You Humblebrags Aren’t Fooling Anyone

“I can’t believe I tripped on the red carpet!”

“Some dude asked if I was a model. I was like, don’t you think I would have brushed my hair if I was?”

“Disadvantage of driving a Porsche: People assume I’m picking up the check.”

We all know a humblebrag when we see one. It has the intent of informing others of something impressive about the speaker, while offering a mildly embarrassing tidbit or complaint in an attempt to negate the appearance of boastfulness.

While other people’s humblebrags seem pretty transparent, many of us still con ourselves into thinking we can get away with them, and dating only makes the temptation greater. How else will you let that cutie know you won a prestigious award or hiked the Appalachian Trail? If you mention an on-stage stumble or a poison-oak calamity, won’t that cancel out the bragging part?

Doubtful, says a recently published Harvard Business School study.

In the study, participants read tweets compiled by the @humblebrag Twitter account. Examples: “It’s been 10 years but I still feel uncomfortable with being recognized. Just a bit shy still I suppose,” and “Graduating from 2 universities means you get double the calls asking for money/donations. So pushy and annoying!”

Participants were asked if they thought the author of each tweet was complaining, bragging, or humblebragging. They were also asked how much they liked the person who wrote the tweet. Did they think this person was competent and sincere?

The result: Participants responded more negatively to the people they thought were humblebragging than they did to those who appeared to be complaining or just plain bragging.

“While people do not love braggers or complainers, they at least see them as more sincere than humblebraggers, such that perceptions of insincerity drive lower ratings of humblebraggers,” wrote the authors of the study, Humblebragging: A Distinct—and Ineffective—Self-Presentation Strategy.

Even in situations where speaking well of yourself is required, humblebraggers fair poorly. In another experiment by this team, participants were asked to answer the dreaded job-interview question, “What is your weakness?”

The majority of respondents offered a humblebrag, “confessing” that they worked too hard or were too nice or some such. This appeared to be the wrong tactic. Evaluators said they would be less likely to hire the people who humblebragged than those who admitted to true weaknesses, like being disorganized or prone to procrastination.

While it might be slightly dismaying to realize how badly our attempts to impress others can go, it’s also liberating. Bragging (humble or otherwise) is one of those things that often feels good in the moment but doesn’t sit well later, as time and reflection can bring the unhappy awareness of how one really appeared.

Fortunately, another Harvard Business School study offers a better strategy for communicating your strengths: ask for advice. The study found that people who ask for advice are perceived as more intelligent than those who don’t.

“We find that being asked for one’s own advice … is flattering and critically contributes to the boost in perceived competence of the advice seeker,” said the study’s authors.

So if you want to impress others, the best strategy may be to cut the boasting and give the bragging rights to them.

What do you think about people who brag/humblebrag? Is it a dating deal breaker for you?

Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook.


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