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Is There a Right Way to Brag?

5 ways to manage show-offs, and keep your own boastful instincts in check.

Three people I know got new jobs recently. The positions and companies were almost exactly the same. The responses were very different:

Adam* was so excited he could barely talk: “I just got hired by one of the top companies in my field,” he said. “I can’t believe it! This is going to change my life.”

Hank* said: “Of course they wanted me. I’m probably the best in my field.”

And Mary* said: “I can’t believe they would give me a chance! There are so many qualified people for this position.”

Did you have an immediate reaction to these statements? Which speaker did you like the best? Which one did you like least?

You may have heard about the recent research that says that many women don’t put themselves forward enough. But what about those men and women who put themselves forward too much? What makes Hank, for example, not only assume that he’s the best, but also that everyone else thinks so, too? Or, in another common example, what makes parents and grandparents think that everyone else is going to take the same pleasure in the accomplishments of their children and grandchildren as they do?

The reality is that, from his perspective, Hank wasn’t showing off—he was just stating a fact. And those parents and grandparents don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, probably because they’re not bragging about themselves.

But you’re not alone if it puts you off.

On the other hand, if Mary’s response bothered you, you aren’t alone on that score, either.

While we live in a culture that prizes modesty, we also value self-confidence. Mary’s self-put-down can be read as false modesty, or an attempt to manipulate her listeners into praising her. Harris Wittles, a writer for the NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” coined the term humblebrag for this behavior. (He's collected examples on his Twitter feed and in his book by the same name).

What’s the difference between self-confidence and bragging? How can you walk the fine line between the two? And what can we do when someone around us is constantly demanding admiration?

First of all, we need to realize that showing off and bragging can be a subtle way of putting someone else down. Sometimes it’s intentional, but even if it’s not done on purpose, it can make another person feel inferior or jealous. My PT colleague Susan Krauss Whitbourne has an interesting discussion of this topic: Despite our social norm of modesty, she says, it’s 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."

That’s one reason many of us don’t like to show off. We live in a highly competitive world, and we don’t want someone else to feel badly just because we’re feeling good. But sometimes that concern stops us from sharing good things that our friends, families and colleagues would actually like to know. And of course, in the workplace, there’s a fine line between showing off and genuinely outlining accomplishments that can help you move forward professionally.

Understanding the competitive component of bragging can help us deal with people who are constantly showing off and give us a chance to share things from our lives comfortably with friends, family and colleagues. Here are 5 guidelines to follow:

  1. Instead of blowing your own horn, talk about something that someone else has said about you. Psychologist Susan Speer, who conducted one of the very few scientific studies of bragging, says that it is best if you present something that someone else has said about you. Sharing your pleasure in the comment can help. “I feel so pleased (or proud) that my boss told me how much she likes my proposal” can go over much better than, “I’m my boss' favorite.” However, this can backfire if it’s done too much—like a grandmother who is constantly telling her friends about the praise or good grades her grandchild has received.
  2. Be aware that even talking about a small amount of success can be hurtful if the person with whom you are sharing the information has had recent failures or is feeling badly about themselves. For example, your pride in your child’s good grades, while totally understandable, can be a blow to an acquaintance whose child is struggling in school.
  3. Give your listener a chance to talk about her achievements as well. Research by psychologists Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell shows that there are physiological reasons that we enjoy sharing our experiences with other people. Using MRIs, they found that the pleasure centers of our brains light up when we talk about ourselves. So of course we want to tell people about the good things that happen to us, but to make someone else feel good about us, we should encourage them to share their good experiences as well.
  4. Be mindful of these rules even in environments where showing off is part of the norm, like Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Posting about your accomplishments can be rewarding in the moment, but since you can’t gauge how it might make someone else feel online, you may inadvertently be stirring up hurt feelings or competitive envy among your friends. So it’s probably a good idea to share more discretely–share a little, but then invite friends to tell you what they’re doing.

When someone shows off to you, try saying something like, “You must be so proud of yourself!”—and then immediately start to share something you have accomplished. It might cut them off, but if it starts a battle of one-upmanship, don’t engage further. Just say something like, “Yes, it's going pretty well for us both." Even if they keep at it, you’ll have reminded yourself—and them—that they’re not the only one with something to feel good about.

* Names and all identifying information have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.

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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

Tamir, D.I. & Mitchell, J.P. (2012). Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding.

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