Just so you know: “humblebrag” isn’t a real word. I couldn’t find it in the trusty Oxford or the good old Merriam-Webster. But this Urban Dictionary, which is full of slang like “twerk” and “porno elbow,” says humblebragging is “subtly letting others now about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor or ‘woe is me’ gloss.”
I don’t know where I first came across the idea of the humblebrag. Maybe it was at poker, where I shoot the breeze with a couple of young bucks. It’s nice, low-stakes fun, but these youngsters, they spend more time with their noses in their phones than on their cards. They talk a big game, but we old rogues clean them out good.
“My poor Dockers, their pockets are just going to burst with all this money,” I joked, while scooping up a nice big win. “Vera is going to have to mend them again.”
“What a humblebrag,” one of the youngsters said, rolling his eyes.
If my neuralgia wasn’t acting up, I would’ve clocked him with his brick of a phone. I grew up a nice Protestant boy in the Midwest — we just don’t brag.
Still steamed up about it, I looked up this humblebrag stuff when I got home, but the definition only confused me. Is my life really fantastic? I live in a ranch house. We have carpeting. I’m alive, and when you’re staring down the barrel at 80, I suppose that’s a real accomplishment. Life is okay, but I don’t have anything to brag about, unless you count evenings with “Wheel of Fortune” and weekend bingo trips at the Wisconsin casinos.
I dug up more examples of this humblebrag tomfoolery. Turns out, this comedy writing fellow, Harris Wittels, popularized the term on that Twitter. He told the Wall Street Journal, “A humblebrag is basically a specific type of bragging that masks the brag in a faux-humble guise.”
Wittels even published a book called “Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty.” Haven’t read it, but The Daily Beast published a few examples. But it didn’t really shed much light. First of all, I don’t know who these people are. This Lena lady complains about wearing Spanx while winning some TV award for a naughty-parts show? What’s Spanx? Some lady model named Tyra complains about having to write a novel because she got a book deal? Models read? I feel like I stumbled into a bad cocktail party in the ’60s. I only know George Clooney, because Vera always sighs over him when he pops up in old reruns of “Roseanne.”
Anyways, it’s human nature to brag. There isn’t a lot of research behind bragging, but a bunch of fancy Harvard scientists discovered that talking about ourselves makes our brains feel warm and fuzzy in the same way that food and making whoopie does. In fact, talking about yourself to the point of “oversharing” feels so good, you’ll give up money to do it, the study said. Bragging just feels good. I don’t know why it takes a bunch of scientists to figure it out — you only have to hit a men’s locker room or a women’s hair salon to hear people talking up themselves with a smile on their face.
But bragging does a lot more than make your brain feel good. To paraphrase a bunch of fancy-speak from those Harvard fellows, bragging builds social bonds and alliances by revealing our resources and attracting people who want to take or trade advantages. If we’re lucky, people tell us more about ourselves or what we’re bragging about, boosting our knowledge as well.
And I suppose a certain amount of bragging shows a healthy self-esteem. Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, wrote in Psychology Today that we have a biased tendency to value the things we own over those that other people have because we see them as extensions of our identity — called “the endowment effect.” All that headshrinking talk boils down to how liking ourselves is good for our confidence, and being proud of things we do or own is a way of expressing that.
Brag too much, though, and whippersnappers will judge you as annoying, competitive and vainglorious. We’ve all been around those people who just never shut up about themselves, or people who brag about the dumbest things. The other day at the buffet, I overheard a young woman bragging to another young mother about how her kid did a number-two in the bathroom. Well, good for Junior. Give him an Oscar and put him in a suit for dropping a few kids off in the pool. No doubt she loves her kid, but at some point, we all learn to use the toilet.
She was probably making the other mothers feel bad about their kids in diapers. She bragged with no regard for the feelings of others around her — and that’s why bragging feels icky to everyone except the person doing it. Of course, when people get on the Internets, bragging just explodes because it’s become a giant cesspool of self-promotion. Been on the Twitter lately? I rest my case.
But then it hit me: it’s a fine line between bragging to relish your good fortune and being judged and shunned because of it, and false modesty is a way to tread it. We want our brains to marinate in good-time juice, but we still want people to talk to us at the end of the day. So we downplay our accomplishments, taking that Jimmy Stewart “aw shucks” stance. And the humblebrag is just this new-generation way of practicing false modesty.
Everything old is new again, just with a fancy new label. The problem, as I see it, is that the feel-good juju of bragging rubs up against the social norms of modesty and humility, which have been in place long before I was even a glimmer in my dear departed mother’s eye.
Humility is all over the Bible, which has been around a lot longer than the Twitter, I’ll tell you that much. What does it say in Psalms 149:4? “For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with victory.” I’m not one to quote Scripture often, but take a gander at all these passages to get my point.
Serious theologians like St. Augustine are also big on humility: “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.” I’m no holy roller, but humility has deep roots in influential religions shaping our social norms for centuries, for better or worse. No wonder we have a hard time shaking it.
It’s an age-old dilemma: how to talk ourselves up while still trying to stay modest and humble. I don’t think the solution is a humblebrag. Everyone sees through it, even when it was called plain old false modesty back in my day.
As someone who’s been around the block, I’ve found most annoying human behavior — the braggart, the know-it-all, the controlling hussy who put you on a tight leash and then ran off with your best friend — boils down to insecurity. We’ve all got a hole to fill, and for some, the humblebrag does the trick. If you can’t grant someone some morsels of compassion and patience to someone in the middle of a humblebrag tear, then go ahead and decide to refill your drink or check on that paperwork. Tell them “Bully for you,” and walk away with a smile on your face and a middle finger in your heart. Unfollow them on the Twitter or unfriend them on the Facebook. They’re not talking to you after all — they’re really talking to themselves, because their insecure self needs the pep talk.
As for myself, this grumpy old retiree wants nothing to do with humblebragging. If I’m going to crown myself in victory, I’m going all the way. Next time I beat the young bucks at a hand in poker, I’m going to rub it in their faces, throw my cards on the table and proclaim myself the king of the night’s table. No more “humble” about it. Because life is too short and gloating over the young folks is too fun. ♦