By now you're probably aware of a widespread cultural norm that discourages you from boasting about yourself too much, earning you labels like self-absorbed, narcissistic, even obnoxious.
Despite this norm, we still find plenty of ways to brag about ourselves without any negative reactions. After all, sometimes the only way to impress others is by singing your own praises, making it a critical skill in social life. Think about someone you know who always makes a great impression. On job interviews, on first dates, and on anybody's parents. Someone you're certain would take the prize on any reality show. Yes, people like this have mastered the fine art of self-praise: they know how to boast and get others to agree with it. But what about the rest of us, who aren't blessed with this talent? How can a person be charismatic without being cocky?
Some new research shows that it depends on whether you brag by comparing yourself to others, or do so without comparing to others. People who engage in comparative self-praise ("I'm better than others") tend to be judged more negatively than people who brag without making an explicit comparison ("I'm great"). For example, imagine that your neighbor just landed a big job, telling you that he got it because he's way more intelligent and charming than any of his competitors. How would you respond to this? By contrast, now imagine him saying that he got the job because he's very intelligent and charming. Still pretty cocky-sounding, but it doesn't quite have the bite of the first comment. You'd probably form a more positive impression after hearing the second comment.
Comparative boasting is risky because it always disparages whoever's being compared to, whether it's a specific person ("I'm better looking than Tiffany") or other people in general ("I'm better looking than most people"). There's a big difference between saying you're good vs. saying you're superior to others (or put differently - saying that others are worse than you). In fact, researchers suggest that one reason listeners are turned off by comparative boasting is because it can come across as threatening to listeners, even if they aren't explicitly being compared to.
Hearing a comparative statement ("I'm smarter than anybody in Mensa") may automatically trigger a comparison process in the listener's mind. As though the boaster is saying, "I'm smarter than anybody else, present company included." This implicit comparison is unpleasant, causing listeners to dislike the speaker. Think of a time when you felt defensive in response to this sort of boasting, where it seemed like the boaster's intention was just to make you feel bad.
In contrast, non-comparative boasting ("I'm good at this") is evaluated less defensively. And because it doesn't come across as threatening, it can be treated as more light-hearted, or even ignored if it seems inappropriate for the occasion. Non-comparative self-praise is thus more flexible: it can point out your virtues and at the same time, come across as playful.
Other research finds that the context is important too. For example, listeners have more positive reactions to self-praise (either comparative or non-comparative) when the speaker begins by saying that she's not trying to boast. So, for instance, people are judged more favorably when they say something like, "I don't mean to brag, but I'm very good at what I do" or "I'm not good at many things, but I'm as good as they come at this." By at least giving lip service to modesty, you can help neutralize the negative effects of bragging but still capitalize on the positive impressions it creates. Listeners let their guard down because the speaker appears to be exuding modesty. This strategy should be especially useful if you're trying to deliver some whopping self-praise but are concerned it will come across as obnoxious.
And needless to say, it's not only how you couch your statements; it's also knowing when to deliver them. This brings us to the most essential strategy of them all: to simply pay attention to how the other person is responding to you. Your listener's demeanor will be the best indicator of what they're open to hearing. Being attentive is harder than it sounds, though, especially if you're trying to maneuver the conversation in a particular direction. But when you do pay attention, you'll notice something else: The most charismatic self-praisers are also some of the most perceptive listeners.
(This post was co-authored by Josh Foster.)