Poised, humble, or cocky? Describing levels of confidence.


by Liz Walter

Self-confidence, the belief that you can do things well and that other people respect you, is an important feature of a happy and successful life. However, it is noticeable that most of us dislike arrogant people (people who have too much self-confidence) and much prefer modest behaviour, when people don’t boast about their own achievements or abilities.

English has a lot of vocabulary to describe levels of confidence, and this post looks at some of the most useful words we use.

We will start at the positive end of the scale. Someone who is poised, self-possessed, or self-assured is confident and relaxed even in situations that other people might find difficult, while someone who is assertive is able to express opinions and ask for what they want in a way that is forceful but not rude:

He was a remarkably self-possessed child.

In her role as manager, she was brisk and assertive.

The adjective urbane describes a person who is confident, charming and sophisticated. Suave is similar, but sometimes implies that the person may be dishonest:

His urbane charm makes him the perfect guest.

She was taken in by his suave manner.

Modest or humble people may have lots of good qualities but they don’t boast about them. Someone who is self-effacing or unassuming tries not to be noticed very much, while a self-deprecating person tries to make their own achievements and qualities seem less impressive:

For such a great musician, he is amazingly modest.

She was a quiet, self-effacing woman, who ran the household with great efficiency.

We all appreciated his self-deprecating wit.

At the other end of the scale there are lots of disapproving words for people who are too confident. People with a high opinion of their own abilities can be described as conceited or self-important. If this is combined with a very serious manner, we often say they are pompous:

It’s rather conceited to describe yourself as ‘gifted’.

He gave a rather pompous speech.

More informal words include big-headed and cocky, while people who act as though they are better or more intelligent than the people they are talking to may be described as patronizing or condescending:

He’s too big-headed to admit he could be wrong.

She gave a cocky wave as she drove past.

His attitude towards his neighbours was extremely patronizing.

As always, there are a lot more words to describe negative characteristics than positive ones! So many, in fact, that my next post will be entirely devoted to a colourful range of phrases to describe arrogant people and their behaviour.

20 thoughts on “Poised, humble, or cocky? Describing levels of confidence.

    1. Sed

      If one’s intention is to harm and belittle others , it’s bad.
      There many self-aggrandizing characters who are envious and jealous about the achievements or performance of others. These people resort to deliberate self-promotion to belittle others. ( For example, A colleague at the same level as you, who does not perform well, tells you, “ I’m writing a recommendation letter for my subordinates and I’m going to write one for you too”.
      There are many self-aggrandizing characters who impose their toxic delusions of grandeur on others. They do this with a smile, poise, and self-possession. (As if they practiced in a mirror.)
      These ones who always crave attention, recognition, approval, and validation.
      If they don’t get it they react with raging anger – their vile and vulgar side surfaces.

      We shouldn’t conflate over-confidence, self-aggrandizement with competence and compatibility.

  1. Denis

    Nicely written, and there are plenty of new words to learn.
    It is interesting, however, especially taking into account this example sentence in the article: ‘She gave a cocky wave as she drove past.’… I mean, it’s not exactly my case, but anyway… Once, one of my teachers corrected me when I sad something like ‘she is cocky’ or something. The thing is, I in fact used the adjective ‘cocky’ to describe a woman, and the teacher told me that this particular adjective could not be used as a description of a female person, that we could use it only when talking about men. Simply put, ‘she is cocky’ doesn’t sound right, is that true?

    1. LeannS

      Totally agree. Cockiness is not a gesture, but an attitude, as are most its synonyms. To “label” an attitude you need more data than a hand gesture. A person’s speech could reflect a cocky attitude, and that would include data points like tone, verbage, inflection.
      Without side-Googling, I believe cocky originates from a rooster or cock–puffed up, parading, displaying strengths, looking larger than life, in attempt to stand above “the crowd” to potential mates, hens.

      1. Denis

        Well, it is not exactly what I mean. Right, cockiness is not a gesture. However, I’m inclined to believe that a gesture can be cocky. ‘A cocky wave’ or ‘a cocky gesture’ sounds okay to me. As a matter of fact, I just wanted to clarify whether or not we can describe a female individual as cocky. But thanks for your lovely response anyway.

    2. Liz Walter

      I don’t think cocky is inherently gender-specific. If you google, you can find plenty of real-world examples of females being described as cocky, as well as plenty of examples of ‘a cocky wave’.

      1. Denis

        Thank you very much for this clarification. In hindsight, without wishing to sound conceited, I wish I had taught that teacher how to really utilize English words in a proper way. The thing is, not only was he a teacher, he also was a teacher of his native language. How unprofessional! On the other hand, it is fair to assume that some sort of association with a cock (an adult male chicken that is also called a rooster) confuses people and makes them think that it is inappropriate to use ‘cocky’ as a description of a female individual. To be perfectly honest, I still a little bit doubt that we can do it. I mean, ‘a cocky wave’ – yes, but ‘she is cocky’… I don’t know… For some reason, it just doesn’t sound a hundred percent right to me. Maybe you are correct, and ‘cocky’ is not at all gender-specific and therefore has nothing to do with a cock (a male chicken), but, just saying, you can encounter a considerable amount of inaccurate, as well as unreliable, information. In fact, neither Cambridge Dictionary not Lexico (powered by Oxford) have a single example of a female being described as cocky. Quite frankly, I’m in two minds…

      2. Denis

        I mean, you can encounter a considerable amount of inaccurate, as well as unreliable, information on the internet using the search engine Google. And by the way, Merriam-Webster hasn’t got such an example either.

  2. Stop being ‘ cocky ‘ Denis ! …Ha, ha, just kidding.

    Well, a whole lot of thoughts crossed my mind, with regards to your question. But I can’t say them here.
    Besides, this page belongs to Liz, and I aught to, or ought to respect Her.

    See, I’m still having an issue with ‘ aught vs ought ‘.
    Where art thou, William ?.

    1. Denis

      Shall I have a crow to pluck with you?))
      Honestly, I suggest you carry out some research into the origin of the adjective ‘cocky’ and its connection with the noun ‘cock’ meaning a rooster. If that’s the case, it would be inappropriate to describe a woman or a girl as cocky. It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?

      And yes, I get the impression that you actually do have an issue with the proper usage of the word ‘aught’. Thus, without wishing to sound cocky, let me educate you about the aforementioned usage.
      ‘Aught’ is a pronoun that means ‘anything’, or ‘all’, ‘everything’ (as in ‘for aught I care’ and ‘for aught we know’). ‘Aught’ can also be used as an adverb meaning ‘at all’. As a noun, ‘aught’ means ‘zero’, ‘cipher’, or ‘nonentity’, ‘nothing’. In addition, the phrase ‘the aughts’ can be used as a proposed label for the decade that began in the year 2000 (as in ‘back in the early aughts, he worked as a marketing specialist’).
      Unlike ‘aught’, ‘ought’ is a modal verb and can be used as an auxiliary verb to express obligation (‘ought to pay our debts’), advisability (‘ought to take care of yourself’), natural expectation (‘ought to be here by now’), or logical consequence (‘the result ought to be infinity’).
      Essentially, we don’t use ‘aught’ the way we use the modal verb ‘ought to’. Hence, you can say ‘ought to respect’, but you cannot say ‘aught to respect’ because the latter is simply not correct.

      Best wishes 🙂

  3. Silverlion

    Denis, I think you have quite a valid point, in trying to clarify this confusing word, and I fully concur with you.

    Naturally, the tendency is to associate it with males, based on it’s ‘ slang ‘ usage to describe a certain male anatomy.
    Also, the fact that, the word appears to originate from the ‘ adult male chicken ‘ as you have stated, does create a gender image.

    How did the word rooster become cock though…That is the question my friend ?.
    One possible answer comes to mind, which is :
    Mayors of French towns, are often referred to as, ” coq de la ville “. (rooster of the town) especially when they have ‘ a cocky attitude ‘.
    Albeit spelt with a ‘ q ‘ , it is pronounced exactly the same. The alphabet ‘ k ‘ is least used in French.

    Having said the above, I seriously doubt that, a female French Mayor could ever be referred to as ‘ coq de la ville ‘, simply because everything is gender specific in French, from tables and chairs to trucks and vans.

    I’ve certainly encountered females with a ‘ cocky ‘ attitude, but a cocky wave is something I have yet to witness or realize.

  4. Kylee Chase Dooley

    I have made the mistake of being”cocky” in my life. Although being a confident person, some may view them as cocky. This was very interesting to read, educational and humbling.
    In a situation where individuals are being misleaded or lied to for example. When a person you are close to decides not to communicate honestly with you about themselves, desires, wants , expectations , new interest and changes in them so you both can grow together. In turn lies manipulate and mislead. Can have a very negative impact on a person’s character. Why wouldn’t the person you care about most give their partner a honesty fair understanding and chance to grow to become great together.

  5. Silverlion

    Dear Denis,
    Thank You so much, for the explanation and clarity regarding ‘ aught vs ought ‘…. I actually found the post from several years ago, wherein I had posed that question to Liz, and her answer to it, is here below :

    A reader of one of my recent posts asked for an explanation of the difference between aught and ought. Aught is a very old-fashioned word, found mainly in old literature or poetry. Strangely, it can mean ‘anything’ or ‘nothing’, depending on the context. Ought is both a less common spelling of aught and (much more importantly) a very common modal verb, used in sentences such as: You ought to take more exercise.

    In reality, most people go through their whole lives without ever using the word aught, so they are not likely to confuse the two. However, the question made me think about more common words that my students (and also many mother-tongue speakers) often muddle up.

    1. Denis

      Oh, don’t mention it, my friend. I’m always willing to help, and I’m glad that we’re on the same page now.
      And yes, ‘aught’ is indeed an archaic word. I didn’t mention it cos I was sure you knew that. Well, you know, some people like to show off by using archaic words, though, don’t they?)) I reckon English is so diverse and consists of so many contemporary words, along with no end of miscellaneous expressions & idioms, that we don’t really need to get bogged down in those archaic ones, howbeit, I’ve got to avow, the occasional utilization of those kinds of words may well spice up our conversation or a piece of writing.

      I would like to wish you the very best of luck with your teaching! 🙂

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