 – 2:00 pm. Prescott, AZ.





Related Links

Like Abe Lincoln, Be Prepared with a “Quip” or a Bit of Humor

Emulate Abraham Lincoln: Make Each Day Count

The “Secret” Daily Affirmations of Abraham Lincoln

Always greet everyone, no matter what they look like

Employ an Affable Lincolnesque Persona

Be a Generous Listener, as Abe Lincoln Was

Places in the Heart

Always Say “Yes”

Deflect Criticism with Self-deprecating Humor

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9 Responses to “Deflect Criticism with Self-deprecating Humor”

  1. […] Speaker, Storyteller and Lincoln-ologist/Fixer upper & rental houses « Be a Generous Listener, as Abe Lincoln Was Deflect Criticism with Self-deprecating Humor » […]

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  3. […] Speaker, Storyteller and Lincoln-ologist/Fixer upper & rental houses « Deflect Criticism with Self-deprecating Humor […]

  4. Mike Sprouse says:

    Terry – Don’t forget, you also walk funny too ! ! !

  5. […] Deflect Criticism with Self-deprecating Humor […]

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