Here’s How to Brag Without Turning People Off

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Now that psychologists have proven just how obnoxious the humblebrag truly is, there’s really just one option left for people who want to sing their own praises: Do it the old-fashioned way. The regular old brag can be annoying, sure, but it doesn’t attract nearly the same vitriol as its faux-modest cousin. And executed correctly, it can still be done in a way that doesn’t seem like a brag at all — or at least, not in the way that works against you.

A recent study, published in October in the journal Social Psychology, offers a clue as to how to pull it off. In a Wall Street Journal column today, writer Elizabeth Bernstein explained:

[Study] 198 participants, aged 18 to 65, were given four stories to read about a man who had taken a test and was explaining how he thought he did. Each story had a different scenario: the man thought he did well and that was true. He thought he did well but he didn’t. He thought he didn’t do well but did. And he thought he didn’t do well and that was true.

The participants were asked to rate the man on competence (how rational, intelligent and naive he was) and on morality (how ethical, trustworthy and selfish he was).

The results, Bernstein wrote, revealed a pattern that the study authors described as the “humility paradox”: “Braggarts are viewed as more competent but less moral than people who remain humble, except if their bragging is unsubstantiated,” she explained. “In that case, they are seen as less competent and more immoral. People who don’t brag, the ‘humblers,’ are seen as moral but incompetent.”

Both humility and boastfulness, it seems, have a time and a place, and the key to managing how you come off to other people is knowing when to deploy each one. Competence might be more important in a professional context and morality in a social one, but even then, there are nuances — your boss, for example, would likely care more about competence than your colleagues, who may place a higher premium on just getting along with the people who share their work space. In other words: context, context, context. Context is to bragging as location is to real estate.

And if you read the room and decide the time is ripe for a little self-promotion, there’s still a right way and a wrong way to do things — you want to impress other people, not turn them off. One 2015 study, for example, found that people will find your boasts less palatable if you use them to compare yourself to someone else. (Bernstein’s example: “‘I make a great spaghetti sauce’ is fine. ‘It’s so much better than the one my sister makes’ isn’t.”) Exaggerating your accomplishments will similarly make you seem full of hot air. Better, Bernstein explained, to let it seem organic: Tell a story. Make yourself sound passionate about whatever you’ve achieved. And remember to toot your own horn only in moderation — even if work is the time to do it, no one wants to be known as the office jerk.

Here’s How to Brag Without Turning People Off