Humblebragging — bragging masked by a complaint or humility — really infuriates people. Mainly because the disguise isn't fooling us.
A 2018 study from researchers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that it is even worse than regular, straight-up self-promotion. The latter at least comes off as genuine!
However, some folks just can't help it. They let their insecurities get the best of them and put their false modesty on full display, ready to savor all the attention and recognition it might earn.
When that happens, they end up on a subreddit called r/HumbleBrag. The online community for shaming this pitiful self-presentation. Continue scrolling and check out some of its top posts.
"[Humblebragging] is such a common phenomenon. All of us know some people in our lives, whether in social media or in the workplace, who do this annoying thing," study author Ovul Sezer, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, said. "You think, as the humblebragger, that it's the best of both worlds, but what we show is that sincerity is actually the key ingredient."
Sezer and her team conducted a series of experiments, trying to determine how common humblebragging actually is and how others perceive it. They discovered that humblebragging is everywhere: Out of 646 people surveyed, 70% could recall a humblebrag they'd heard recently.
The researchers then established that there are two distinct types of humblebrags. The first falls back on a complaint ("I hate that I look so young; even a 19-year-old hit on me!") while the second relies on humility ("Why do I always get asked to work on the most important assignment?"). The results showed that roughly 60% of the humblebrags people remembered fell into the complaint category.
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The researchers also carried out experiments to see how people responded to humblebrags, particularly focusing on the bragger's perceived likability and competence. They found that regular bragging was better on both counts, it at least comes off as genuine, Sezer explained. Interestingly, even complainers were more likable and seemed more competent than humblebraggers of any type.
"If you want to announce something, go with the brag and at least own your self-promotion and reap the rewards of being sincere, rather than losing in all dimensions," Sezer said.
It would be even better if there was someone to 'wingman' your boasting. "If someone brags for you, that's the best thing that can happen to you, because then you don't seem like you're bragging," Sezer added.
However, we may want to rethink our harsh criticism of humblebraggers. We may be doing it ourselves without realizing it. "We all do it, to some extent," Sezer said. "I hope I don't sound like I’m humblebragging when I talk about this research."
If Only There Were A Way To Prevent This From Happening
Additional studies examined the causes of humblebragging; in other words, if this strategy is so bad, why do people engage in it at all? After all, many situations in life involve either complaining or bragging. The humblebrag, the authors discovered, occurs when people try to elicit both sympathy and admiration.
Unfortunately, as we already discussed, this produces the opposite effects. However, it is possible that even though you dislike seeing humblebragging in others, you feel that you’ve got no choice but to model the behavior of people in your network who use this strategy. But the Harvard-UNC study suggests you need to fight off this impulse.
When you think about it, no wonder so many humblebraggers reveal their true colors online. Social media is a lot to blame for this.
As writer Roxanne Batty pointed out, Zuckerberg, for example, promised Facebook would "give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected." Systrom, a year after starting Instagram, described the platform as "a storytelling service…the way you go out in the world and tell a story about your life." Not to be outshone, Snapchat took this rhetoric one step further, their original mission being to "empower people to express themselves, live in the moment, learn about the world, and have fun together."
It all may sound lovely, but people have taken these slogans to the extreme.
Consider Instagram. The platform focuses on images, the perfect breeding ground for the infamous humblebrag. "Selfies, the bread and butter of the network, are a source of bragging in their own right. But to downplay this outright display of narcissism, they are now combined with heartfelt captions," Batty said.
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"Look at this amazing shot of me where my skin and hair are flawless! But oops, I actually wanted to talk about how life is a struggle and being a social media influencer isn't all it's cracked up to be... #selfcare #love #mentalhealth." Sounds familiar? That's probably because you've seen this post a million times.
"In a move to take some of the market share from Snapchat, Instastories also became part of the platform in 2016. These 24-hour windows provided a wealth of opportunities for a quick snappy humble brag (that disappears, so it’s all good). 'Oh, look at me with all my friends at this party! I should be studying for my law degree (at Harvard, whoops!) #FML #lifeishard.'"
The term itself was coined by the comedian Harris Wittels, a writer for the NBC series “Parks and Recreation,” who collects hundreds of these cockeyed chestnuts on his Twitter feed and in his new book, both called “Humblebrag.”