Why sometimes less is more when it comes to self-promotion (and how to brag your way to success)

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Harriet Hall
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Remember the days when being modest was all the rage? When humility beat hubris hands down in any fight?

Well, those days are long gone.

It all started with the humblebrag. In a desperate attempt to appear modest, the humblebrag allowed those whose subtlety was akin to a fart in a jam jar to let the world know that they were a talented, philanthropic, accolade-winning human.

Somewhere between the world domination of social media and at the time of writing, humblebragging has shirked its cover in favour of the full-out brag. The age of conspicuous success is over.

In many industries, bragging has become the only way to get a job - by over-egging our achievements in our CV, the only way to gain respect, by re-tweeting our compliments on Twitter, the only way to prove our life is better than anyone else’s, by capturing it on Instagram.

Bragging overload

We’re now bragging about how much sleep we get, how busy we are, and how little we paid for the dress we’re wearing. Bragging has taken over our lives in a massive and unmitigated way. We start our days earlier, go to the gym for longer, eat cleaner and work harder - and you can be dammed sure we’re telling people about it. 

Our naked bodies have even become a commodity with which to trade – just think of Emily Ratjyakowski, whose Instagram account is a stream of perfect nude shots. If you’ve got it, flaunt it, has become a motto that applies increasingly in the digital age.

We’re all guilty of it. On my own Instagram and Twitter feeds, I proudly publish the articles I’ve written, snap pictures of celebrity interviews I’ve conducted and retweet people who say they’ve enjoyed my work. The art of the brag has become so deeply ingrained in our culture, that it’s almost second nature – it doesn’t feel like bragging. 

We’re so used to seeing it that it’s become acceptable nay, encouraged. Kayleigh, 28, says: “I used to avoid using social media like the plague - and really hated sharing anything that could be deemed 'smug'. But, when I started working at a magazine, the web editor took me to one side and told me that I had to build a presence online. That I had to shout about my achievements - because nobody else was going to do that for me.”

Curate your bragging 

It turns out that bragging might not be doing us any favours. In fact, new research by psychologists suggests that bragging might be having a knock-on effect on our reputations. 

Dubbed, the ‘Presenter’s Paradox’, the theory – published in the Harvard Business Review – suggests that bringing attention to your small wins can actually take away from your larger accomplishments.

Thus, the art of self-promotion is one which is best approached with caution. Study author and senior scientist at the Neuroleadership Institute, Heidi Grant, says that “More is actually not better, if what you are adding is of lesser quality than the rest of your offerings.”

He continued, saying that, in fact, “Highly favorable or positive things are diminished or diluted when they are presented in the company of only moderately favorable or positive things.”

The key to making your brags work for you, then, is to curate them. Scientists explain the process using an example of a CV, in which the candidate lists several impressive achievements, all scoring as a 10. At the end of the CV, the insertion of a less impressive posting is ranked as 3. Instead of adding to the appeal of the candidate, the posting ranked as a 3 actually serves to bring the candidate’s average appeal score down.

The right way to brag

So how do we brag in the right way? Canvas 8 spoke with Dr. Irene Scopelliti, co-author of You Call It ‘Self-Exuberance’; I Call It ‘Bragging’, who explained that it’s all about knowing your audience. Whilst the positive experience of something good is increased for the person in question when they share it with someone else, we often overestimate how much other people will also feel positive about our success.

Essentially, while your mum will most certainly be thrilled when you boss at life, all your Twitter followers might not. This difference in experience is known as the ‘empathy gap’. Not only are people who self-promote seen as being immodest and therefore less likeable, they also appear less competent.

And it makes sense. We are all more than familiar with that feeling when our friend bags the dream job: while we are genuinely happy for them, we also feel a little gutted that it wasn’t us. It’s a bittersweet and difficult feeling to grapple with. 

“I think there’s a scale of acceptable bragging,” says Amy, 34, “I like seeing where people have been on holiday, what awesome food they’ve eaten or something they’re really proud of having done, but I dislike general bragging disguised as being #thankful or #blessed, especially things that can make others feel bad about themselves via comparison.”

It turns out, according to Scopelliti, that the best way to approach a moment of self-promotion, is to put yourself in the shoes of the receiver. How would it feel for your friend whose just been dumped, for example, to hear that you’re engaged? It might be a case of ‘narrowcasting’ when it comes to these things, instead of going all out on social media.

In an age where everything we do is posted straight to social media, or even experienced live, is the bragging likely to increase? Instead of adapting how we post, will we simply adapt how we react?

On the other hand, the rise of the ‘real’ Instagrammer who strives to expose all the faux perfection of social media could signal the end. 

That means the only bragging to do will be in real life – and we all know that’s a little harder to embrace . Brag smart or don’t brag at all. 

Follow Harriet on Twitter: @harri_grace  and Instagram: @harrigrace11