How to spot a humblebrag—and prevent yourself from posting your way to fewer friends.

Bad Facebook Statuses
Credit: Graham Roumieu

Whether it’s telling our friends about our accomplishments, sharing that we’ve bought a new [insert gadget of choice here], or boasting about our children’s talents, we’ve all bragged at one time or another. We feel good when we share our successes or the successes of those we love. In fact, a paper published in 2012 by two Harvard neuroscientists said that talking about ourselves gives us the same kind of pleasure we get from sex or food.

And yet…who wants to be known as a braggart? Enter the humblebrag (a term coined by comedian and Parks and Recreation writer/producer Harris Wittels), the kind of post on Facebook or Twitter that tells the world how great your life is, then downplays it under the guise of humility or self-deprecating humor (Ack! Just spilled red wine on my new book contract! #bumblingthroughlife). Ironically, that attempt at minimizing big news can actually work against us, irritating others and turning their perception of us negative.

Why We Do It

We brag—humble or otherwise—because we want to feel valued and important, and we want others to tell us how impressed they are with our accomplishments. And when the real world doesn’t come through with enough praise, some folks take to the virtual one.

But bragging is a tricky business. In the real world, we can see how people react to a boast. On social networking sites, with no face-to-face interaction, we don’t have the advantage of social cues that people give us—a disengaged look, an eye roll—to tell us to adjust our behavior. To navigate all that, we may (consciously or subconsciously) “try to neutralize the potential image of themselves as egocentric, narcissistic, or both by tempering the brag with a self-deprecating comment or disclaimer, hoping that social networking friends won’t detect the brag—or at least won’t be offended by it,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., a University of Massachusetts, Amherst, psychology professor. We get nervous about how we’ll be perceived. Including something less than positive about ourselves helps us feel more relaxed, says Fabio Rojas, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University. And before you know it, you’re humblebragging.

Why We Hate It When Others Do It

Posting on social media is a way to allow folks to see the parts of our lives we want to share. Or more: Facebook and Twitter are rife with people who are comfortable not only announcing their accomplishments but sharing every last bump in the road, every last detail of their day, every last thought. “These sites are modern-day confessionals,” says Amie Hess, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“But humblebragging is disingenuous,” says social media expert Karen North, Ph.D., director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California. “It’s manufactured modesty as a guise for overt bragging.” And it’s this dishonesty that bothers people. The opposing nature of a humblebragging post (I’m so talented! But I’m so modest!) is aggravating because it asks readers to go in two directions at once, reaction-wise. What’s more, humblebragging can actually damage your reputation within your online community, according to social media strategist Ekaterina Walter. Do it too often and people will quickly figure out when you lack authenticity in your social commentary.

How to Be a Good Bragger

If you’re going to brag—and if you or someone you love has accomplished something of note, why not?—be honest about it, advises Walter. Your friends will want to celebrate with you certainly. But give thought to the language you’re using. Say something positive, then stick to it; squash the urge to negate it in some way. So: I couldn’t be prouder! My daughter just got promoted to the Paris office! Not: My daughter just got promoted to the Paris office! I guess all those years we spent vacationing on the Côte d’Azur were good for something besides tan lines!

A few more pointers:

  • Boast judiciously. Bragging should be only a minute percentage of what you post. That way when something truly great does happen, you won’t feel the need to underplay it.
  • Know your audience. Think about who is reading your posts and how they might react, suggests Rojas. Did a close friend just lose his job? Then you might not want to crow about the super-fantastic gig you just landed. Be sensitive, and you won’t feel compelled to backpedal your way out of your post.
  • Note which friends’ posts you generally like and which you find annoying. Figure out how the two sets differ, advises Whitbourne. Does one person post in positive language, while the other shares things in a way you find grating? Yeah, avoid the latter.
  • Enjoy the outrageous humblebrags out there. Let’s face it, some people will never stop humblebragging. But, notes North, the fact that someone named the phenomenon makes it fun for everyone: “We’ve given it this clever name and identity and that makes it more recognizable.” So sit back and spot the humblebrag. Just don’t be its author.