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.