The Gentle Art of Subtlety

For some years, I’ve been convinced that I really need to master the gentle art of Subtlety.  In my youth, I did not hesitate to say what I thought, even when I didn’t bother to think, and to do so in very clear terms.  This earned me more than a few ‘haters’, but improved my long-distance running.

Since the cluster bomb approach to keeping friends has had a low success rate, over the years I have tried to find softer, gentler ways of expressing myself.  This includes the decision to say nothing at all, which is often the wisest choice.   However, I know I can do better, and I’ve done some online research to find the way.  I want people to hire me to write for them, but when it comes to marketing and self-promotion, I’m a prize lemon.  I’ve been looking online for examples and role-models.  After trawling websites like LinkedIn, Facebook,, Google Plus and a couple of unnamed dating websites, I have reached an inescapable conclusion.

I have no need to worry.  I could probably teach classes.  I practically have a black belt in subtlety.

The present trend seems to be one of Extreme and Excess.  Yes, I found the expected bland and uninteresting personal representations.  ‘I am a _______.  Hire me.’  ‘I have a pulse, wanna go out?’  However, I found a considerable body of self-promotion that was more apt to make your target person scream and run for cover.  One coffee house posted photos of counter staff, smiling and offering ‘a cuppa Joe’ (probably nothing so simple).  The smiles were unnatural and unsettling—they looked like advertisements for dental bleach, and one staff member had a crazed glint in one eye.  Mr Hyde, I presume.  It’s a question of ‘eat or be eaten’.

People on dating websites were equally unsettling.  There was ample representation of the ‘dental bleach’ crowd in pictures, but for some reason (and this was particularly true of female applicants), the effort to appear alluring and desirable translated itself into a facial expression of utter hostility.  Given the descriptions many of these individuals provided, (‘You’ll be hooked on me!’ ‘I’m gonna rock your world!’) bachelorhood seems an attractive option.  I like candle-lit dinners and long walks—I’m not up for an earthquake.

Businesses, and individual entrepreneurs in particular, were also brazen in tooting their own horns.  The Entrepreneur seemed to favour superlatives (‘we are the best, you will get the most, this is the most jaw-dropping’) and exaggerated descriptives.  ‘Extraordinary’ is a word that came up more than once—how can that be guaranteed?  They were like light-switches—either on or off, with nothing in between.  Other people, promoted themselves, (sometimes in the third person) with obscure job descriptions: ‘producer for boundless space,’ or ‘karmologist’.  These fantasy titles are self-defeating.  In fact, they are likely to ensure the absence of continuous, structured, and focused productive activity of a professional character resulting in repetitive remunerative gratification—ie: you stay unemployed.  I won’t consider hiring you, or hanging with you, if I have no idea what it is you do.

These efforts are inelegant and have an undertone of aggression, even extremism.  Can you think of any situation in which either is desirable?  The natural smile has been replaced by the stark white picket fence of teeth; the lovely woman in a simple dress has been swapped out for a sultry (read: sullen) vixen with a décolletage that started yesterday and finished in Nebraska.  She wants to visit cataclysmic upheavals on your poor, lonely head, and all you wanted was a quiet dinner and conversation.  The entrepreneur who wants your business doesn’t demonstrated how he’ll do a good job and provide examples of his work; he promises ‘prodigious, stupendous, monumental results’ because s/he is ‘the most expert in his/her field’.  The claims themselves are incredible, and the results are highly unlikely.  There is no subtlety in any of this.

One ‘benefit’ of being a smart mouth in my youth was that I learnt to discern the difference between those who were tough, and those who acted tough.  (For ‘tough’, you can read a number of other adjectives.)  The tough guy never swaggered—he didn’t have to.  The guy who acted tough rarely was able to deliver.  The beautiful woman has always been beautiful naturally—all the adornment in the world will not make her more so.  You know the expert by his work—he doesn’t have to say much of anything at all.  The braggart, on the other hand….

The really smart, the genuinely expert, the truly excellent people never waste time on boasting and bragging.  They’re dedicated to the actual work, and it is their success that ‘sells’ them.

So much for examples of subtlety.

Late last year, a friend introduced me to a model of self-promotion that has become the cornerstone of my own efforts.  He worked for The Container Corporation of America (CCA) for many years, and they had the subtlest advertising scheme I’ve ever seen.  I’m hazy on the specifics, but I know that CCA engaged individual artists throughout the US and South America to illustrate a history of great ideas.  CCA took out full page advertisements in newspapers and published these illustrated great ideas, and the only bit of advertising they did was this:  across the bottom of the page, they put their name, in small print.  The collection eventually ended up in the Smithsonian.  In researching some of the details for this article, I also discovered that in the late 1940’s, CCA commissioned someone to design a world atlas, which was distributed for free to 150 colleges and universities throughout the country.  Their only advertisement?

They put their name on the book.

Now, that’s subtle.



If you enjoyed reading this, please take a look at my eBooks on

Behind These Red Doors: Stories a Cathedral Could Tell :

Lives of the Ain’ts: Comedic Biographies of Directors Errant:

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