Addressing one-up culture at UC Berkeley

Crowded Moffitt Library
Deborah Chen/File

Browsing UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens makes me think that everyone here, like me, feels scared for their futures and shares a love for self-deprecating humor. Walking around campus is a different story: It feels like everyone has a higher GPA than me and has an internship with Google lined up for the summer.

UC Berkeley is a competitive environment and, like in many other competitive environments, one-upmanship — a culture in which people feel compelled or pressured to put other people down — seems to exist here.

“I think a lot of the narratives that I hear are students often feeling competitive with one another; often, people talk about things that they have and really just this promotion of … (one-upmanship), ” said Tang Center psychologist Elizabeth Aranda.

Merriam-Webster defines one-upmanship as: “the art or practice of outdoing or keeping one jump ahead of a friend or competitor.” It is widely believed that one-upmanship is necessarily malicious in intent. This is false. Many instances of one-upmanship are unintentional or result from a lack of self-awareness.

“I think a lot of the narratives that I hear are students often feeling competitive with one another…”

— Elizabeth Aranda

I’m sure many of us have had conversations in which our problems felt invalidated because we were one-upped. “Oh, you’re stressed about your midterm this week? Well, I have two midterms and an essay due, all on the same day.” Gee, thanks for letting me know.

This isn’t to say that complaining is always bad, because it isn’t. If we never talked about our stress, I’m sure we would all go insane.

That being said, I feel that far too many students complain in such a way that it becomes a humble-brag. Rather than empathizing with their peers, they indirectly boast about their achievements and put other people down. This pressures everyone else to want to assimilate into one-up culture and boost their egos, as well.

At this point, you may be asking, “So what? Why should I care?”

 “This pressures everyone else to want to assimilate into one-up culture and boost their egos, as well.”

Participating in one-up culture not only harms the general climate of our campus, but it also makes you an overall unpleasant person to be around. No one wants to feel belittled — making others feel that way will break many potential, or even already established, friendships.

Dale Carnegie claims the following two principles “work like magic” in positively influencing those around you. His self-help book titled, “How to Win Friends & Influence People,” was published in 1936, but it continues to be a national bestseller. Despite being in print for more than 80 years, Amazon lists it as one of its top 20 highest selling nonfiction books of all time.

  1. “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.”

It’s hard to refrain from criticism when we attend such a high-ranking university. Almost everyone around us holds us to unreasonable standards. Perhaps this environment has made us critical of ourselves and thus critical of others.

It isn’t just that people have their feelings hurt when they are criticized or feel condemned. Some people suffer from a variety of mental health issues because of one-up culture.

“What I see in my work is the fear when asking for help, the fear of vulnerability, the increased feelings of guilt and shame (which can often also impact anxiety) and severe anxiety can also cause depression,” Aranda said.

Dale Carnegie says it best: “Instead of condemning people, let’s try to understand them. Let’s try to figure out why they do what they do. That’s a lot more profitable and intriguing than criticism; and it breeds sympathy, tolerance and kindness. ‘To know all is to forgive all.’ ”

  1. “Give honest and sincere appreciation.”

You may scoff and think, “That’s so obvious.” If it is that obvious, then I’m shocked at how few people actually practice this on a regular basis. Appreciation is rare, and honest, sincere appreciation even more so.

A few weeks ago, one of my classmates approached me with a smile and said the following: “Patrick, I‘ve always envied your glasses. They work so well on your face! I don’t think they would work well on mine.” I blushed and thanked him for the compliment. It’s comments like these that we all cherish for years to come.

So, going forward, let’s keep Carnegie’s timeless advice in mind and instead of trying to one-up each other, lift each other up as fellow Bears.

Contact Patrick Lee at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Patrick_Jinwoo.