Almost no one likes a show-off but almost everyone likes to show off, at least a little. Some showing off happens by accident and some in a deliberate attempt to manipulate others. In either case, though, you run the risk of looking a bit too satisfied with yourself if not downright conceited.
The best way to brag about yourself to others is probably not to brag at all. Let other people do the bragging for you. However, because our feelings of self-esteem and self-confidence rest on being able to take pride in our achievements, it’s not only okay, but healthy, to brag about yourself to yourself. Giving yourself a mental pat on the back for a job well done can help boost your feelings of self-efficacy, prepare you for future successes, and even avoid the experience of depression. You don’t have to hide your light completely under a bushel, though. Later I’ll show you how to claim your bragging rights without looking too boastful.
There is surprisingly little research in psychology on bragging, though there is plenty on the related concept of narcissism, where you become excessively full of pride (even though you may not feel that way on the inside). There is also a great deal of research on the flip side of bragging, which is depression and low self-esteem. Fortunately, University of Manchester social psychologist Susan Speer (2012) provides us with an excellent article on the less pejorative term “self-praise.” Her work highlights the ways to brag that will get you in trouble along with the one way that is reasonably acceptable. She bases these on two considerations: epistemology and social norms.
The epistemology of bragging refers to the question of whether something you say about yourself can be verified or not. How do I know you’re telling the truth when you claim to have achieved some great outcome? If you tell me but don’t give me hard evidence, I have to rely on your word and your word alone. When bragging is based on your self-report only, you run the risk of not being believed.
The social norms of bragging refer to the fact that our culture expects people to be modest. People who aren’t modest violate those expectations. There is also a practical side to this social norm. Impression management is all about leading others to view you favorably. If they think you’re trying too hard, they’ll be turned off and you'll achieve exactly the opposite of your desired impact on others. This is especially true if the qualities you're showing off aren't the ones that interest the other person. As Shania Twain sings "So you're a rocket scientist, that don't impress me much. So you got the brain, but have you got the touch?"
Bragging Type #1. Directly drawing attention to your own great personal qualities.
This is the least desirable way to brag. In Speer's framework, this is the least likely form of self-praise to be believable and the most likely to violate social norms. Without confirming evidence, people are not likely to believe you when you say that you possess positive qualities such as being smart, well-liked, or talented. There’s no way of knowing for sure whether you have these qualities, and so they are forced to take your word for it. Even if the claims can be validated, though (i.e. you really are attractive objectively) direct bragging violates the social norm against portraying yourself in such a positive light. Oddly enough, for whatever reason, although it’s not okay to claim to be great, it is okay to be self-deprecating by reporting on your own flaws. You can't lay claim to being smart, but it's okay to admit to being stupid. You’ve got to be careful with this, though, because you run the risk of looking like you’re fishing for a compliment, which is almost as annoying to people, and possibly more so, than just plain bragging.
Bragging Type #2. Directly drawing attention to something you’ve done.
You may feel that it’s immodest to say you’re a fantastic person but okay to say that you’ve accomplished some great feats. You’ve won a gold medal at the Olympics. By most people’s standards, it would seem that it’s okay to be happy about this and even mention it in your bio. It would not seem okay to wear your gold medal while running errands around town or introducing yourself as “Gold medalist so-and-so.” It may be cute when a toddler loudly proclaims her prowess in building the tallest stack of blocks to the others in her play group, but the chances are that by the time she reaches preschool, she’ll have been told by parents or teachers to keep her glories at least a little bit more to herself. As an example, Speer cites this exchange from an episode of the British Celebrity Apprentice:
Contestant: I think I’ve shown glimmers of brilliance since I’ve been here.
Sir Alan (the M.C.): Don’t get carried away with yourself… you’re no Bill Gates. Trust me.
Bragging Type #3. Indirectly drawing attention to your own great personal qualities.
Instead of claiming to have great personal qualities, you may think it’s okay to say that someone else thinks you have great personal qualities. Without actually providing direct quotes, you relay to your friends the fact that your boss told you how clever you are and how indispensable you are around the workplace. Here again, we have what Speer would call an epistemic problem. You say that your boss said this, but we don’t know this for sure because you’re the one relating the story and it’s too vague for us to know whether or not it’s true. We would be more likely to believe you if you produced a document written and signed by your boss describing you as the best employee to work at the company. However, then you would run into the problem of violating the norms of modesty. You closest loved ones should be the only one to set eyes on such a document, should it be produced, and even then, get ready for a little bit of pushback.
Bragging Type #4. Indirectly drawing attention to something you’ve done.
Let’s return to the situation in which the bragging involves an act, not a personal quality. You’ve won the election for chair of a volunteer committee, and you’re excited about it. Rather than tell all of your Facebook friends in your own posting, though, you post the link from the committee’s website in which you were proclaimed the winner. Surely that has to be okay, doesn’t it? Unless your friends possess no social sense at all (and if so, would they be on Facebook?) they will see this behavior as false modesty. If some of your former opponents are in your group of friends, they may even feel more than a hint of jealousy. Furthermore, you better be sure that you actually did accomplish the success that you say you did. If a little fact-checking shows that you distorted the situation, you will look not only like a bragger, but a deceptive one at that.
Bragging Type #5. Drawing attention to your success with a “disclaimer.”
You may think it’s okay to talk about your accomplishment by referring to the behavior and not your internal qualities of greatness as long as you frame it with a disclaimer such as “I shouldn’t brag, but…” or “I shouldn’t blow my own trumpet but …” In this case, you’ve provided evidence that you actually possess the ability that you’re bragging about, settling the other person's epistemic hash for the moment. In other words, no one can argue with the fact that you actually did win at something or do something noteworthy. Your disclaimer, though, calls attention to the fact that you know you’re violating the social norm of modesty. It’s like saying “I stole this, even though I knew it was wrong to steal.” In fact, the disclaimer makes it somewhat worse. If you simply said “I won, and I’m happy,” people would accept that as an honest expression of your well-deserved satisfaction. Even your rivals might take a step back and say “Well done.”
Bragging Type #6. Basking in someone else’s reflected glory.
In this form of bragging, you attempt to impress others by showing not what you, but what someone close to you accomplished. Grandparents are notorious braggers, and many of them do so with sincere pride and happiness. No one is going to complain about a grandmother who shares her grandchild’s adorable baby pictures with her friends and co-workers. The fine line gets crossed into personal bragging when people engage in thinly-disguised attempts to make themselves look good by aligning themselves with others who have achieved good things. For example, perhaps a co-worker you mentored got promoted and is now in an executive position. It’s fine to share this information with others, but the more often you say “Bob, the guy I taught the ropes to is now CEO,” the more it looks like you don’t really care about Bob’s accomplishments at all. Or you might add a disclaimer to this “I feel so lucky that Bob, the guy I taught the ropes to…” Again, all a disclaimer does is draw attention to the fact that you know that you’ve violated the social norm of modesty. Epistemology may come into play here as well. Unless Bob publicly attributes his success to your mentoring, people may question the validity of your claim to have taught him everything he knows.
Bragging Type #7. Reporting on a conversation in which you were praised where the evidence can be verified.
The only form of self-praise that Speer found to be moderately acceptable is the one in which you quote someone else’s conversation, therefore shifting the “footing” from you as the speaker to the person you’re quoting. The person you’re talking to can now imagine a situation in which someone said something positive to you, especially if you can provide enough details to make the comment seem plausible. This helps satisfy the epistemological requirement and even fit with social norms of modesty. If you really want to cinch the deal, though, it helps if the person you’re speaking to has evidence to confirm the reported conversation. Speer gives the example in which a woman relays a comment made about her excellent cooking to her daughter, while her daughter is eating a meal that she cooked. The daughter has no reason to doubt the validity of the mother’s claim because she knows that the food, in fact, is excellent.
Does this mean that you should never tell anyone about anything good that you’ve done? Must you always take the self-deprecating stance when describing yourself to others? Should that gold medalist hide her medals in a dresser drawer forever?
Given that there are six unacceptable types of bragging and only one that is acceptable, the odds are definitely stacked against your favor for any type of bragging at all. If you must brag, you can choose #7, as long as you have a reportable conversation with confirming evidence. It’s also fine to report on your accomplishments if you’re sure you’re not hurting anyone else such as former competitors whose feelings are still raw. Finally, as mentioned earlier, no one will ever fault you for being happy about the result of successful effort on your part. By not bragging, you’ll also guarantee that they’ll be even more likely to root for your continued successes the next time.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2012
Speer, S. A. (2012). The interactional organization of self-praise: Epistemics, preference organization, and implications for identity research. Social Psychology Quarterly, 75(1), 52-79. doi:10.1177/0190272511432939