If you’re a fan of podcasts and US sitcoms, you might be familiar with Harris Wittels. Tragically, Wittels died at the beginning of 2015, aged just 30. But the work that he produced is still loved, current and talked about. He might be most famous for writing and appearing in Parks And Recreation, as well as working on The Sarah Silverman Program, Master Of None and Eastbound & Down. However, you don’t need to watch much TV to be familiar with the “humblebrag” – a term Wittels coined in 2010. Wittels collated tweets which exemplified “humblebragging”, and the Twitter account inspired a book. “A humblebrag,” as defined by Harris, “is a specific type of boast that allows the offender to broadcast their achievements without the necessary shame and guilt that should normally accompany such claims.”
Obviously, Wittels’ concept was tongue in cheek, and perhaps inspired by living in Los Angeles, a town that has a reputation for being low on humility and overpopulated by showoffs. However, beneath the silliness, there’s a sociological phenomenon that is worth studying. New research from Harvard Business School has found that humblebragging might be damaging your professional prospects, as well as enraging your friends. “Participants rated humblebraggers as less competent and likeable than those who shared their news in a straightforward manner.” Ultimately, the study suggested that it’s best to simply say what you mean. “When making social judgments, people often value sincerity above traits like warmth or competence.”
When I catch other people in the act of humblebragging, it makes me murderous. Tell me you’re horribly hungover because of all the champagne you drank on your surprise first-class flight upgrade, and I will ask the universe to send an upturned plug for you to step on. Whine about being late for school because you got caught in conversation with a celebrity parent at the gates, and I will pray that your boiler breaks in October and doesn’t get fixed until the following May. Yet, start a conversation with “the coolest thing happened at the airport”, or “Guess who I got talking to?” and I’ll be all ears. Still, I have definitely been guilty of humblebragging in the past. Why would I do it?
A good, open brag should make everyone feel as though the world is packed with possibilities, and just became a little bit bigger
As women, we’re constantly being told that we need to be more confident, own our achievements and celebrate ourselves out loud. However, most of us have grown up hearing another subtle, insidious, conflicting message: women aren’t supposed to brag. No one likes a show-off. The very worst thing that anyone could ever accuse us of is attention-seeking. So the humblebrag is the unhappy, deformed product of this confusion. Of course, men humblebrag, too – but men live in a world which makes them feel much more comfortable about straightforward bragging.
A 2014 Lancaster University study found men are much more likely to shout about their talents, and lie about their limitations. This isn’t because women are meant to be meek little dormice, or because men are natural shouty idiots. When it comes to gendered behaviour, we imitate what we observe, and what we’ve grown up with. If your dad crowed over your uncle after winning the Boxing Day boardgames tournament, or you saw your best friend’s mum trying to explain her promotion to a very close-minded husband, you might have brought those ideas into adulthood with you – even if you know, rationally, that they’re nonsense.
It’s worth remembering that women are told that we’re in constant competition with each other. If one woman’s brag makes you feel bad, it’s because we’re stuck in a system that is weighted away from women. We’re told that our roles, our spaces and our opportunities for success are finite. If we find it hard to celebrate the achievements of our peers, it’s because we feel as though we now have fewer chances to succeed ourselves. We can destroy this system by bragging out loud, as long as we remember the aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats”. Show off well, and share your wealth. A good brag reveals what’s out there, and what’s possible. A humblebrag is a “Here’s one I made earlier” act of showing off. It’s an invisibility cloak, hiding the effort, energy and desire that brought the brag into being. It comes from the same family of feelings that makes us dismiss the efforts of our hard work as “luck”, and leads Victoria’s Secret models to pretend they eat a burger every day. Men have been bragging openly for centuries and it seems to be working out quite well for them. A bad brag or a humblebrag will make your audience feel that they live on a different, inferior planet from you, where good fortune simply falls into your lap. A good, open brag should make everyone feel as though the world is packed with possibilities, and just became a little bit bigger.