The art of the humble brag

We all have something we’re proud about. A new job, a raise you totally deserve, a new property or a car, even a career milestone you worked so hard for. While it’s human to be proud, it’s often considered pathetic to seek attention or validation for one’s achievements or good fortune. This, especially in an Asian society where we’re expected to never want or openly go for things. They just have to land, quite effortlessly, on our laps. Or at least appear like it did.

So it’s no wonder that the humble brag is a rather popular way of addressing such a need for validation. We used to hear it in real life conversations. Some are suave, delivering the brag nicely, some are… well, cringey. The suave get approving nods and a babble of congratulations. The desired effect. But the cringey? They often become a funny anecdote at the next event.

With the pandemic and the lack of real life interaction, social media has become rife with such posts. Let’s face it, it was the place to do it even before the pandemic but it has gotten much worse in the last two years. Some are nicely crafted, others are—you guessed it—cringey. You thought the pandemic was the perfect excuse to avoid the eyeroll-worthy humble brag but like a trainwreck, these things are hard to look away from (aka scroll past). A bad humble brag is a surefire way into becoming a meme or at least a screenshot that’s passed around among group chats to laugh at. Society is brutal.

So if you ever find yourself in a position where you must brag about something, please master the art of doing it flawlessly. Practice at home, preferably before you go meet people in real life or on the wild, wild web.

Make sure it’s true.

It’s easy to fluff up one’s curriculum vitae on Linkedin and it’s even easier to make your achievements sound bigger during conversation. We’ve all seen the memes about it. But like every secret, it eventually comes out, especially if you’re someone who’s only good on paper. Before you brag about it, take an inward look and see if you’re who you say you are, not who your mother thinks you are.

Make sure it’s worth bragging about.

The best way for a brag to flop is when the ending is pretty lackluster. There are people who talk about their promotions as if they were based on merit. Turns out it was across the board.

It’s awful when the lead up is so much more exciting than the achievement, which ends up pretty uninspired. It’s like when someone says that after toiling for 10 years, after facing all that adversary at work, and after being told they weren’t good enough, their bosses finally gave them a raise. Everyone was so excited until they shared the amount… and it’s pitiful.

It’s so sad, you’d think they were being sarcastic. Until you realize they were serious.

Money talk doesn’t have to be specific.

This brings me to my next point. Talking about money in detail (unless it’s a conversation that’s specifically about business and making money) is and will always be crass. If the person in our previous example stopped at the part where they got a raise, they would have received the validation they craved. But they just had to share the amount.

It’s the equivalent of posting one’s payslip on their social media. No one needs to know the specifics and they only invite unkind attention. People who earn less will think you’re rubbing it in and all the people who earn more than you will think you’re pitiful. And if you must share your payslip, then you probably are. No one should be that much of an attention seeker.

Be brief.

No one needs to hear the teeny-tiny details. The more you explain, the more people will see through the insecurity.

Don’t be too humble.

Save the sob story for a different audience. No one needs to know the specifics of how much adversity you faced to get to where you are now. It seems—and it might really be—just embellishments after all.

If people congratulate you for what you’re bragging about, thank them graciously. Don’t self-deprecate after bragging. It’s insincere. A better way to do it is if you’re coming from a place of gratitude. It’s humble without sounding fake. You can also share the credit with colleagues or mentors who helped you along the way.

‘Don’t add too much emotion and adjective into the story. Just say it right away.’

Tip from a diplomat: Go rogue.

If there are people who know how to navigate a tricky conversation, it’s the really good diplomats. “Don’t add too much emotion and adjective into the story. Just say it right away,” a mid-ranking male diplomat said. It was a pleasant surprise to me. I’ve been covering diplomats for over a decade. Turns out that contrary to popular belief, there are instances they truly advocate getting to the point rather quickly. Bragging is one of them. “Say things in a matter of fact manner. It shows the right amount of confidence in what you achieved and that you stand by it.”

An example: “I’m pleased to share that I’m joining the country’s leading robotics team. It’s been quite a journey and I look forward to what lies ahead. I’m thankful to everyone, especially my professors who taught me everything I know today.”

Brief, thankful, and guaranteed to get fewer eyerolls. I promise.