The Humblebrag: The problem of self-promotion

Humblebrag: The problem of self-promotion

Have you ever been accused of bragging? At one time or another, we’ve all boasted about something we think will impress our friends or families. Most of us learn that touting our achievements is tricky business, lest we be labeled a braggart. It’s much better to be humble, so we are told. Humility is a virtue. Ignore it at your own peril.

Braggadocio begins at an early age. Just as soon as we become aware of the fact that our personal identities influence the way others treat us, the process of self-promotion begins. I remember grade school friends bragging about everything imaginable: a banging new BWX bike; an A on a Mrs. Smith’s latest pop quiz; a kiss with Becky behind the tire swings. There was never a shortage of achievements – material, intellectual or physical – to brag about. I got in on the action too. It became a game of one-upmanship. If bragging is synonymous with blowing your own horn, me and my tribe had tubas!

Children might be excused for this type of behaviour, after all, they are just learning the dos and don’ts of social interaction. As adults, little to no quarter is given. So what to do? How can one share personal achievements, of which he or she is proud, without being labeled a bigheaded showboat? This problem was once negotiated almost exclusively during face-to-face interactions, where body language and intonation gave the speaker and listener a better chance of reaching an understanding and of signaling intent. Now, in the Internet age, this is a problem for billions of people sharing the details of their lives on Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat.

For many, the solution to problem of how to share life’s proudest moments on social media without appearing to boast is to couch their emissions in self-deprecation or humility. Thus, the humblebrag was born.

In a Harvard Business School paper pertaining to humblebragging, Ovul Sezer et al. defined the phenomenon as simply “bragging in the guise of a complaint.” For example: “Agh! I spilled my coffee all over my brand new Hermès bag!” or, “I wish I wasn’t so generous with my time! Now I’m running late for my next meeting!” or, “Being in Hawaii again is so amazing, but if I go out in my bikini, I’m so white I might blind the locals.” But is this an effective self-presentation strategy? In a word: No.

Humblebrags tend to backfire when the audience perceives an ulterior motive behind the message. The attempt mask the brag with an appeal to sympathy or false humility can come off as insincere.

So why are people doing it? Ovul Sezer et al. posit, people “wish to be viewed positively and attend closely to how they present themselves in social interactions. A commonly used impression-management strategy is self-promotion, which allows individuals to bring their good qualities to other’s attention.” It’s pretty easy to understand that people generally want to be perceived positively by others. Entire industries have risen up with the purpose of helping people improve their image.

Sometimes a little bragging is necessary. In an economy where jobs are scarce and competition fierce, effective self-promotion is a critical skill to develop. Interestingly, research shows there are ways to communicate your finer qualities in such a way that you are less likely to be seen as bragging. Two studies referred to by University of Haifa’s Nurit Tal-Or found that creating the right context for boasts was crucial. The principle is this: “self-promotion in response to a question is perceived more positively” than self-promotion that is unsolicited. In other words, bragging in the right context can be exactly the right way to self-promote.

With all the attention on the transmitters of humblebrags, receivers have largely been ignored. It’s all too easy to demonize people who are often just doing their best to fit in and earn the respect of their friends, family and peers. Rather than calling out humblebraggers, why not rejoice with them in their successes? To the humblebrag police: must you always be so keen on putting people in their place? Every social media post a person makes is representative of a individual qualities and therefore communicating some aspect of your personality. Is anyone truly innocent trying to present themselves in a positive light via social media?

Humblebragging may be a relatively new concept, but self-promotion is very old indeed. It is nothing new to shine a light on one’s best attributes in such a way as to appear humble while doing so. Social media has vastly expanded the potential audience for such self-promotion. But with people eager to hashtag a post “#humblebrag” if they sense a boast, beware how you share your next achievement.

If you have to brag, writer Alexandra Kay suggests, “boast judiciously” and “know your audience.” Keep your bragging to a minimum and think about how your audience will react. Sage advice indeed.









Critical Review of Luc Besson’s 1994 film The Professional

As a journalist-in-training, I’ve wanted to write a critical film review for some time now. So when the chance to take a film course presented itself, I jumped at the opportunity. Fortuitously, my first major assignment was to select from a list of 17 films and write a review about one. The list included films made from 1960 up until 2012, but in all honesty, I didn’t recognize many titles on the list. In general, I’m not opposed to new experiences, but in selecting a film to write about I wanted to choose something I had at least a little familiarity with. I also intended to publish my review on my personal blog; I surmised by selecting something with popular appeal, it might be relatable to a wider audience – or at least the two or three people lonely enough to read it. It came down to Harron’s 2008 film American Psycho or Besson’s 1994 film The Professional. In the end, I chose the latter.

The Professional’s (1994) plot is simplistic: a professional assassin, Léon, is obliged to look after his 12-year-old neighbour, Mathilda, after her family is gunned down by a group of murderous, dirty cops. She offers to do Léon’s housework if he teaches her how to ‘clean’, a euphemism for murder. Mathilda is set on revenge and she needs Léon to teach her his deadly art. The two develop a complex relationship, which ultimately leads to Léon’s destruction. As the film comes to a close, Mathilda summarizes her situation quite succinctly saying: “My family got shot down by DEA officers because of a drug problem. I lived with the greatest guy on earth. He was a hitman, the best in town, but he died this morning and if you don’t help me, I’ll be dead by tonight.”

Although plot of The Professional (1994) is straightforward and easy to understand, the film also contains layers of complexity, especially pertaining to the relationship that develops between the Mathilda and her new guardian Léon. Certainly, the character Stansfield, played by Gary Oldman, is an important factor in advancing the plot, but this film is not about plot; it’s about characters. The complexity emerging from the interactions between Léon and Mathilda, as well as their development in the course of the film, is represented in the symbolic meanings of prominent objects. Objects take on meaning when the context of the characters’ motivations and relationship to each other is considered.

Case in point: the houseplant. Early in the film, Léon is shown paying great attention to his houseplant. He carefully cleans each leaf, misting them one-by-one with a spray bottle and then wiping them down with a soft cloth. He attentively positions the plant near the window in his apartment each day so it can absorb life-giving rays from the sun. At one point, Mathilda notices Léon’s horticultural diligence. She asks, “You love your plant, don’t you?” Léon replies, “It’s my best friend. Always happy. No questions. It’s like me, you see? No roots.” In this bit of dialogue, the symbolic meaning of the houseplant is partly uncovered. The houseplant is a kind of surrogate. It’s a friend, a child and a mirror of Léon, all at the same time. The houseplant represents Léon’s desire to have a companion and someone to take care of. But Mathilda says Léon should put the plant in a park so it can grow roots. She says he should be watering her if he wants her to grow. Here, Léon is being asked to give up his lone wolf status by bringing Mathilda more fully into his life.

This is the domestication of the predator. As the film progresses, we see the effects of Léon’s domestication. He goes out of his way to protect Mathilda, which leaves him vulnerable both emotionally and physically. When he rescues Mathilda at the DEA offices and when he asks his boss to give his money to her if he should die are good examples of this process. In some ways, he is compromised as a professional; however, Léon never fully turns his back on his way of life. Again we see the symbolic importance of the houseplant when, near the end of the film, surrounded by DEA and police who are hell-bent on killing him and Mathilda, he knocks a hole in the wall as an escape route. He then wraps his plant in a cloth and drops it down the space between the walls before putting Mathilda in. His continued dedication to the houseplant evinces strong remnants of his ruthless assassin identity. Therefore, Léon is not giving up the connection to his old life. He is still the wolf.

Beyond the symbolism of objects are the notable interactions between Mathilda and Léon. In my estimation, the contrast between the two characters and how they interact with each other is the most significant feature of the film and the reason why it is so compelling. In many ways, Léon is childlike. For example, he is seen drinking copious amounts of milk and eating cereal, typical of children. Furthermore, he is unable to read. He also seems to have a kind of ignorance of the world around him. A scene in the film that brings this to light is when Mathilda decides they should play charades. She dresses up like Madonna, Marilyn Monroe and Charlie Chaplin, but Léon has no idea whom these people are. All he knows is how to kill effectively; popular culture is alien to him.

In contrast to Léon’s childlike characteristics, Mathilda exhibits some very mature mannerisms. For example, she smokes cigarettes, wears slinky cloths and speaks provocatively. Indeed, Léon berates Mathilda for her language more than once in the film. When they are staying in the hotel, she tells the superintendent that she is Léon’s lover. Would it be cynical to wonder then, if the film’s director Luc Besson is flirting with pedophilic undercurrents? The argument can be made that whenever an unrelated man spends time with a very young girl, it must be very clearly explained that the relationship is on the up and up, or certain assumptions might be made.

Yet, Léon and Mathilda’s contrasting reactions to violence are telling. Those reactions reveal the core of each character, which is grounded in the normative view of a child and an assassin respectively. Because of this, the audience is able to see and feel the effects of violence through the eyes of these two protagonists. For example, in the opening sequence of the film, violence is seen as clinical and almost humourous. Bad guys are getting killed right and left, but the audience feels little or no sympathy. It is assumed the bumbling idiots deserve no respect. This treatment of violence reflects the unflinching, unfeeling ethos of the assassin. In marked contrast, Mathilda is devastated by the violence to her family. In particular, the audience is meant to feel sympathy for the young brother who was cute, innocent and totally defenseless. Mathilda’s reaction sets up the motive, as well as the audience’s endorsement, for the revenge violence that is to follow.

In her New York Times movie review, Janet Maslin (1994) makes note of the “extravagant violence” of the film (para. 9). According to Maslin (1994), the oversentimentality of the film overshadows the violence. She sees the cataclysmic explosion at the end – Léon’s suicidal coup de grâce – as “maudlin.” I agree with her assessment. The movie does wander into sappy territory at times. For example, when Léon saves Mathilda by opening up a hole in the wall, the two hold hands while Mathilda sobs and begs Léon not to make her go down the shaft alone. A saccharine sound score adds to the effect.

Maslin’s (1994) review suggests Léon “has a true sweetness” and that “he and Mathilda can redeem each other with the purity of their platonic love” (para. 9). Although there are no obvious indications that the relationship between the Mathilda and Léon was anything other than plutonic, I still can’t help but wonder if Besson wanted the audience to consider the appropriateness of the friendship.

The final criticisms in Maslin’s (1994) review are the problematic and “condescending American stereotypes,” such as the mob boss in the Italian restaurant, and the limited acting skills of Natalie Portman (para. 10). I can see her point about the stereotypes: do we really need another Italian-American mobster figure working out of his restaurant? However, if Besson were an American director, would this even be an issue? I think not. And let’s cut Portman a break! She did a fine acting job, emoting everything from playfulness to cunning to despair.

The Professional (1994) has become somewhat of a cult classic and for good reason. It’s a film that’s both entertaining and surprisingly nuanced. Yes, there is plenty of violence, but the multidimensional relationship between the solitary assassin and the resilient ingénue is the film’s redeeming quality. It’s a redemption that’s reflected in Leon’s personal development. When Léon agrees to open the door for Mathilda, thereby saving her from Stansfield’s goons, he is also opening his heart. By doing so, he’s letting in sentimentality. Consequently, his fate is sealed. He will die to protect Mathilda, but in doing so, he avenges the death of her family.

If you’ve not yet seen the film, I suggest you pour yourself a tall glass of milk and allow yourself to be sentimental. You’ll not be disappointed.


Besson, C. (Producer), & Besson, L. (Director). (1994). Léon: The Professional (Motion picture). United States: Columbia Pictures.

Maslin, J. (1994, November 18) The Professional (1994) Film review; He may be a killer, but he’s such a sweetie. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Social Media Commenting: The Terminology of Praise

As a photographer, I look at a lot of photos: adorable photos, bad photos, memorable photos and sad photos. Most of the time it’s pure voyeurism; other times it’s for creative inspiration. When I see something I like, I often leave a comment. It’s something I really appreciate when others do, so I try my best to reciprocate.

Unfortunately, most comments I receive are trivial or cliché. Terms like “nice” and “cool” are fan favourites. While I’m happy someone has noticed my work, I wish viewers would step up their commenting game. After all, there are so many words in the English language, yet most resort to the same old, tired and played-out vernacular. Flickr even has a group called “Commented with Nice” – presumably a nod to the phenomenon.

They say, it is better to give than to receive. So, over the last few months, I’ve been trying out different terms while commenting on others’ photos. One day, while I was surfing through Instagram images, I saw something really special. I fired off the comment, “This is a truly stupendous photo!” The reply was, “I didn’t know what that word meant, so I had to look it up. Thanks!” Obviously, social media commenting has real room for improvement!

The Categories

The trick to commenting with style is to recognize the three main categories of comment terminology. Firstly, there are low-level terms. Although some of the words I’ve listed below have dictionary descriptions that contravene their status as unremarkable, I am classifying them as such because they have lost their original meaning due to severe overuse. Secondly, there are mid-level terms. This is a long list, most of which are infrequently used, but are common enough that they pop up now and again. Finally, there are high-level terms. These words are typically reserved for only the most monumental of commenter reactions.

The Terms

Low-level: These are your standard compliments, props and kudos. A comment consisting of these words demonstrates a mildly impressed viewer or someone lacking vocabulary. Worse yet, the comment was the result of a lazy bot programmer. If you want to comment with style, avoid these boring words, unless of course the post really is just “good.” If you absolutely must use low-level terms, try one of the modifiers listed after the terms.

  • Awesome – Really? Does this post fill you with awe? Didn’t think so.
  • Brilliant – Fine for everyday use, especially if you’re from across the pond.
  • Cool
  • Decent
  • Excellent
  • Good
  • Great
  • Groovy – Umm, the 70s are over babe.
  • Neat
  • Nice – Like your grandma’s toilet paper doily.
  • Rad
  • Sick – Are you 14? Then don’t use this word.
  • Smashing
  • Super
  • Swell – Lame. Unless you’re using it ironically. Then it’s sick!
  • Terrific
  • Wicked – If you’re from Boston, disregard. I have no beef with you.


Mid-level: These words rise to the level of commendation and admiration. A comment containing any of these words is a step in the right direction. If you’re getting or giving comments like these, you’re either really impressed or feeling a bit like Stan Lee.

  • Delightful – Kind of like a spring breeze. Suitable for pictures of babies.
  • Exceptional
  • Exquisite
  • Fabulous – Yep, this word is fine for straight folks too.
  • Fantastic
  • Fascinating – Spock would be proud.
  • Gorgeous
  • Impressive
  • Incredible – Use for anything big, green and hulking.
  • Magnificent – Anything in groups of seven.
  • Marvelous
  • Outstanding
  • Phenomenal
  • Remarkable – at the very least you’re being literal right?
  • Spectacular
  • Splendid
  • Superb
  • Wonderful – If you’re German, wunderbar works just as well.


High-level: These words rise to the level of praise and flattery. If you’re getting comments like these, you’ve made it to the big leagues! Congratulations! If you’re using terms like these, you’re a master of social media who’s commenting with style. Well done!

  • Astonishing – Pretty much interchangeable with the next term.
  • Astounding
  • Breathtaking
  • Divine – Divas have known the power of this word for decades.
  • Glorious
  • Mind-boggling
  • Sensational
  • Stupendous – Has nothing to do with being stupid.
  • Sublime

Modifiers: Now that you’ve got the terms, mix and match these adverbs to add a little zip to any of the words above.

  • Bloody
  • Damned
  • Extremely
  • Majorly
  • Really
  • Seriously
  • Truly
  • Very


Missing anything?

Okay! Now you have all the tools you’ll need to take your social media commenting to the next level. If I’ve missed any novel or mundane words, please leave a comment below… in the comment box. Yep. That’s the one, right down there.

Anyone commenting with emojis gets extra points for being clever.

People Suck. Right?

People are everywhere, but most of them are rubbish. Well-known comedian, Jerry Seinfeld once quipped, “People are the worst.” He was right. It is not a hard argument to make.  Everyone knows that people are inconsiderate, selfish and greedy. There are people that don’t signal in traffic, people that pick their noses, and people that sneeze without covering their mouth. There are those that pollute the environment, those that ignore the poor, and those that admire the cast of Jersey Shore. Bad people are all around. Some of them have bad hair. Some of them have smelly breath. Others wear too much cologne. These are the jerks, the idiots, and the morons.

Minor offenders cause aggravation, but major offenders cause real damage. Men that beat their wives, women that dump babies into trashcans and bullies that beat-up other kids represent the steaming heap of refuse that is mankind. These are the assholes, the bitches and the shitheads.

Beyond major offenders come truly evildoers like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. These genocidal maniacs can barely be described as human beings, and yet they are. They are human, if barely. They represent the worst of all potentialities inherent in the species Homo sapiens.

The gamut of human nastiness ranges widely from vile and villainous to depraved, despicable and diabolical. There is no shortage of words to describe the worst that mankind has to offer.

So why put up with it? For better or worst, human beings are social animals that are dependant on one another. Holing up in a cave like a misanthropic caveman is not really a viable option. It might be tempting to run off and hide in the mountains, secluded and concealed from the dreary emanations of society; however the success of the species depends on co-operation and collaboration. Interdependency is the keystone characteristic that makes societal progress possible. More than that, people need each other. Beyond the basic necessities of food and shelter, people require companionship, love and affection. The desire to connect emotionally with others is a biological imperative, critical to the ongoing success of mankind. Simply put, people need people whether they like it or not.

Human beings exhibit a host of positive attributes designed to counterbalance negative ones. Forgiveness, compassion and generosity provide effective antidotes to many of life’s trivialities. When ‘golden rule’ human attributes are inadequate, as in the case of the worst evildoers, people invoke laws, punishment and justice.

Humans are social animals, but that does not mean that they are always sociable. Mankind has a split personality and is plagued by diametrically opposed forces vying for control. Like Robert Louis Stevenson’s character Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, humanity is caught up in a contest between rationality and animalistic tendencies.

Antisocial attitudes abound. An ongoing struggle between social and antisocial instincts is raging. The battle lines have been drawn between those that aim to improve society and those that wish to tear it down. To address this issue, politicians and bureaucrats have enacted laws that are designed to protect society, often to the point of absurdity. For every rule, there are people willing to break them. A teenager talking on his or her cell phone during a movie, a woman smoking in a no-smoking area, a man speeding through a playground zone: they are all thumbing their noses at those who comply. Discourteous individuals who blatantly disregard social niceties are a constant irritant to the protagonists of order. They are a thorn in the side, a burning ember of vexation to be stomped out.

Conflicts within social systems are inevitable, but do the benefits outweigh the drawbacks? Obviously so, otherwise there would be no cities, towns, or any large-scale groupings whatsoever, beyond the family unit. Even heinous perils, such as rape or murder, are worth risking to reap the benefits afforded by living in a collective. The benefits are hard to overlook. The great achievements of humanity would not have been possible if it were not for the setting aside of disputes and the reigning in of combative urges. Indeed, even mankind’s most nefarious pursuits, like war, have produced beneficial outcomes. Technologies like sonar, radar and other communications innovations were advanced through competition between the Allies and the Axis powers in WWII. Co-operation between individuals, families, tribes, communities, collectives and super-collectives has made all things possible.

The evidence is everywhere. Headline news is filled with stories about war, political backstabbing, crime, and other misfortunes. By flipping through the pages of any newspaper one will find plenty of evidence that people are a big bag of hurt. People are not to be trusted. Bogeymen lurk behind every corner. It is a world of trade-offs between good and bad. In spite of all that, our world can be a beautiful place. Can anyone say they would throw it all away?