APU Opinion Original

What Is Humility? An Overview of University Faculty Opinions

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By Dr. Bjorn Mercer
Program Director, Communication, Humanities, Music, Philosophy, Religion and World Languages Programs

Note: This article is part 1 of a six-part series on humility written by university faculty.

In this series, we will look at multiple perspectives on humility by university faculty. The authors come from a variety of content areas, including music, philosophy, religion, law, business, logistics, criminal justice, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In addition to different content areas and academic backgrounds, these faculty members have not spent their entire working lives in academia and have different work experiences.

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All of the faculty members who contributed to this series were approached with the idea of writing an article about humility in the contemporary world and why it is important in their field and in life. No other direction was given. The purpose of this series on humility is to not provide an authoritative voice on what humility should or should not be, but to provide diverse ideas on this very human concept.

What Is Humility?

Humility is a simple word yet a complex concept that goes back as long as there have been humans. For some, it is what we should all aspire to. For others, humility implies a character trait that can be perceived as a weakness. For most people, though, humility is not an unattainable perfection or a sign of impotence, but something that recognizes human limitations and acknowledges the need to reach out and try to understand the person across from you.

Before we progress, let us look at the definition and synonyms of the words humble and humility.

Definitions and Synonyms for Humble and Humility

Words are powerful. People use carefully chosen words because they are trying to communicate a specific idea or concept, so word choice is extremely important. To fully understand the words humble and humility, let’s look at their definitions and synonyms.

Definitions of humble and humility:

  • Not proud or arrogant; modest
  • Having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience
  • Low in rank, importance, status, quality, lowly
  • The quality or condition of being humble; modest opinion or estimate of one’s own importance, rank
  • Courteously respectful

Synonyms of humble and humility:

  • Courteous, gentle, modest, polite, quiet, respectful, self-effacing, unpretentious
  • Ordinary, sheepish, shy, simple, soft-spoken, tentative, timid

After reading and reviewing the definitions and synonyms of humble and humility, what can we surmise?

Self-Effacing Traits

If you look at humble and humility, there are many self-effacing traits: not proud, feelings of insignificance, inferiority, low in rank, and subservience. These traits are difficult to comprehend and align more with reticent, inhibited, and unassuming personalities who need to work on their self-confidence.

After the self-effacing definitions, the next one is a modest opinion of one’s importance or rank. Modesty, much like humility, can be a positive or a negative trait. When it comes to having a modest opinion of one’s importance or rank, we all need to have a healthy perspective on our position within a society.

In modern U.S. culture, class is generally not important, especially compared to other countries and historic norms of class. For example, in many countries, if you were born into a class, you typically lived and died in that class. Many societies were extremely rigid and inflexible; the only way to move up in class was if the ruler “lifted you up” and this change occurred only due to extraordinary feats.

Positive Traits

The final definition of humility is to be courteous and respectful. As far as the definitions go, this one is the most positive and constructive. Not only do parents want their children to be courteous and respectful, but they want them to align with societal norms, hoping this will help facilitate civility in their area and the world. With civility comes safety.

Synonyms for Humble and Humility Have Different Connotations

When it comes to the synonyms of humble and humility, we get a more balanced view of the word rather than just with their definitions. Some of the synonyms can have negative connotations such as ordinary, sheepish, shy, simple, soft-spoken, tentative and timid.

Then there are synonyms with more positive connotations such as courteous, gentle, modest, polite, quiet, respectful, self-effacing and unpretentious. The synonyms of humble and humility provide a wider scope of meanings and allow us to discuss how humility is applied in different contexts.

The Contradictory Meanings of Humility

One of the fascinating traits of humility is the word can mean many different things, including meanings that are contradictory. People take the concept of humility and use it depending on how they view the world, how they view themselves, their place in the world, and how, as individuals, they interact with one another.

Humility has such great potential for good because if you are humble, you can put the needs of others before your own and potentially be of help to others. On the other hand, if you are humble and lose yourself in the negative traits of the word, you can be overwhelmed by a feeling of insignificance; instead of helping people, you could possibly be used because of your low self-esteem.


Humility is not a synonym for humiliation. Although both words have the same Latin root humilitas, humiliation exclusively assumes the negative traits of humilitas. It is “an act or instance of humiliating or being humiliated” and “the state or feeling of being humiliated; mortification.”

Two synonyms for humiliation are degradation and dishonor. When we talk of humility, humiliation should not be part of the conversation unless the person takes on all of the negative traits of the word.


Since humility has the unfortunate potential to have negative traits, anyone who is humble also needs to have confidence. As suggested by Dr. Barbara Markway, author of “The Self-Confidence Workbook: A Guide to Overcoming Self-Doubt and Improving Self-Esteem,” confidence allows people to have less fear and anxiety. They are self-motivated, more resilient, have improved relationships, and have a stronger sense of their authentic selves.

However, people can have too much confidence that grows into egotism, selfishness and possibly narcissism. When it comes to people wanting to be humble, they typically are not led down the road of narcissism, but need to have the confidence to allow themselves to be humble and strong.

In life, each person has a different perspective on humility that overlaps and diverges from other people’s perspectives, depending on their cultural, societal, and religious upbringing. At the end of the day, humility, at its basic and most positive incarnation, should allow people to connect better with each other and hopefully create a more positive and constructive dialogue with the people around them.

About the Author

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an MBA from the University of Phoenix. He writes about culture, leadership, and why the humanities and liberal arts are critical to career success. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music.

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