Cocky or confident?

Enya Eettickal, Staff Writer

As a member of the mock trial team here at Case Western Reserve University, I spend much of my time—namely weekends—with some very big personalities from all over the country. A significant part of these activities comes down to being judged on presence and presentation, even though this is insanely subjective. However, there are traceable patterns of what qualities are well received—judges tend to love people who are credible, pleasant and notably attentive. But one polarizing trait that most competitors have is confidence. At least, everyone will say it’s confidence. But it’s hard to understand why it is polarizing. Why is it that some audiences react positively to confidence in performers, but others may be averse? 

The answer, in my mind, is that there’s a difference between the types of confidence people have. Specifically, there’s a difference between being confident and being cocky. Even at first glance, both words have different connotations, and it can be hard to discern the difference even with practice. At what point does confidence become cockiness? How do you temper cockiness? There are a few questions to examine here. That is why it is important to explore why cockiness is undesirable in comparison to confidence.

In this case, defining these terms is part of the solution. Confidence and cockiness are both characteristics that result from a strong sense of self and often help with decision-making. Their big difference lies in the mindsets associated with them and understanding of those around them. 

Confidence is rooted in the idea that you are proficient at certain tasks or great at merely existing. Confidence is the textbook characteristic everyone is told to build. Cockiness has those same qualities, but added is the aspect of thinking that one is more proficient than the people around them, and that’s where the split in work ethic comes as well. People who are confident in their abilities have an awareness of why and how they are good at what they do. They understand the work they’ve had to put in to get to where they are, and are willing to sustain that work and effort to maintain their abilities. Cocky people don’t have that. Even if they were once confident and worked to get themselves to a certain skill level or image, they lose sight of who they were and become wrapped up in who they now are instead. As a result, they convince themselves that they are inherently superior to others, not accounting for any privileges they may have or changes that occurred over time. 

The problems that stem from cockiness are pretty self-explanatory. Cocky people are bound to overestimate their abilities. When they assume they are skilled or superior inherently, they forget the importance of working to develop or retain abilities. But despite what they assume, practice and work are still necessary to maintain their skills. So when they abandon developing that skill with their unfounded assumption about innate talent, they’re prone to being humbled quickly. Reality checks may come at the time they least expect it. 

Beyond that, there’s also the issue of cocky people simply being unlikeable. This goes back to my anecdote about performers. Cockiness is relatively easy to identify, and while it may be hard to spot the difference between confident and cocky people at first glance, cocky people are easy to identify once you spend any time with them. It’s most noticeable in how they treat others—whether that be body language that conveys disgust or condescending manners of speaking. No one wants to be patronized and treated poorly, or watch others around them being regarded similarly. 

The unfortunate part of all this is that cocky people often don’t know they are cocky. They don’t understand what part of their personality is turning people away from them. And because a lack of self-awareness is a fundamental part of being cocky, it’s difficult for them to identify it. However, the silver lining is that the difference between cocky and confident isn’t a huge one—therefore, the work that someone needs to evolve from cocky to confident is minimal. 

Once someone has identified, accepted and decided to temper their cockiness, which they may be more inclined to do if they get humbled, they probably can. Developing self-awareness and rededicating time to working hard is often enough to put them in a position where others will positively receive their strong sense of self. 

However, while it’s possible to fix the problem of cockiness, there’s no guarantee that someone will change. Being in a situation where cocky people are actively having their behavior checked expedites the experience—but there are no guarantees even then. All you can do is hope that the social response will be a good wake-up call.