I The Calling
Some years back I met a man while in Germany. Both of us had been in the country for about half a year, so it was sort of inevitable that the question dreaded by every foreigner who has ever failed to learn the local language popped up: How good is your Deutsche?
“Not very” I answered, weary.
WELL… he had learned German within three weeks of arriving. By going out to bars, he added, leaving a vicious pause for effect. Not only was he so intelligent that he could master that awful language in weeks, but he didn’t even have to try.
Pictorial representation of the effect on my ego.
The conversation toiled onwards, and it soon became apparent that he was better than me in every conceivable dimension — and probably a few I couldn’t fathom.
I have an eclectic taste in human beings, often prizing the company of those who others shun; but no well is infinitely deep. I wanted to eject from the conversation. In fact, I never wanted to see this guy’s face again — not even in a weird, clinical “how much bragging can I endure” way. So I left, genuinely curious about whether this guy’s own mother returned his calls.
Over the ensuing days, I reflected about how unpleasant I had found the exchange. Was I justified in feeling so repulsed by this guy or was I just being a sensitive snowflake? There was also a deeper question mulling around my mind, a psychological puzzle: It’s more-or-less common knowledge that everyone hates bragging, so why do people keep on doing it?
One final riddle riddled me: Why was I repulsed by some people’s bragging behaviors, yet could tolerate — heck, in some special cases, was even riveted by — other’s? What was it that distinguished a repellent brag from a palatable one, a Kayne Wester from a Clooney?
Ever eager for an excuse to create lists, I began documenting the brags I heard in my surroundings. Most were in my social outings, others were online, and others again were taken from pop culture. What I discovered was that there is a remarkable number of different modes of bragging, ranging from the grating to the gracious. Some of these styles are received so poorly that they destroy one’s social credibility and invite public ridicule. But equally, there are others that blend so effortlessly into normal conversation that the average listener would be hard-pressed to count them as bragging at all. Say hello to Bilbo Braggins.
It was only by learning to recognize these various modes of bragging — such as the Humblebrag, the Reflected Glory Brag and the Race to the Bottom Brag — that I was able to become aware of how often it is that I brag. Which turned out to be quite a lot.
II What Is Bragging?
But wait. We’ve gotten ahead of ourselves, in that we haven’t yet defined what bragging is. Any definition should capture the clearcut case of diehard braggarts, the kinds of people who never seem more than five minutes away from commissioning statues of themselves. It also ought to encompass certain edge cases, like oversharing on social media or Humblebragging. At the same time, the definition should not be too general — if we don’t trim the conceptual edges, we might interpret near every human utterance or action as a brag — e.g. “The reason Sean Mc Shawnerson doesn’t smoke is to implicitly brag about his willpower”. There may be a spark of truth to this character reading, but it doesn’t really map onto our common sense view of what bragging is.
Michael Jackson HIStory statue
Revealing impressive information when it crops up naturally ought to be excluded from our definition: If someone asks you what part of New York you live in, and it happens to be The Hamptons, it isn’t bragging to answer the question honestly. Otherwise we’d have to consider the entire existences of the well-to-dos and the fortunate as never-ending, thundering bragathons. That’s not to say there isn’t some nuance here: The labelling flips back over into being bragging if you disclosed your Hamptons address in a self-satisfied, how-do-you-like-that manner, leaving an expectant pause afterwards to squeeze the maximum impact out of the reveal. Also, if you are aware that answering a direct question is going to reveal something uppity like “The Hamptons” then tacking on a few words of real or jokey humility, e.g. “—the bad part ;-)”, doesn’t cost you anything yet it’s a graceful way to lessen the potentially belittling bite the audience might feel.
Analogously, filling out your LinkedIn with relevant achievements isn’t really bragging either — you’re simply answering the question the platform implicitly asked. And something else is reasonable about it: You don’t impose your status. It is the other party who chooses to look you up on LinkedIn and research your professional achievements, i.e. they are the ones who opened Pandora’s Box. On this note, how cool would it be if you met the pope on his day off, thought he was a regular bloke, then looked him up on LinkedIn afterwards and saw the bio: “Supreme Pontiff, Leader of the Vatican City, Bishop of Rome; I’m also a great cook.”
Back to point, arrogant and self-serving world views should also be left out of our definition. I met a type-A++ lady at a soirée who harped on about how (cue riding-school voice) “the key to a well-developed mind is musical training”. I found out later — and this is crucial — without her bringing the point up, that she had played violin for 15 years. Whilst this indicates that she has rigged her value system in her favor, I wouldn’t call it bragging since she never intended to tell me she had a well-developed mind. Her haughty self-perception merely oozed out.
Before I hazard a definition of bragging, I’d ask you not to hold me hostage to it — this isn’t Nature magazine, as you might have inferred from the immature tone. So here goes:
Bragging is personally imposing what-you-believe-to-be status-elevating thoughts on your audience. (Shakespeare, eat your heart out.)
“Imposing” is self-explanatory, in that most of us consider bragging to involve an element of undue pushiness in communicating status. “Personally” captures the sense that most of us view bragging as being self-initiated, a kind of self promotion. The part about “what-you-believe-to-be” is there because if someone bragged about how they got so drunk that they went blind for three days hur hur, most of us would consider this bragging, even though the speaker’s status has dropped by any objective standard. What matters is that, according to this person’s skewed accounting, they believed their statements would raise their stock; the fact that they had the opposite effect is irrelevant.
III The 17 Modes of Bragging
The modes below are presented separately, but the underlying reality has so much messy overlap that, unless you’re careful, you risk tripping over a stray Venn diagram. Considered as social media — a fitting comparison for anything remotely related to bragging — these modes are the hashtags that could apply.
Each brag will be rated with a 100% scientific system where 0 penguins means deft and 10 dire, i.e. the less penguins the better.
1. Bare-Bones Basic Brag
In the 2017 UK edition of TV show The Apprentice, contestant Ross declared, live, on one of Britain’s most watched programs, that he was, “statistically speaking, very smart,” and that he was an “official genius” — which he was proud of.
Spoiler alert: This didn’t exactly go swimmingly for young Ross — neither Lord Alan Sugar nor the army of viewers tweeting in were particularly impressed. As one angry commenter put it, “I bet this genius still live[sic] with his mother”. Or another, “statistically speaking, a prick”.
The Bare-Bones Basic Brag consists in directly telling your audience that you are great or rich or clever or whatever. What defines this mode is that no attempt at plausible deniability is made; the brag is served raw, without the need for any inference on the audience’s behalf.
The credibility of a Bare-Bones Basic Brag can be improved slightly by mentioning a third party arbiter of the status — “my boss says I’m gifted at presentations”. Susan Speer’s research backs up this idea that quoting someone else’s opinion improves the brag (or “self-praise”, as she chooses to word it). This has its limits, however: my dating life took a decades-long turn for the worse with “My mom thinks I’m handsome”.
BTW Wiser braggarts wouldn’t say that they have a high IQ, like Ross, to his peril, did above; rather they’d nonchalantly mention how they saw their old friends from Cambridge last weekend, leaving the audience to join the dots. Hopefully correctly, “Ahh, so you’re a bus-driver?”
Rating: 8 Penguins
2. Oneupmanship Brag
Me: “I had the most amazing Indian food recently.”
Oneup-er: “Which restaurant? TBH you can’t really get good Indian in America. You really have to visit India for the authentic experience.”
Me: “Exactly, that’s where I ate. I arrived back from Goa last night.”
Oneup-er: “Ah, but did you eat in Peep Kitchen? It’s by far the best but it takes three weeks to get a reservation.”
Me: “OMG their paneer tikka masala is to die for!”
Oneup-er: “OH YEA WELL DID MR. PATEL SING THE ENTIRE LION KING SOUNDTRACK TO YOU WHILE SERVING YOU PAPADUM!?!?”
The Oneupmanship Brag is a real stinker. The defining characteristic is its trigger; specifically, it occurs in immediate response to the revelation of status-conferring information about someone else. It’s irrelevant whether the original speaker was bragging — what matters is that the Oneupmanship Bragger tops him or her in a comparable dimension. (For equalizing of status, see the Reciprocation Brag).
The heinous thing about the Oneupmanship Brag is that it steals the limelight at exactly the moment when the original speaker is shown flatteringly.
While we’re on this topic, I’d also like to highlight a certain style of Oneupmanship Brag which not only one-ups the original speaker but also shuts down the entire discussion, preventing the Oneupmanship Braggart from any possible dethroning. Watch and learn:
Me: “I’m so wrecked. I only slept 2 hours later night.”
Oneup-er: “You can’t possibly know what is it to be tired until you have kids.”
This last brag, by the way, is also an example of a Race to the Bottom Brag. We’ll cover this odd little beast later on.
Rating: 10 Penguins
3. Reciprocation Brag
In How I Met Your Mother episode 7 (Matchmaker), character Ted Mosby meets a medical doctor he’s attracted to:
Dr: “Hi I’m Dr. ‘O Brien”.
Ted: “Hi I’m Architect Mosby… Sorry, I just wanted to say my job too”.
I like this, which is unusual for me since I usually want to throw things at Ted. As he hints at in the dialogue above, Ted is simply reciprocating the status game already begun by the doctor’s ritualistic communication of title. It helps that his quip was funny too.
The line between the benign Reciprocation Brag and the uglier Oneupmanship Brag is worth paying attention to. Both brags are triggered by status-conferring information imparted by another. The Reciprocation Brag differs, however, in that the braggart’s intention isn’t to tower over so much as to close the gap. The goal isn’t to prove that you are better; only that you’re in a comparable league. Arguably too, it puts the original speaker at ease, say if the doctor felt ambivalent about having revealed her status. Prognosis: positive.
Rating: 3 Penguins
4. Bullshit Brag
I remember, with no shortage of cringe, a time I attended a skills exchange meet-up totally alone and found myself speaking with some British programmers. For reasons unknown to me, and seemingly without my having any choice in the matter, my mouth proclaimed that I coded in certain prestigious programming languages that are usually off limits to mere mortals. I claimed that I was both a Haskell and Lisp programmer, a statement that you can roughly translate into non-programmer talk as “I only listen to My Bloody Valentine shoe-gaze and Radiohead B-sides played in reverse”. The Brits acted impressed, but likely only out of politeness — techie culture dictates that it’s practically a faux pas NOT to tip your hat to Haskell / Lisp programmers. I felt a temporary elevation through my dishonestly begotten admiration but I hated myself for weeks afterwards. I even considered learning the damn languages, just to resolve the dissonance. All in all, I felt like my essence was reduced to that of a monkey pulling a lever for bananas.
There need not be a blatant, bald-faced lie for a brag to amount to a Bullshit Brag; within its scope falls a variety of omissions and misdirections. If a braggart’s salary was exactly $100,000, they might describe it as “6 figures”, the ambiguity (and poor general knowledge of power law distributions) serving to suggest it was higher. But if it were $99,999, a mere dollar lower, I bet they would sooner describe it as “99k” than “5 figures”.
Another common, if rather odd, example of misdirection is performance eating. Abigail is skinny; thankfully not quite anorexic but worryingly close. Whenever I dine with her, she orders regular-enough sized meals, but draws inordinate attention to her appetite, indeed even going so far as to call others at the table “weak eaters”. One of her favorite topics is the “ridiculous” amount of food she eats. Sorry Abby, but no-one’s swallowing it; the laws of caloric physics deny your claims, and besides, eating a healthy diet of nothing but coffee and cigarettes before 8pm isn’t exactly gluttony.
Performance Eating. Top: What you eat when everyone’s watching. Bottom: What you eat when no-one’s around.
Abigail, in her idiosyncratic way, was Bullshit Bragging because she must have known she was misleading listeners. Leaving the mode of bragging aside, the message she was sending also warrants attention — what was it she was hoping to communicate here? Don’t worry — we’ll delve into these details in a later article. I’m such a tease.
I view many showy social media posts as Bullshit Brags, in the sense that the snippets posted online usually skip the bad. Certain lifestyles (like traveling for work), while they have their highs (like seeing beautiful new cityscapes), also have downsides that can outweigh the good (like waking up at 3am to get to the client’s office by 9am, which happens to be in some grubby industrial park approximately 4 million km from the nearest Instagram photo). By only ever posting the highlights, which somehow became the convention on social media, audiences get misled about how good or bad their relative lots happen to be.
Rating: 8 Penguins (subtracting two because I feel sorry for them)
5. Out-Of-Nowhere Brag
Me: “… and that concludes my opinion on what’s wrong with falafel.”
*lul in conversation*.
Out-Of-Nowhere Braggart: “I’m feeling good thinking about how my business is killing it lately; $400,000 in sales this quarter — BOOM”.
Me: “good for you man, though I wasn’t asking…”
The Out-Of-Nowhere Brag denotes those jarring brags that appear out of the blue, strident context-free sucker punches with no conceivable connection to the current conversation.
Out-Of-Nowhere Brags are rather rare. Typically they occur when the speaker wants that dopamine rush of sharing perceived superiority so badly that they can’t bring themselves to wait until the right moment arises. The problem with Out-Of-Nowhere Brags is that, by virtue of not matching the topic of the conversation, they attract added attention to the self-praise. They blend in exactly like a skinhead at a women’s rights rally doesn’t.
Facebook and related social-media are basically built, ground-up, for Out-Of-Nowhere Brags. Whenever you post publicly, you’re essentially starting a new thread of conversation. For certain people — and we all know a few who fit the bill — the post feature’s sole reason for existing is to bombard audiences with envy-provoking snippets of their lifestyle.
Because I’m worried about keeping the green goblin at bay, I block my Facebook wall and personally it’s been the best thing in years for my self-esteem. But before I did, I would be served with daily nuggets of spiritual nourishment like the following:
Few would doubt that the above constitutes bragging. But often it’s difficult to draw the line in social media. I’ll have to more to say about this in the section on Moved by the Moment Brags.
Rating: 9 Penguins
6. Showmanship Brag
Through begrudging duties to a mutual friend, I ended up spending an evening in Germany with a self-satisfied Rhodes scholar. As the night progressed, he would fill the gaps in our conversation by talking to himself, aloud, in German (“Ach so, meine Nase ist aber JAHRHUNDERTEALT”), despite none of our motley crew of tourists and new-in-towns understanding a word of it. His manner of flaunting his linguistic knowledge is a prime example of the “show-off don’t tell” approach to bragging. I assume that he believed he’d found a clever hack to force his erudition down our throats without debasing himself by making crass, self-glorifying statements like “My mind is the most extraordinary locus of learning humanity has known since the great libraries of Alexandria were set aflame”.
This mode differs from other brags in that the actions do the talking. This has the advantage, to the braggart, that their claims are more credible, actions generally being more difficult to fake than words. If I burst out, unsolicited, into song, and I sound good, you might resent my showiness, but you couldn’t deny my demonstrated skill.
Sometimes the performance involved in the Showmanship Brag can even be to everyone’s benefit, as anyone lucky enough to know a proud cook can attest. Unlike the selfish showiness of the Rhodes scholar above, displays of culinary skill are likely to go down a treat.
Everyday examples of Showmanship Bragging occur whenever there is money involved. You’re one of four in a taxi, and you’ve arrived at your home. The meter reads $27.50, and you hand over $30 and strut off, devil-may-care about receiving any change. The rest of the gang protest that you’ve paid far too much for your share of the ride, but you slur “it’s fiiiyyynne”, feeling smug about your material wealth and magnanimity. That’s Showmanship Bragging in action. For similar examples, observe the way well-off middle-aged people quarrel over who pays a group bill in a restaurant. (Except if they have names like Frau Pfannkuchen and are German).
Rating: 4 Penguins
7. Undercover Brag (aka Scooby Doo Brag)
The Undercover Brag (a term coined by WhatButWhy) is all about disguising a brag in some other, more socially acceptable form. Most commonly, the brag is masked as a complaint (the infamous Humblebrag), congratulations, advice, or a thank-you.
Heart-breaking. Notice the double brag — as well as getting 96% in the most recent quiz, OP also had a perfect grade in the past.
The essence of the Humblebrag involves masking status elevating remarks as complaints or humility, e.g. “I don’t like that video game. It’s too easy and I get bored.” All of us are guilty of an occasional Humble Brag. This is partly thanks to having to answer the perennial job interview clanger, “What’s your greatest weakness?”, with responses like, “I work so hard that my personal life suffers” and ideally not like “children”.
Compared to straightforward bragging, is Humblebragging received more or less favorably? Gino, Norton, and Sezer’s research suggests it isn’t — i.e. that the Humblebragging style of self-presentation is ineffective. In one arm of their study, a confederate approached students on a college campus asking them to sign a petition. As part of the conversation she asked, “What are you up to this summer?” The confederate then waited for the participant’s response and alternated her script, either delivering a brag about her summer plans, “That’s cool! I got my dream internship and got funding to travel to Paris,” or a Humblebrag: “That’s cool! I got my dream internship and got funding to travel to Paris. Ugh it’s so hard to decide which one to choose.” Participants in the Humblebragging condition were less likely to sign the petition than participants in the regular bragging condition: 64.9% (37 out of 57) compared to 85.7% (48 out of 57).
7b. Congratulatory Brag
Meet Travis: Serial entrepreneur, serial failure. 13 years’ of not making it… Along with about 4,000 other people, I’m “friends” with Travis on Facebook, but I have yet to see a post of his that wasn’t a brag. In fact, whenever I encounter one that isn’t boastful in an immediately obvious way, I treat it as a kind of bragging sudoku, the puzzle consisting of figuring out how he’s engineered the post to praise himself. All said, Travis is the kind of guy who could twist a funeral card into a personal tribute.
Anyway, I was browsing Facebook one afternoon when I noticed that Travis wished Olympic table tennis player So-and-So good luck with their match tomorrow. How uncharacteristically selfless! This warrants closer reading: It turned out that Travis had mentioned further down that he and So-and-So played in the Australian table-tennis finals squad — when they were 8. And guess what? Travis won.
Travis was nicknamed “Travisty” behind his back, and with good reason. His brag had elements of a remote Oneupmanship Brag, in the sense that the person he was one-uping wasn’t privy to the conversation. What sickened me most about the whole affair was that Travis thought he’d camouflaged his brag, that his audience was so naive that it wouldn’t see his impression-engineering for the insincere horror show it was.
7c. Beneficence Brag
A mother had her 11-month old baby in a sling and an overbearing lady approached her in the supermarket to say, “The reason your child can’t walk is because you’re carrying it all the time. My baby was walking with 7 months.” Here’s what the mother was thinking:
The example above is extreme, and your sins may be partially pardoned if the advice was both hard-won and genuinely useful to other people. But that said, when I deliver advice to you, it carries the connotation that I’m the expert and you’re the no-nothing, so with these power dynamics it’s little wonder that it can feel belittling, especially when the advice is unsolicited. Things get even worse when the vehicle of advice is requisitioned to carry a stealthy bragging payload.
7d. Inexplicably-Public Thank You Brag
A status-crazed acquaintance posted something like this on Facebook:
“The memories (@J Aldwin) (!), the friends I made (looking at you @Singularity Team), and the experiences I had at the @International Space University (ISU) are…just…priceless. So glad to have been able to participate. A thousand thanks to @Douglas and team for running the show, to @Saturn Capital for bankrolling my scholarship, and to @Elon Musk for squeezing in time in his crazy schedule for our induction. You’re all such legends. Heartbroken here.”
This mode dresses up a brag as a thank-you that’s posted publicly instead of sent through the usual private channels. Assuming maximum cynicism — my trademark — the thought going through my acquaintance’s mind was this: Thanking people and showing gratefulness is noble, and I cannot be faulted for this. By being strategic about who I thank for what and where, I can broadcast my own glory in a sanctioned way. Better yet, if I tag those I’m thanking, they’ll feel the tug of social duty to like my post, further amplifying my message’s reach, rocketing me to planet glory.
Rating: 9 Penguins
8. Outsourced “Brag”
Say I’m introducing you to some fresh faces, be it at a party or over email. I could say, “Meet Alice — she’s been published in all the major journals for her daring experiments on strawberry-mint jam, and her latest paper has been cited more than a billion times this year alone — and today is only Jan 2nd.” In my doing so, you get all the benefits of bragging without getting your hands dirty and incurring the costs. Moreover, this form of introduction is a decent way to break the ice in circles where status and attainment matter.
So if regular bragging is blowing one’s own horn, Outsourced “Bragging” is, ehm, blowing someone else’s horn on their behalf. The holy grail of status establishment is when it’s already done for you, when your reputation literally precedes you — Proverbs 27:2 “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.” Such luxuries aren’t just the sole reserve of the celebrated and famous — the same mechanisms are at play in small-scale ways in our day-to-day lives.
The earlier example is formal and civilized, but the same workings takes place, much less tastefully but hardly less effectively, amongst “bros”. At college I knew an inveterate party-goer Joseph, henceforth Broseph. Whenever Broseph’s gang would meet new people — especially ones they wanted to sleep with, which was roughly anyone with a pulse — Broseph would proclaim something massively hyperbolic about one of his own: “This guy’s a facking musical genius! You gotta hear him play.” More often than you might expect, these effusions would intrigue the new arrivals enough to stick around, all the while steering the conversation to places where the gang might shine. It wasn’t clear whether Broseph’s group explicitly coordinated these Outsourced Brags or whether they were tacitly arranged; all I know is that they cropped up with the regular inevitability of IRS late-filing fees.
As you’ll have noticed, I’ve been writing Outsourced “Brag” instead of Outsourced Brag. When someone sings praises on your behalf, it doesn’t seem right to label this as bragging since it is missing the self-directed element of status imposition. This remains true whether the delivery of praise was coordinated or not. Note, however, that this boundary becomes more difficult to locate when you start considering the possibility of Reflected Glory Brags.
Rating: 0 Penguins
9. Reflected Glory Brag
I suspect that Broseph, who we first met in the section on Outsourced “Brags”, had a hidden agenda in bigging up his friends. That agenda was narcissism. Broseph fancied himself a member of an elite social milieu, à la Hemingway in 1920s Paris or Feynman in 1940s Los Alamos. In constantly bragging about his friends’ abilities, Broseph was actually bragging about himself, the brag assuming the following logic: “I hang out with great people. Ergo, by virtue of their wishing to keep company with me, I too am great.” Reflected Glory Brags, then, are all about greatness by association.
The principal says my little angel is the most beloved boy in school!
Reflected Glory Brags are especially common with a particular brand of proud parent, one for whom achievement is vicariously experienced through their young. “My daughter is so bored at school; even though she’s only in the first grade she reads at a grade 5 level already. And she can count to four in Japanese” (and we only had to drill her 400 hours a day!) “You should see my son’s Facebook photos — quite the lady killer” (kid looks like a “lady killer” alright — but not in a good way).
Congratulatory Brags are often combined with Reflected Glory Brags. My friend’s aunt-in-law posts a great many congratulatory photo messages on social media, all of which share a particular feature: her, standing side-by-side with the applauded.
Rating: 5 Penguins
10. Gratuitous Detail Brag
Betty had recently been promoted to a glamorous, jet-setting executive position at a major corporation. We met to catch up, and we talked about her time in this and that city. She mentioned a conference in Rio and I asked if she would attend. “Dunno. I checked my expense account for the first time yesterday and saw that I’d racked up $25,000 in the last month. I might need to tone it down…” Listening to Betty’s statement, I had the impression that it was no accident that she’d chosen to say “$25,000” instead of the more self-effacing formulation “too much”, i.e. she did not choose to take the Lesser of Two Brags. Aside from that, how did she burn through so much money — was I missing out a corporate craze of employing iPads as disposable mosquito swatters?
In most people’s view of what counts as bragging, an exemption is granted to status-elevating information that emerges naturally, e.g. in response to a direct question or as necessary background for a story (see Narrative Brag). In such cases the status wasn’t imposed by the speaker, so its communication is viewed as being perfectly in order. The Gratuitous Detail Brag exploits this exemption by slipping in an unnecessary detail at the right moment. By inhabiting this gray zone, the Gratuitous Detail Brag has some measure of plausible deniability, and indeed it’s often difficult to tell whether the speaker intended to brag at all.
Rating: 4 Penguins
11. Prop Brag
Source: Instagram… where else?
So this photo is exclusively about sweatpants then? Absolutely nada to do with that outrageously lush car lurking in the background and screaming success? Besides, I thought you cycled to yoga.
To pull off a Prop Brag, you need to engineer things so that your material possessions, physical environment, or general situation does the bragging for you. The brag’s defining feature is that it’s non-verbal. And because props are more difficult to fake than words, the brag becomes more credible. Last but not least, Prop Brags have strong plausible deniability: If you are rich, you’ll have a swish apartment. End of. No-one expects you to jump through hoops to hide this fact of your existence.
In a similar vein, I suspect that an acquaintance of mine distributes printouts of bank statements with zeroes in all the right places around his apartment before guests arrive. I don’t have proof that this was ever done intentionally; all I know is that he is otherwise a neat freak, and it seems out of character for him to leave documents scattered about.
Prop Bragging can be extended to much human behavior if you feel so inclined: Why do people wear Rolex watches, buy Porsches, or otherwise engage in conspicuous acts of consumption? Why does that guy — who is constantly looking around to see who is watching — write classical music in a coffee shop instead of at home — and with manuscript and quill instead of software?
There is a similarity between Prop Bragging and Showmanship Bragging, in the sense that you could consider the prop to be the artifact of a previous action.
Rating: 3 Penguins
12. BragFM Brag
BragFM Brags differ from standard brags in that they are imposed on strangers in the vicinity instead of people already in a dialogue with the braggart. This is achieved via methods such as needlessly loud phone calls: “I know! It was UNBELIEVABLY great how Sting just showed up to our wedding like that”.
The BragFM Brag doesn’t necessarily require a phone; it can be accomplished just as easily with a complicit friend — simply rehash your best-ofs with the volume turned up.
A BragFM Brag must be imposed on the audience, so typically it occurs in enclosed spaces where people tend to stick around for a while, such as train compartments, small bars, saunas etc. In more transient settings, the braggart’s efforts would be wasted because those within earshot would be free to vacate the scene.
The BragFM Brag could be viewed as a strange conversation starter. I’ve sometimes had the impression that this brag was employed by shy people who wanted to raise their status enough to entice those around them to say hello.
On this note, a related social phenomena that doesn’t fall neatly into the domain of bragging but is nevertheless interesting is how groups of singles, hoping to attract the attention of suitable mates nearby, awkwardly push themselves to project an overall air of merriment and fun beyond that of what they’re actually experiencing — except in Ireland where the men in the pubs mostly project an “air” of Guinness and breakfast rolls. These singles amplify everything about themselves, laughing at triple their usual volume, exaggerating their bodily movements beyond what’s usual, and overall desperately seeking to be exemplars of the myth that being in a loud, crowded, over-priced bar is anything other than odious. Even if it breaks them, even if it costs them everything they hold dear in the world, they shall win at having a good a time.
Rating: 4 Penguins (even if overt, I have a soft spot for outgoing people)
13. Race to the Bottom Brag
“I also have a very deep connection to the [autism] charity because my baby has autism. So yea.”
“Well I’m barren. So… yeaaa”.
“Aids. I have aids. My baby has aids. And autism.”
The goal of the Race to the Bottom Brag is to seek status by winning at losing. “I failed the math test so hard, hurrrrr”. This mode of bragging is often combined with Oneupmanship Brags (or more technically Onedownmanship Brags), as we saw in the video above.
We need to be careful to tease apart a couple of superficially similar behaviors when thinking about Race to the Bottom Brags. Bragging about how you were so drunk that you were pronounced dead, is usually a proxy for bragging about how C-R-A-Z-Y or fun-loving or hardy you are. That’s just regular bragging with a screwy conception of what affords status. As well as that, what might first appear to be a Race to the Bottom Brag might actually be a touch of self-deprecating humor.
Rating: 8 Penguins
14. Honeypot Brag
Me: “What’s your job like?”
Honeypot: “It’s a slog. But once in a while I pamper myself as a reward.”
Me: (falling for the curiosity trap): “How do you do that?”
Honeypot: *pulls out Lamborghini keys like it isn’t a big deal*
The Honeypot Brag is likely the most Machiavellian one listed here. It consists of luring your conversation partner into asking a question, the answer to which raises your status. Since answering a direct question is rarely perceived as bragging, the Honeypot Braggart will appear humble so long as their tracks are well covered and no-one suspects a setup.
As for a more down-to-earth example, consider the situation where someone poses a question for everyone in the group but is visibly bursting to answer for themselves and you know they couldn’t care less about anyone else’s response:
Honeypot: “OK everyone — what’s the craziest place you had sex in public?”
Everyone else: …
Honeypot: “MY TURN. Well I once had sex behind a garbage can in Grand Central Station. How bad am I!”
Everyone else: “That’s just foul…”
Rating: 3 Penguins
15. Narrative Brag
In a business setting, I was introduced to a young star who I’ll call Orion. In response to the question, “tell us about yourself,” a lesser man would have blurted out, “I did three rock-hard degrees in the sciences — simultaneously, started a video game company immediately afterwards, then sold it for $$$. You?” But Orion didn’t do this, and this was merciful because such a deluge of impressiveness would have made me feel like a cockroach caught tampering with a kiwi.
Instead Orion told me a story:
“I lived in the country-side and was super bored all the time so I started programming at 11, and because I was really into video games, I started fiddling with game engines. I took that passion to university by studying computer science, but, considering that I’d been programming for years already, the course didn’t demand much of my time, so I took up math and physics as joint degrees, which turned out to be pretty painful actually but I managed by being strategic about choosing overlapping modules. While studying, I met my business partner, and we spent our last year programming our first startup, which went bankrupt. We learned our lessons and tried again — hitting the luck jackpot on our third attempt when we got our software featured in the App store, leading to a million downloads.”
The Narrative Brag converts what would otherwise be a monstrous amount of brag into a relatable narrative, one person’s personal hero’s journey. It’s quite graceful. By showing the human effort and struggle that goes into the attainment of status, the Narrative Brag has the effect of communicating success while at the same time neutralizing the sting. This was one of the cases where I was riveted by a brag.
Similarly, I recall another friend, Brennan, telling me that he had lunch with “the most powerful woman he’d met in his life (bomb hatch opens; gears are heard): <MASSIVE NAMEDROP>”. But instead of pausing to allow the impact of the namedrop to take its toll, he spoke about how it felt to be in the presence of someone with so much power and cachet, raising his eyebrows wide in astonishment and then looking to the floor in what, barring a stellar acting performance, seemed to be genuine humility. This was primarily a story about how he felt; who he had met was merely background detail, it would seem. Also, think about this: Someone determined to prove that they are better than me would have taken the bigger brag of “… and meeting people like <MASSIVE NAMEDROP> is just my day-to-day, ya know?” By not taking that clichéd route, Brennan made himself more relatable. At the very least, he did the noble thing and took the Lesser of Two Brags.
For another perspective on Narrative Brags, let’s turn to an example from Paul Graham’s classic essay Why Nerds Are Unpopular. He writes:
My stock gradually rose during high school. Puberty finally arrived; I became a decent soccer player; I started a scandalous underground newspaper. So I’ve seen a good part of the popularity landscape.
PG tells us that he eventually became popular at school. Is this a micro brag to rescue his ego from the preceding admission of being uncool? It wouldn’t seem so, since PG satisfactorily justifies why he included those details: “I’ve seen a good part of the popularity landscape”. But herein lies the bragging potential: Someone determined enough, who was willing to do the gymnastics, could contrive a series of stories that demonstrate their status, yet still enjoy plausible deniability because the status-evoking factoids become “necessary details” in the telling of the stories. Ramping up this idea to 10000% are certain members of the Pick Up Artist (PUA) community who prepare scores of narratives in frameworks, each one demonstrating to their dates something universally admirable, like adventurousness (escaping from bears), bravery (unaided rock climbing), and financial savvy (early Bitcoin “investor”).
I wouldn’t be surprised if they also prepared a story for spontaneity.
Rating: 1 Penguin
16. Moved by the Moment Brag
I remember being out at a restaurant with a group of salesmen and one of them noticed his phone vibrating, pulled it out, then shouted, mostly to himself, “fuck yea, another sale”. I found myself cheering for him too. But if he’d told me twelve hours later “I made 10 sales today. I am Aerosmith,” I would have scoffed. Somehow, the fact that he erupted with good feeling and couldn’t quite help but brag makes it all the more acceptable, compared say to a more calculated boast that wasn’t prompted by new information.
The Moved by the Moment Brag can be likened to the legal defense of “crime of passion” (aka provocation) in murder cases, where the guilty receives a reduced conviction because their crime occurred in the heat of the moment, for example in response to walking in on their partner cheating or, worse again, opening up an Instagram account.
Sometimes I see photos on Facebook of friends savoring an important moment, like signing a book contract, finishing a PhD, or winning a jam-eating contest. Are these people bragging? It’s hard to say. It’s very possible that their only motivation is to keep friends and family informed. On the other hand, why not discretely message the twenty people who care instead of blasting it out to 1200 followers? Ultimately these shares don’t really sting. Sometimes the original poster’s joy even spills out from the photo and infects you, at least where you don’t have some unsettled beef with them (e.g. if your dreams of being a jam-eating champion were cruelly dashed ).
Rating: 2 Penguins
17. Not-Sure-If-Joking Brag
Sam constantly jokes about being physically intimidating. Whenever we walk past a muscle-bound fellow who steps out of the way because he’s a normal, non-scummy human being, Sam quips, “that’s right you do” or “he knows who’s boss”. Although Sam is (I hope) being silly, I can’t help but consider him that bit more intimidating than if he’d said nothing at all.
The Not-Sure-If-Joking Brag works by exaggerating the message so much that it’s relegated to that no-man’s land where you can’t quite tell if it was meant seriously or not. (Incidentally my favorite people in the world seem to be stranded here.) It has advantage of deflecting any accusations of bragging since “obviously” it was a joke.
Rating: 1 Penguin
IV Brag Gags: Avoiding Bragging At All Costs
In my quest to catch every brag known to man, I discovered that there is class of person who does everything in their power to avoid signaling status.
I recall a frustrating exchange with a man I’ll call Mitchell. Throughout our first and only conversation, he gave ridiculously indirect answers to my info-soliciting questions. Indeed he would even go so far as to feign not hearing me. Here’s a characteristic exchange:
Me: “So Mitchell, where did you go to university?”
Mitchell: “In England”, he replied in an accent so posh it would humble the Queen.
Me: “Yes, that much is apparent. I meant where in particular?”
Me: “You must not have heard me — where’d you study?”
To which Mitchell didn’t respond, instead switching the topic of conversation.
Me: *grabbing Mitchell by the collar and shaking him* “WHERE DID YOU GO TO UNIVERSITY ASSHOLE?”
Mitchell’s verbal shiftiness had the inevitable effect of arousing my curiosity, so I looked him up on LinkedIn in the bathroom and, as expected, he was an Oxford boy.
Let us assume that Mitchell’s behavior was motivated by the noble intention to avoid giving others status anxiety. Assuming this is true, I still can’t help thinking that he regards his pedigree to such a high extent that he thinks its revelation would cause people who attended “merely normal” universities to feel like his lessers. That’s a rather presumptuous world-view, one I’m not terribly excited about inferring.
Furthermore, even if you grant him these presumptions, I still don’t think he’s going about this goal of hiding status in an effective manner. His omissions cause such a jarring interruption to the normal flow of conversation that they amplify whatever he wishes to hide. It’s easy to imagine more graceful alternatives, like a self-deprecating addendum (“Oxford — if anyone tells you bribing admissions doesn’t work, they are woefully misinformed”) or by deflecting with a joke instead of ignoring the question (“Clown college — and it took me seven years to graduate because I kept flunking Unicycles”). Owing to his odd way of avoiding bragging, I was soon desperate to Ditchell Mr. Mitchell.
V Why Do People Brag?
Investigating why it is that people brag brings us into speculative territory as there hasn’t been an awful lot of research into this topic. As such I am going to wheel out the armchair psychologist and dust off his little spectacles.
Driver 1: Feeling small
In movie form: “Honey I Shrunk My Ego”
When I looked back over all my observations, I couldn’t help noticing a few tendencies. Firstly, many of the brags were uttered by people with somewhat nervous temperaments. Sometimes I could sense an unease about them. Other times I was privy to background information, such as a history of mental illness. Secondly, bragging tended to happen with younger people, who generally have lower status in the ranks of society and a stronger need to prove themselves. Thirdly, bragging was concentrated in initial getting-to-know-you interactions.
Taking all of these tendencies together, it seems likely that a major driver for bragging is when the speaker feels they need to make a strong impression but also believes that their personal presentation, without the expected boost from bragging, will be insufficient.
Drilling deeper, what causes the speaker to feel such a boost is necessary in the first place? A simple answer might be that low self-esteem is the ultimate cause — an unjustified feeling that you aren’t good enough. Studies about what causes people to over-share their relationship on social media (e.g. #blessed) bear out this hypothesis, showing that those with attachment anxiety are most likely to have what researchers call “high relationship visibility” and what everyone else calls “annoyingly many couple photos”.
Relatedly, is the following situation familiar to you? Say two people are speaking and one is significantly more successful than the other in a dimension where the other happens to be anxious about (e.g. the outward success of money). Here the second person’s ego may start feeling threatened. This, in turn, creates an urge to either falsify information in the aggrieved dimension (Bullshit Brag) or to import status from a separate dimension where they feel more competitive (e.g. to flaunt a presumed special power, like musicianship or intelligence or mutant Cyclops eyes — giving rise to Out-Of-Nowhere Brags). Overall, the dynamic is that the insecure person attempts to address their wounds by convincing the other person that they are worthy – even though such a communication was neither necessary nor asked for.
Driver 2: Self promotion
Former Vice President of the United States John Nance Garner said, “You have to do a little bragging on yourself even to your relatives — man doesn’t get anywhere without advertising.” The sentiment in this quote rings even truer today, as President Trump could certainly be said to have done “a little” bragging:
“In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
I know someone who moderates conferences for a living. After every event, he posts a picture onto Facebook of the audience — from the perspective of the stage looking outwards — and thanks the crowd in a fawning manner. Although it’s clearly showy (and an example of a Congratulatory Brag), I’m fairly confident that his self-promotion is good for business and helps him net future gigs. Similarly, in my day job, I sometimes go on business lunches with people I don’t know. There is always a certain amount of bragging to these affairs, since both me and my lunch companion know the point is to communicate our value.
This driver then is all about cost-benefit analysis — I know I might risk pissing off my listeners by bragging, but, at least if I’m credible, I might stand out and have a better chance of getting what I want.
Driver 3: Fear of abandonment
Another driver for braggarts is something that at first seems like a superiority complex but in fact is something deeper. The archetype I have in mind is the guy who only seems to feel whole once he has convinced everyone in the room that he is a deity of supernatural success and powers. His self-esteem depends, in its entirety, on others buying into and holding these views – i.e. it is in no way possible for such braggarts to feel quietly confident.
I had a friend of this variety in the past. He would spend every second sentence aggrandizing himself and every first one merely talking about himself. After a while, I began to see through his bluster and realized that he didn’t really view himself as better than everyone else, but rather his social anxiety, when coupled with a relentlessly elitist world view, caused him to think that he would be socially abandoned unless he could prove that he was in the upper echelons of everything. Perversely, many of his friends abandoned him exactly because of this constant communication of status. I was one of them, and I sometimes feel guilty about this. But it’s really tough being around someone who is insatiably needy.
Driver 4: Dopamine kick from sharing
Another common driver for bragging is the emotional kick we get from self-disclosure. Diana I. Tamir and Jason P. Mitchell showed in a 2012 study that individuals were willing to forgo money for the opportunity to disclose information about themselves. Given such a powerful urge for self-disclosure, it should come as no surprise that people may impose their status on others even though a voice in the back of their head might warn that it is socially ill-advised.
In this light, I’ve come to realize that certain behaviors that might seem like Oneupmanship Bragging might actually be driven by a simple compulsion to share. For example, if I talk about climbing a mountain and you mention that you climbed one which happened to be higher, this could very plausibly be motivated by your desire to contribute to a conversation about climbing, not to prove that you’re better at mountains than I am. It’s the generative emotion that counts.
Driver 5: Lack of social awareness
Many of us were fortunate enough to be brought up by loving parents who celebrated our every creative act, no matter how mundane, no matter how minor. To these parents, even a productive potty session is cause for jubilation. It is only when we are older that we realize that not everyone is as excited for our “successes” as mommy and daddy were. But we don’t all have this realization at the same time, with some late developers continuing bragging to all and sundry well into their 20s, 30s, and 40s.
Driver 6: Aggression
There are people out there who are obsessed with dominance and who relish belittling others. Thankfully these types are not so common, but it would be naive to think that bragging is exclusively motivated by the gentler emotional drivers above. I have certainly been in situations where braggarts fully intended for their status to cut me. Even if their aggression derives from a place of inner pain, I can’t summon much sympathy for these sadists.
Readers of the first draft of this piece were fiercely concerned with what my definition of bragging encompassed, especially when it risked labelling some acts of their own as bragging. For example, my girlfriend worried about whether showing her friends a video of her doing a pull-up was a brag. Her worry arises from the fact that social opprobrium is often attached to bragging, and no-one wants this opprobrium to extend to themselves. So for her and the other early readers, their real question was really about whether there is a social norm against certain behaviors, about whether they will be judged immodest or impolite and consequently liked less.
I have the vague feeling my girlfriend won’t be getting burned at the stake over her pull-up video. For one, pull-up ability is a fairly frivolous kind of status and I can’t imagine someone feeling too raw about being outdone in this department. But what if she wanted to share something more classically impressive, like a new holiday home? Generally speaking, learning of another person’s success often inflicts jealousy. Yes, in some loving relationships, this valence is flipped, but not as often as you’d think. Even though siblings are bound by blood and have known each other their entire lives, — plus a few more if they’re into reincarnation — sibling envy can reach biblical proportions. Granted, there may be some enlightened individuals who don’t ever feel this way, but they are the exception, hardly the rule. So at the very least, even if my girlfriend had no intention to provoke envy by sharing something impressive, the revelation of differences in status would probably have this effect anyway.
How about the alternative of completely avoiding any comments that reveal status? Unfortunately that’s not how the world works. To start with, people love to share — it’s part of how conversation works. Moreover, some status is impossible not to communicate — try hiding a yacht. Furthermore, there are many milieus, especially business and dating after 30, where tasteful communication of status is positively helpful — otherwise you risk getting glossed over in favor of a more boastful candidate. Don’t misunderstand my point: I am far from thrilled that we live in a society where status matters. But it does.
Let’s zoom out here. When people disapprove of bragging it isn’t because they feel envious of revealed status differences — the pain arising from that is independent. The real reason people disapprove of bragging is because they have the impression that you are not driven by the need to share, but rather by a desire to elevate yourself. In other words, people have a basic resistance to self-directed claims to grandeur. But before their opprobrium applies, questions of culpability must first be resolved — was the brag intended or was it merely an accidental side-effect of something more socially acceptable? And here we get to the core of why so many people cloak their brags in a mask of plausible deniability: It shields them from disapproval.
The quintessential disliked braggart is one who doesn’t only impose their status but also appears to stomp on yours. There is a very real difference between learning that a friend earns 10x what you do and them browbeating you with it. In the latter case, you get the impression (probably from said beating of brow) that the speaker considers themselves superior to you, and it isn’t pleasant.
This is exactly how I felt when I originally met Dr. Feel Good, that braggart from the opening of the piece who claimed he had learned German in three weeks, at bars no less. But as I thought about the experience again, after my journey into bragging, I realized that something didn’t add up: If this guy really considered himself better than me, then why had he tried so hard to impress? Maybe I had made a mistake. Maybe he didn’t see really himself as superior, but rather as inferior. Maybe he believed that without communicating his status, he wouldn’t be worthy of my or any other person’s affections, that without being impressive he could never be liked.
I somehow got the chance to test this theory, as I bumped into Dr. Feel Good at a conference last month. True to form, he launched into telling me how successful his latest business venture had become and how he had the choice of clients. All without my asking him.
His claims weren’t particularly credible, but I realized something: that wasn’t the point. The point was that he wanted approval. So that I gave him.
“That’s really impressive!” I said.
And his face lit up.