11 Feb 2023

How to avoid humblebragging

Nothing is more deceitful than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast.”
Jane Austen

There is a plague of humblebragging on social media. This hybrid of humility and boasting, often wrapped up in a quasi-complaint, is seen by many people as an excellent way of disguising self-promotion, but its insincerity is transparent and deeply off-putting.

There is nothing new about false humility, as the quotation from Jane Austen (above) attests. But whereas Austen was beadily observing and gleefully exposing telling examples of false modesty in the small social circles that congregated in 19th-century drawing rooms, today’s humblebrags frequently go beyond the merely conversational, and are blazoned across the internet for all to see.

There are two distinct types of humblebrag. The first relies on a complaint: “I hate looking so young – even schoolboys are flirting with me!” is a thinly-disguised boast about youthfulness and attractiveness. The second type relies more heavily on humility, often served with a substantial helping of wide-eyed disingenuousness – “Why do I always get asked to do the important presentations?” or stagey incredulity – “I can’t believe they chose meto make this speech in front of so many famous people!”

A report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2015 identified humblebragging as “a distinct – and ineffective – self-presentation strategy”. It is ineffective because it is fundamentally insincere, an attempt to conceal boastfulness beneath a more self-effacing veneer. In fact, studies have found, that most respondents would prefer to witness straightforward self-promotion rather than humblebragging, for the simple reason that it is more honest.

There seems to be a consensus that humblebragging is ineffective and unlikable. But how do you promote your abilities and accomplishments whilst still getting people to like you? The answer seems to be that sincerity and straightforwardness will have more positive impact that any of the circuitous strategies to elicit sympathy and praise that we have already discussed. If, for example, you find yourself in a job interview and are asked what strengths you would bring to your work, try to answer straightforwardly, rather than hiding behind an off-putting mask of humility: “I’m organised, efficient and I’m an effective communicator”. If you are asked in an interview about your greatest weaknesses, don’t respond with a classic humblebrag, for example: “I get so fixated with getting the job done on time that I work ridiculously long hours”. Instead, identify a genuine weakness but try to give it a positive spin: “I’m aware that my time-management skills aren’t as efficient as I’d like them to be, but I’m working to improve them.”

As far as the bragging is concerned, why not wait for other people to offer praise and compliments, rather than feeling compelled to be your own promoter and spokesperson? You will find that other people will always react more positively to you if you share credit when it’s due, are always generous in your support of other people, and are honest about the hard work and effort you have had to put into your achievements.

The humblebrag is part of the pervasive trend towards shameless self-presentation on social media – the implausible yoga pose, the exquisitely presented home-cooked lunch, the adorable children and captivating pets. Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s acceptable just because everyone else is doing it.

While success can alienate, especially if you boast or humblebrag about it, failure unites. If you must share personal updates with your social networks, make sure they are genuinely humble; you’ll garner more respect for revealing that you’ve walked around all morning with your flies undone than you will for your record-breaking marathon time.

Who knows himself a braggart, let him fear this, for it will come to pass that every braggart shall be found an ass.”
William Shakespeare


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