For most of us, blowing our own trumpet is hard to do. Why? Well, from a very young age we may have been told; don’t boast, don’t show off, don’t stick your head above the parapet. After all, nobody likes a Smart Alec.
However, we can all think of people who seem to have the uncanny knack of getting their message across at the right time, in the right place, in the right way and to the people who matter; and they seem to be able to do this without an ounce of shame or self-criticism.
So what’s going on? When does authentic self-promotion spill over into bragging and hubris?
Well, despite the fact that in all societies there are rules or cultural norms which govern modesty, there are situations where boastful behaviour is tolerated without the individual being labelled a braggart.
One technique is to make your bragging relevant to the context. For example, if you are asked to extol your virtues during a job interview, the path is clear for you to do just that. Likewise, if someone else should initiate the subject of the brag, you can join in with your own story. If anyone then suffers the disdain of others, it will be them not you.
Context also plays a part in the conditions applying to the listener at the time of the brag. If they are attempting to multi-task, their attentions can be divided or under pressure (think of those who moderate the group discussion assignments that often crop up in the graduate assessment process). Here, the positive information underlying the boast can be absorbed without attributing poor manners to the person who made it.
To compare is fair
It also seems to matter in the sense of making comparisons. Telling others that you are better than a third party will make you look like someone who has a sense of superiority and who enjoys putting people down. Alternatively, talking about your own self-improvement and making a comparison of how you were then and how much better you are now, offers a much more balanced perspective. There is an added bonus if you can tie this into the self-knowledge required to recognise your own development areas and the effort made to improve e.g. “Since realising…, I’ve worked hard to improve my… “.
Mixing a brag with flattery sometimes helps. In a job interview situation, it shows you’ve done your homework on the organisation, whilst also suggesting a fit of your values and theirs. For example, “I share the company’s award-winning interest in environmental protection; in my last role I was responsible for reducing waste by x per cent”.
“You brag for me, and I’ll brag for you”
Social proof can come to the aid of bragging; people are persuaded by the actions of others. So, one strategy can be to have someone else, a friend or ally, do the work for you. While I wouldn’t suggest a reciprocal agreement (“You brag for me, and I’ll brag for you”), this relatively risk free way of bragging does confirm the importance of developing supportive relationships both in your workplace and more widely in your profession. People who are prepared to speak up for you, either as advocates or mentors, can have a very powerful effect on how you are seen and perceived. This might just be the difference between being offered that golden opportunity, or watching it pass by.
A recent phenomenon is the ‘humblebrag’. This natty little verbal device is said to have originated from the sentence limiting idiosyncrasies of social media, such as Twitter. It’s a kind of ‘get in, get out quick’ strategy in which the brag is presented in the form of, or coupled with, a complaint. One facet is intended to be tempered by the other, for example “Since my FT article went viral, I’ve been absolutely snowed-under with emails!”
As attractive as it might seem, recent research has identified that the humblebrag doesn’t work. Furthermore, it has revealed that it would be better just to complain or, if bragging is a must, then deliver the brag as honestly as you feel you can. The latter technique is more important than it first looks. There are social costs associated with being direct, such as others perceiving you as insensitive. Taking the other extreme, a Uriah Heep, ‘ever so humble’, approach to extolling your virtues can also be expensive. False modesty is disapproved of as much as humblebragging, with the teller perceived as both obnoxious and insincere.
So, think context. And think also about employing a subtle cocktail where the brag is blended with other ingredients, whilst avoiding the brash humblebrag. That’s more Mai Tai than Snakebite.
While we’re at it, what would be the best brag that you’ve heard of ?…