"Nothing is more deceitful," said Darcy, "than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast." - Jane Austen
Praise and sympathy: They are two of life’s essentials, the oxygen and carbon dioxide of social interaction. The first is most directly elicited by bragging, and the second, by complaining. The humblebrag—e.g. I’m exhausted from Memorial Day weekend; it’s soooo hard to get out of Nantucket—sits at the center of these competing needs. It is a boast in sheepish clothing, kvelling dressed in kvetch. And, like nearly all forms of multi-tasking, the drive to satisfy two goals at once typically results in double-failure.
“Two fundamental goals in life are to get people to be impressed by us and feel sympathy for us,” said Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School and co-author of the paper Humblebragging: A Distinct–and Ineffective–Self-Presentation Strategy. “People think they can get the best of both worlds by being indirect. Instead they are perceived as insincere."
False modesty is not a recent invention, as Jane Austen proves. But the humblebrag portmanteau, Norton said, might be a product of the social media age, due to the space limitations of platforms like Twitter. Stories that once cautiously mixed humility and boastfulness now appear, suddenly concentrated in the crucible of a Twitter box, to be inelegant attempts to disguise pride.
Across five studies, the researchers studied brags, complaints, and humblebrags on social media and in job-interview scenarios and evaluated how people reacted to each statement. In short, people respected complaints, tolerated brags, and disdained their intermixing. "The proliferation of humblebragging in social media and everyday life suggests that people believe it an effective self-promotional strategy,” they concluded. "Yet, our results show, people readily denigrate humblebraggers. Faced with the choice to (honestly) brag or (deceptively) humblebrag, would-be self-promoters should choose the former.” Interestingly, Norton added by email, there was no revealed difference between genders, even though other research has shown that aggressiveness and directness can be perceived differently when it comes from men or women.
There is a social cost to being too obvious. In general, being roundabout is just good manners. Young children are discouraged from beginning sentences with verbs ("Give me”) and over time learn that preambles are polite (“If it’s not too much trouble, and totally at your leisure, would you maybe take the time to give me …”). But humblebrags are particularly nauseating because they ooze insincerity, Norton said, which is considered even more worse than straightforward narcissism.
The surest way to bask in the glow of other people’s awe, he said, is to have somebody brag for you — particularly in a way that makes you seem perfectly innocent of all praise.
It seems to me that distance from praise is important, too. “The professor said I was the best painter at this school? I had no idea!” makes you sound brilliantly guileless. On the other hand, "Yes, I heard the professor’s compliment” requires you to feign, or even exhibit honest signs of, humility, which can always be read as insincere. You should not listen to people’s compliments too closely, but neither should you ignore them. And do not lie about your ability to hear them. "I can’t even tell when people are complimenting me, I must have acute compliment deafness” is the ultimate metahumblebrag.
It’s natural to want your friends to exhibit the perfect blend of praise and sympathy at all times, constantly showing breathless admiration for your genius while intuiting all the subtle ways that your daily life carries unspeakable and unique burdens. But it’s best to separate out your requests for sympathy and praise. When in doubt, complain constantly, bask in sympathy, and wait patiently for praise.
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