A Fortune magazine article recently included several examples, like this Tweet attributed to former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher: “They just announced my flight at LaGuardia is number 15 for takeoff. I miss Air Force One!!”
So Ari was important enough to fly in Air Force One. Why do I think the complaint about the delayed flight was largely an excuse to remind me of that?
Other examples, easily found on the Internet, include, “Can we start a media campaign to question how I got into Columbia, too? Still scratching my head about how I got accepted & demand answers!” Not a brag, of course. You’re being self-deprecating. Everyone can see that.
Or this: “It still amazes me that I can be in Prague, London and the Paramus Whole Foods all in one day Travel and technology boggle my mind.” Yes. Great shout-out for travel and technology.
Those who humblebrag consider it a good self-promotion strategy; the sympathy elicited by the complaint or the modesty demonstrated by self-effacing words will provide a good context for the self-promotion—the best of both worlds.
But a Harvard study published last April by Harvard Business School Professors Francesca Gino, Michael Norton, and graduate student Ovul Sezer says different. If you humblebrag—if you deliver a mock-complaint—people see the ulterior motive. They see it clearly. You come off not as accomplished or important, but as conceited and insincere. You’re actually better off with an outright brag, which at least is seen as authentic. Humblebragging is a self-promotion strategy that is guaranteed to backfire.
While a lot of humblebragging occurs on social media, it can also find its way into job interviews and talks, as well. And it does no better there than it does on Tweets.
So when you’re reviewing a talk, your own or anyone else’s, scan it not just for jargon and arcane knowledge, but also for humblebrags. It’s an extra step that can keep the speaker from making an embarrassing mistake.