At some point, likely somewhere along Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram's rise to social prominence, an annoying thing started to happen. In place of honest, straight-forward boasting ("I won this award!") and seemingly-earnest displays of humility ("I'm so grateful for my parents, who worked their butts off so I could pursue art"), sprouted a much more sinister type of sharing. People began softening the blow of how cool, rich, unique, and generally awesome they were by veiling these announcements in complaints.
The practice grew so common that it was given a name—the "humblebrag," and an official definition—"an ostensibly modest or self-deprecating statement whose actual purpose is to draw attention to something of which one is proud," according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which added the word last year. There is a book all about "the art of false modesty": there is a ranking of the top humblebraggers, which includes Oprah; there is even a New York Times trend piece to consecrate its reach.
Why tell people you've won an award when you can quibble about how hard it is to hold up the massive trophy cup that came with it?
But not only is the humblebrag a terrible way to make yourself look good in the eyes of your friends—it might even make things worse.
A comprehensive study conducted at the Harvard Business School this past spring, shows how and why humblebragging is a growing but broken social strategy. Researchers Ovul Sezer, Francesco Gino, and Michael Norton, curious to gauge how humblebraggers are perceived, studied how more than 300 people reacted to humblebrags, brags, complaints, in different situations. What they found is that in every scenario—whether on social media or in person—humblebrags were the least appreciated.
"Faced with the choice to (honestly) brag or (deceptively) humblebrag, would-be-self-promoters should choose the former," the researchers wrote. "And at least reap the rewards of seeming sincere."
Indeed, the problem with humblebragging is two fold: it involves bragging, which no one likes, and a feeble attempt to hide it, which people easily notice and recognize as insincere.
That's easy enough to understand—from the perspective of someone who has witnessed humblebragging on their Facebook timeline or Twitter feed, anyway. But humblebraggers themselves may be clueless about the effects of their comments.
"Humblebragging may constitute a particularly miscalibrated case," the researchers note. "Humblebraggers experience the positive effect from bragging and the positive feeling that they are not actually bragging, while recipients react negatively to both the self-promotion and the attempt to mask it."
Correction: An improper caption on this story has been removed.