Holiday letters and the fine art of the ‘humble-brag’

December 3, 2018

It’s that time of year when we start receiving holiday cards—and the enclosed family letters and photos that we love to hate. Whether they are from far-off friends or close-by relatives, many of these missives will come with at least a few paragraphs of humble-brags—“complaints” about the outstanding achievements of children, spouses, and the writers, themselves.

An example: “We barely saw 17-year-old Laura this year, because she was so busy with her cheerleading practices, dance recitals, and studying for those straight-A grades so she can apply to Yale.”

Whether it’s telling our friends about our work-related accomplishments, sharing that we’ve bought a new [insert vehicle or gadget of choice here], talking about a first-class trip, describing the new wing we’ve added to our home, or boasting about our children’s talents, we’ve all bragged at one time or another.

We feel good when we share our successes or the successes of those we love. In fact, a paper published in 2012 by two Harvard neuroscientists said that talking about ourselves gives us the same kind of pleasure we get from sex or food.

“Self-disclosure is extra rewarding,” said Harvard neuroscientist Diana Tamir, who conducted the experiments with Harvard colleague Jason Mitchell. Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “People were even willing to forgo money in order to talk about themselves,” Tamir said

And yet, says a report in Real Simple, who wants to be known as a braggart? Enter the humble-brag. It’s the kind of bragging we see on social media so frequently. It tells the world just how great your life is then downplays it under the guise of humility or self-deprecating humor (Ack! Just spilled red wine on my new book contract! #bumblingthroughlife).

Ironically, that attempt at minimizing big news can actually work against us, irritating others and turning their perceptions of us to decidedly negative. That’s why so many holiday letters hit the trash so quickly.

Indeed, says Real Simple, bragging is a tricky business. In the real world, we can see how people react to a boast. But on social media sites—or when we send those gossipy holiday letters—we have no face-to-face interaction with the recipients: We don’t have the advantage of catching the recipient with a disengaged look, a snicker, or an eye roll—to tell us to adjust our behavior.

To navigate all that, we may (consciously or subconsciously) “try to neutralize the potential image of [ourselves] … as egocentric, narcissistic, or both, by tempering the brag with a self-deprecating comment or disclaimer, hoping that [recipients] won’t detect the brag—or at least won’t be offended by it,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a University of Massachusetts, Amherst, psychology professor, told the magazine. .

“But humble-bragging is disingenuous,” social media expert Karen North, director of the Annenberg Program on Online Communities at the University of Southern California, told Real Simple in an interview. “It’s manufactured modesty as a guise for overt bragging.”

And it’s this dishonesty that bothers people. The opposing nature of a humble-bragging post (I’m so talented! But I’m so modest!) is annoying because it asks readers to go in two directions at once, reaction-wise.

The magazine offers a few pointers to the authors of holiday letters this season:

  • Boast judiciously.Bragging should represent only a small percentage of what you write. That way when something truly great does happen, you won’t feel the need to underplay it.
  • Know your audience.Think about who is reading your missive and how they might react. Did a close friend just lose his job? Then you might not want to crow about the super-fantastic gig you just landed
  • Note which friends’ annual letters you generally like and which you find annoying.Figure out how the two sets differ. Does one person post in positive language, while the other shares things in a way you find grating? Avoid the latter.
  • Enjoy the outrageous humble-brags out there.Let’s face it, e all know (and even love) some people who will never stop humble-bragging. And now that we have a name for phenomenon, maybe we can just sit back and laugh when it happens.

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