It’s not easy being “low key” in today’s world. This is because we live in a society that values overconfidence and exuberance. Therefore, the thought of embracing such a countercultural notion as humility may seem extremely unpalatable and even risky. Are there good reasons to welcome a low-key lifestyle? If so, what are they? These are the main questions that we’ll be examining in this article.

What does it mean to be low key?

“I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others.” – Lao Tzu (source)

Let us brainstorm some answers to the question, “What does it mean to be low key?” Here are some ideas (feel free to add your own in the comments):

To be low key is to…

  • Prefer the shadows rather than the spotlight
  • Remain humble in everything
  • Not take anything too seriously
  • Treat everyone the same and with respect
  • Resist the urge to show off
  • Be patient
  • Have a positive, easygoing attitude
  • Despise prideful behavior
  • Value action, not words
  • Know how much you don’t know

Here are some like-words for low key: circumspect, discreet, downbeat, easygoing, effacing, inconspicuous, low-profile, modest, modulated, muted, relaxed, restrained, self-effacing, softened, subtle, toned down, understated, unobtrusive, unostentatious.

low key

Five things to remember about the low key person

By now, the probable characteristics of a low-key individual should be well understood. Less there be any remaining confusion, keep the following five things in mind:

  1. Low-key personalities are strong, not “weak.”
  2. Deference to a person, idea, or outcome does not imply submissiveness.
  3. A genuine low-key person is not merely relaxed or chilled out.
  4. Low-key behavior is most common among introverts but does not by any means exclude extroverts.
  5. A low-key personality displays like behavior most of the time but not all.

Famous people who were/are low key

Low-key individuals can feel as if they’re out on an island. The pervasive encouragement of boisterous and self-promoting behaviors has the effect of making a person who is low key feel all but left out. In this regard, it may be helpful to identify some a few standouts who embraced the low-key approach.

  • Albert Einstein, physicist, and founder of the Theory of Relativity: “The monotony and solitude of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind.”
  • Rosa Parks, civil rights leader: A self-described “shy” and “timid” person, Parks took on the courage of a lion when it came to equal rights and fair treatment.
  • Warren Buffett, founder of Berkshire Hathaway: “I just sit in my office and read all day.”
  • Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft: Gates, a self-described introvert, embraces a quieter lifestyle while valuing those who don’t. (How else can we explain the hiring of Steve Ballmer?)
  • Mahatma Gandhi, activist, and leader of the Indian independence movement: “It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”
  • Mother Theresa, Catholic nun and activist for the poor: “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”

The benefits of being low key

Although people who embrace a low-key lifestyle don’t do so for a bunch of perks, there are indeed benefits according to psychologists. Here are eight:

1. They are excellent leaders

Because of their gentle nature, low-key people tend to be well-liked and effective as leaders. In a 2011 study published in the Academy of Management, researchers found that leaders who are humble produce “positive organizational outcomes” by encouraging personal growth and being attentive to the needs of their subordinates. Per the study, low-key leaders are heavily influential in shaping organizational culture, particularly when it comes to employee growth, engagement, and empowerment.

2. They’re more controlled

Paradoxically, researchers find that self-obsessed people tend to display poorer self-control than others. Low-key individuals tend to be more selfless and less self-absorbed, which may help explain why they’re arguably more disciplined than those who can’t see past their own needs. People who are low key also tend to be less trendy than most others. As such, they may be less inclined to splurge on expensive items like clothes, vehicles, and other products used to flaunt status.

3. They do excellent work

Besides making great managers, the low key among us are apparently excellent employees. In a 2011 study published by neuroscientists at Baylor University, researchers issued a 240-item International Personality Item Pool (IPIP) assessment to measure the correlation, if any, between the “Big Five” personality traits and job performance.

The team decided to also measure “Honesty-Humility” along with agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotionality, extraversion, and openness to experience. As a comparative benchmark, researchers analyzed supervisor evaluations of employees across 35 job skills. The team from Baylor concludes “Honesty-Humility correlated positively with supervisor rating of overall job performance … over and above the five other main factors in the model.”

4. They’re more helpful

As a rule, low-key folks tend to be very helpful and selfless, especially when compared to the more arrogant and egotistical among us. In a meta-study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers found that low-key people are more willing to voluntarily insert themselves into the affairs of others for altruistic reasons. This relationship held across all studies. Once again, a strong correlation was made between humble behavior characteristics and benefits to society as a whole.

5. They’re more positive

One standout characteristic of a low-key person is not getting overexcited. To the untrained eye, this “lack” of outward emotionality may be perceived as something negative such as aloofness or lack of interest. Well, it’s not. Per a study published in the journal Psychological Science, individuals who participated in a loving-kindness meditation – a practice known to induce states that can be described as low key – reported an increase in positive emotions. While this finding may not be significant in itself, the team found that these emotions remained for a time upon conclusion of the meditation.

From the mouth of a low-key person

“It took me a long time to realize that I was, subconsciously, doing the very things that can be classified as ‘staying low key.’ In the process of doing that, I have been able to observe a lot of advantages.” – Roshan Desai, (source)

It’s one thing to research and cite studies demonstrating the benefits of low-key attitudes like humility, helpfulness, and stability, and others. It is quite another to get the scoop from people who personify the traits. Concerning the latter, one must be careful – especially as a writer. Why? Well, anecdotal accounts are known to be rife with inaccuracies and embellishments. The inclusion of such material can quickly discredit one’s work.

However, upon stumbling across an answer to the question, “What are the advantages of staying low key?” on Quora, the writer couldn’t help but be taken aback by the apparent thoughtfulness of one Roshan Desai. As a self-described introvert, the writer immediately identified with Desai’s experiences. If not from personal experience, then as that of witnessing the actions of other low-key souls. Anyways, it quickly grew apparent that Roshan was speaking from a good place.

Advantages of Remaining Low Key

Mr. Desai summarized his experiences and observations into three brief points in response to the question, “What are the advantages of staying low-key?” to which he writes, in part:

  1. Being low-key creates an aura: “I have often noticed that in a room full of people who know each other, the low key person manages to create an aura around [themselves] … Getting this aura around yourself does two things – it helps you stay away from the chaff and [gives you] an edge over your peers.”
  2. Being low-key keeps your mind from drifting: “When you are surrounded with a specific kind of [person], inadvertently your mind absorbs their thoughts. It is often said that we are the average of the people we are surrounded by … it is definitely your choice to avoid people who you think are not conducive to your goals.”
  3. Unshackles you from a lot of societal obligations: “Being low-key means you have the freedom to go it alone.”

low key

Closing Thoughts on Being Low Key

The conclusion of Desai’s post is also worth mentioning – regarding being the kind of low key not to embrace: “being very low-key.”  Of course, there is the possibility of taking this character trait too far.

Low-key folks have so much to offer the world, but they must first be willing to make their voices heard. Or, like Ms. Rosa Parks, let their actions speak louder than their quiet words.