LinkedIn usage has spiked during Covid-19 restrictions, with some reports saying traffic is up by 300%, and I hate to think what volume jump there’s been in the use of the humblebrag on LinkedIn because I’ve seen more than my fair share since early March.

The humblebrag or humble brag, has been with us through the ages.

Interestingly, historian John Ferling says inaugural US president, George Washington’s public reluctance about his fame was nothing but a “conniving strategy of faux-reticence”, in stark contrast to the current president who seems to be following the strategy of ostentatious cockiness.

Somewhere in the middle sits the LinkedIn humblebrag and this short reflection is to remind you (and me) that when we slip into this habit of lazy, cowardly communication, people can see right through us.

What is a humblebrag?

The late American comedian, actor, writer, and producer, Harris Wittels, coined the term humblebrag, which he defined as the art of false modesty. The former writer and executive producer for Parks and Recreation, even published a book on the topic, Humblebrag, around 2012.

In social media, humblebragging is often used as a way to feign modesty by shining a spotlight on others or an event/entity in a way that lets the writer also sit in that spotlight.

And many people do this and, yes, I’ve been guilty of it in the past (nervously, I share the link to my about page) so I am writing this as much for me as for you.

Here are some real examples from my LinkedIn feed (I’ve obscured the names):

  • Very proud to be to be part of an amazing committee that makes this event happen, along with some outstanding sponsor partners.
  • Thank you to all who’ve sent congratulations on my appointment of Australian (removed) Chair in SA.
  • I am honoured to be a speaker this morning for International Women’s Day to celebrate women’s achievements in business.
  • It was an absolute pleasure to be invited to be the key note speaker at the Wine Marketing and Tourism Conference, hosted by (removed) this week in (removed).
  • I am delighted and grateful to count myself among the 25 winners of this national award – what an extraordinary honour!
  • With International Women’s Day today, I’d like to take this opportunity to recognise the amazing women I’ll be journeying along with as part of (removed name of group).
  • Proud to be emceeing this sensational line up of speakers for our upcoming (name removed) event!
  • This letter finally arrived—officially confirmed for #PhD in Law graduation. A humble honour from the prestigious ANU College of Law!

Can you see a trend here? The formula appears to be:

I am (proud / humble / honoured) to be (insert jealousy-provoking title or achievement) with (insert some names of people with higher status, or whose attention you want to attract, or whose reputation you want to be associated with).

The translation is:

Look at me, I’m great and I’m kicking goals, and I am pretty confident you’re gonna feel a little jealous about me right now.

Of course, we shouldn’t, for a moment, think we get away with humblebragging. Just like a little child hiding behind their hands and thinking they’re invisible, the rest of us can see right through this ploy.

How to humblebrag on LinkedIn and stay authentic

We should share good news, of course. But there’s an art to it.

As Professor Utpal Dholakia points out in his Science Behind Behaviour articles for Psychology Today, when we share achievements and good news in a warm-spirited way, it improves our happiness and that of those around us.

The self-deprecating note at the end of these “humblebrag” posts puts them at the positive end of the spectrum for this reader, in line with the professor’s point about sharing news positively:

  • Lovely story about community spirit and can-do attitude. It was a real pleasure to have a small (and purely financial) part in getting this started.
  • On 15th April, I graduated the University of South Australia with a Bachelor of Marketing and Communication. Due to COVID-19, my graduation ceremony was far from conventional. I shared this moment with my family via Zoom call [and] the dress code stayed true to self-isolation fashion; with jumpers, track pants and sneakers being a requirement.

Ultimately, it all comes down to intention; the purity of our intention.

The cleanest and clearest ways of humblebragging, in my opinion, relates to how deeply we respect the intelligence of our audiences. By either taking a balanced and grounded approach like the above examples or being upfront by asking readers to indulge you in a moment of bragging, ticks those boxes.

To “brag” positively like a pro, though, we should also aim for our social posts to inform (and even entertain). That is how we can deliver communication with a maximum measure of What’s In It For Me for our audience.

A further comment on the dark shadows of humblebragging

To return to Professor Dholakia’s thoughts, our key point to remember is that we move into the shadows of bragging when we share news in a way that is “done not to share happiness, but mainly to arouse jealousy, envy, or other negative emotions and doesn’t have any useful, informative purpose for the audience [then] it becomes dysfunctional”.

If it is so dysfunctional, why do some people keep doing it?

The good professor explains this toxic cycle clearly, towards the end of his article, Why people should stop bragging on social media:

What is worse, bragging attracts ingratiators, who are typically lower in status and have ulterior motives in forming or maintaining a relationship with the braggart. In other words, if you want to gather an entourage around you, bragging is an efficient way to achieve this.

So, given that humblebragging attracts those who want to climb ladders to reach the heights of the braggard they deem useful to them, it’s going to take friends to keep an eye out for each other and talk us back from the edge of boastfulness. Please connect with me if you haven’t already so we can keep an eye out for each other. Here’s the Steve Davis bio on LinkedIn and the Talked About Marketing LinkedIn Page.

And there is a balancing act here because we don’t want to succumb to tall poppy syndrome, either.

My hope is that we can indulge in a healthy LinkedIn experience, by practicing honest, transparent communication that gives something of value to our audiences and networks.

PS No, this article wasn’t written about you, and neither was this song. 🙂

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