Boasting while pretending not to

We are not fooling anyone with humble bragging, fake modesty doesn’t win any friends


I was having lunch with some acquaintances, and one of them said, "I hate that I look so young, people think I am still in high school."

I thought she was my age, and I am 38. I am not trying to be mean, but I know what children look like, and she did not look like one. She asked me if I had ever experienced being mistaken for a high schooler, I said no, not for the last two decades.

This is humble bragging, the unfortunate art of fake modesty -- boasting about something, but pretending to be annoyed by it or turning it into a complaint. In essence, bragging with a sense of false humility.

Read also: Too fat or too thin, but never quite right, Anjana Rajbhandary

People who slyly toot their own trumpet while pretending not to think they are coming across as being genuine and down-to-earth when it is mostly the opposite. And it is clear to their audience that they are shamelessly self-promoting.

A friend in Nepal told me how unhappy she was about her husband, who was having an affair with someone we all knew. A couple of days later, she went online and posted, ‘My husband surprised me with diamond earrings for no reason #blessed #lucky.’ My initial reaction was confusion, followed by shock.

She explained that I would never understand why she did what she did since I did not live in Nepal. From her point of view, it was essential to brag about those earrings because of the society she lived in.

Read also: Coping with Covid FOMO, Anjana Rajbhandary

That is sad. But it is common on social media. Sometimes bragging is a way to make ourselves appear happier than we really are, and it happens often on social media posts.

We all have had a friend or a relative complain, "I am so tired of my boss only giving me the most important assignments when there are so many other people." Or an acquaintance that has complained, "I hate that I lost so much weight because now, I cannot fit in any of my clothes."

A fitting example of humble bragging online can be when people say how #grateful and #blessed they are to have a wonderful family, job, or experience in their lives. ‘I am so #blessed to have the best husband in the world’. To which I feel like asking how could you know? You have only had one husband so far.

Humble bragging is typical because people want to show off their achievements without sounding pompous. The only way to do it subtly is by making it come across as a complaint, but it is usually straightforward to the listening ears.

Ovul Sezer, an assistant professor of organisational behavior at the Kenan-Flagler Business School, says, "You think, as the humble bragger, that it's the best of both worlds, but what we show is that sincerity is actually the key ingredient."

Read also: Childless by choice, Anjana Rajbhandary

When you are humble bragging, there is nothing sincere about it. It is a lie combined with a lack of insincerity.

Humble bragging is a twisted way of getting people to like you for your competence without them disliking you for revealing those traits yourself. A lot of effort goes into this, it is much easier to just brag. At least people who boast they can be forgiven for their honesty, but it is hard to overlook something said so disingenuously.

In this PC world, we cannot call out a humble bragger, without sounding mean either. So here is my suggestion: if you want to boast about something, go ahead. Brag away. Just do not make it a case of pretentious sincerity because it is more likely for people to dislike you for your false modesty than straight-up bragging.

To be sure, we all at some point might have been at fault for humble bragging without realising it. For the sense of power it brings about. Or to be liked, accepted or loved by others.

Sometimes we have to be above it all, and look beyond such demonstration of insincerity.

Anjana Rajbhandary writes this fortnightly Nepali Times column Life Time about mental health, physical health and socio-cultural issues.

Anjana Rajbhandary


  • Most read