Let’s talk about the humblebrag

Peacock | www.flickr.com/photos/crazycrash | Distributed by creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0
Peacock  (Photo by http://www.flickr.com/photos/crazycrash)  |  Distributed under CC BY-NC-ND – creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0

Academic Twitter had a wonderful and very entertaining festival on the #seriousacademic hashtag in recent days, in response to an (entirely silly, it must be said) anonymous post.

The post, to which I’m not linking as I think it has had too much oxygen already, is basically someone maundering on about how they’re a serious academic and not someone who wants to show off – or be made to show off – on social media.

Because that’s what we’re doing, people, when we’re on social media. Showing off.

A colleague and I were talking about the incident, and we both agreed that if we were given the chance to maunder on about something that we hated when it came to showing off, it would be the humblebrag.

Yes, the notorious humblebrag.

Don’t know what it is? That ever-reliable source, Urban Dictionary, defines ‘humblebragging’ as “[s]ubtly letting others now about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor or ‘woe is me’ gloss”. It can be both a verb or noun. With the widespread use of social media, the humblebrag often lands in your stream on Twitter or Facebook.

Depending on your mood, you may chortle to yourself or want to reach through the screen and smack that person upside the head.

Here are a couple of examples I’ve come up with that are relevant to that yet-to-be-recognised Olympic sport of academic humblebragging:

“Another book contract accepted! Really worried that the ms. deadline will clash with my keynote in Kyoto.”

“That’s three papers in a row accepted without revision this year! Maybe all that worrying I did paid off?”

“I wish the VC would stop nominating me for these awards. I’m running out of things to wear for photo shoots.”

“Hope this conference I’ve been invited to is worth the trans-Pacific long-haul.”

Do any of these seem familiar? The statements are a mash-up of things I’ve seen across social media platforms on others’ feeds over time, as well as statements I’ve heard academics say over the years.

I know of several colleagues who hate-follow their peers on various social media platforms precisely because of the shockingly good humblebragging that goes on in their peers’ feeds.

Aside from a bit of furtive self-auditing to check for one’s own tendency to humblebrag, it might be helpful to know that:

On social media like Twitter, humblebragging was negatively associated with being liked and being perceived as competent. Basically, people don’t like humblebraggers. Instead of self-promotion, humblebrags helped with self-demotion. (Harvard study: Humblebragging doesn’t work)

OK, so that wasn’t such a revelation – “people don’t like humblebraggers”.

What was a revelation to me, though, was the advice from several sources, which stated that a straight-out brag was ‘better’ than a humblebrag. Really? Why aren’t we just saying ‘no’ to bragging, saying ‘no’ even to “judicious bragging” (The humblebrag)?

Especially in a sector such as academia that’s rife with ego and entitlement, why give a free pass to any bragging at all?

With the humblebrag, it’s the dishonesty of framing a boast with seeming modesty that gets people irritated.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing your good news. Nothing at all. But when that good news is presented as ‘bad news’…it doesn’t sit well.

For example, I may have done a version of: “This commute to the continuing academic job of my dreams is killing me!” when I first started in my current role. If I did, I apologise. Very few get continuing academic jobs in areas they’re passionate about. People commute much further than I do. I need to shut up about my commute (and, yes, you can quote me on that, current colleagues who may be reading this).

Humblebragging showcases the privilege inherent in many people’s careers and their consequent opportunities. Increasingly, what used to be considered basic academic entitlements (such as funding to travel to, and present at, conferences) are no longer available to many, or have been turned into extremely competitive processes. What this means is that it’s often the early career and precariously employed academics who miss out because of what are considered to be inconsistent or yet-to-be established track-records.

So, enjoy your conference, celebrate your paper acceptance, dance around about landing that grant, and relish those travel fellowships. Don’t undercut it with false modesty, or project ennui because it has become a common experience for you. Many would be ecstatic to have just one of those chances.

10 August 2016: EDITED TO ADD this perfect-for-this-post comic by Poorly Drawn Lines (Reza Farazmand), which was flagged to me by my lovely colleague Liam Connell.



  1. “Humblebrag” is an irregular verb, isn’t it? I share my good news, you humblebrag, s/he is an insufferable, arrogant overrated pain in the arse.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Tseen Khoo,
    I enjoy your posts, for their accuracy, frankness and courage.
    Sorry I won’t be able to be at the upcoming session in Canberra. I’m sorry to miss the fresh camaraderie of the group. With my absolute best for a great day,
    Sally Gray


    • Thank you, Sally, for your very kind and encouraging comment! Very sorry you won’t be in Canberra for #whispercon this year. It would’ve been great to touch base again. Best wishes until the next time we cross paths!


  3. Love this post, I can totally relate to feeling annoyed by the humblebrag, as you say its the false modesty that feels so patronising. It also makes me feel that these people have way to much success, they should pass some on to me instead!!


    • Hah! Thanks for your comment and, yes, I’m happy for people to share their good news – it’s much better to do just that than cloak it in some weird faux-downheartedness that you know they’re not feeling. Or, if they are feeling downhearted about too much good fortune then – as you say – maybe they need to share it around a bit!


  4. Humble bragging isn’t necessarily right in the form of sharing “good news” either, nor does it always sit right.

    I know someone on social media who rarely posts complaints, but constantly humblebrags. For example, she posted about how grateful she is for her close circle of friend……… because she went over to help and support a friend who was battling an illness… and so inspired by her strength.

    Another example, she posted an image of herself in a provocative nighty; siting on a computer. She commented about how lucky she is to have the friends she has, because her friend was over and snapped a candid photo of her on her computer. ……… because her friend was so happy that she trusted her to help her with some personal things on the computer.

    You can see there us no compaining taking place, but at the same time the insincerely resonates. Does that sit well with you?


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