Someone else’s success is not your failure. Right?
Introducing the Humble Brag
For such a simple phrase, the expression “humble brag” brings a lot of emotional baggage along with it. At first glance, it looks like doublespeak— after all, aren’t humility and hubris mutually exclusive? How do you even explain the humble brag?
Well, For a particularly apt analog to humble brag culture, look no further than Spongebob Squarepants— yes, that Spongebob Squarepants.
In one recurring subplot, Squidward falls into a game of one-upmanship with his arch-nemesis, Squilliam Fancyson. Urbane, affluent, and clad in a velvet smoking jacket (with a monobrow to boot), Squilliam is everything that Squidward isn’t— and as he gloats and boasts about his holier-than-thou life, he makes sure that Squidward doesn’t forget it.
However, what brings this ordeal beyond the realm of mere bragging is Squilliam’s air of insouciance, the way he just mentions his 500-piece art gallery off hand (and delights in Squidward’s despair). Thus, it would seem that humble bragging isn’t too different from bragging at all— it’s just haughtiness under a thin veil of nonchalance; a wolf in sheep’s clothing, if you will.
For those of us who don’t live in a pineapple under the sea…
Humble bragging is a relevant issue for all sorts of people- even those who don’t have rich squids as rivals. For many teenagers, such as those here on The Prospect, the most notorious form of humble bragging is actually admissions bragging. In a 2013 article by Grant Roth, our staff recounted the most absurd humble brags heard during admissions season, ranging from “I’m too good to go to a public college!” to “Cornell is like, the community college of the ivies.”
But, I have a hunch that humble bragging is not the biggest issue Americans are facing today. Sure, it’s certainly a social faux pas and a poor way to make friends, but there are greater evils in the world. When your roommate is spieling incessantly about their Spring Break sojourn in Cancún, try and remember: all cruelty springs from weakness. Of course, this is an exaggeration— rarely does oversharing stem from deliberate ill will— but maybe there’s some truth to Seneca’s words. The “humble brag” isn’t inflicted as aggression for the sake of aggression. Rather, more often than not, it’s an act of defense— misguided, perhaps, but fundamentally rooted in insecurity.
Humble Bragging in the Internet Age
In any case, IRL humble bragging tends to look pretty cut and dry. But, as with so many other facets of human interaction, the internet adds a new degree of complexity to humble bragging.
When we use social media, we aren’t sharing our lives as much as we’re broadcasting simulacra, displaying a happy-go-lucky facade for passersby. To quote John Maus, we are the “pitiless censors of ourselves,” redacting the scraped knees and lonely Friday nights from our online personas. Now, don’t get me wrong: Facebook and Instagram are great fun (which is why I use both), and every time a pearl-clutching sycophantic talk show host alleges that “selfie culture” produces vapid narcissists, I die a little bit on the inside. But at the end of the day, our virtual personas are fictions. Well, maybe fictions based on true stories, but you get my point.
So, next time you’re feeling down in the dumps, scrolling a newsfeed plastered with smiling faces / beachfront Mai Tais / perfect AP scores, just take a deep breath. You have nothing to prove to anyone or anything, (least of all an idealized representation of someone’s highlight reel)— so don’t fall into self-doubt and anxiety. Your friends aren’t reveling in schadenfreude when they upload a 100+ photo album of their latest Hawaii trip, they’re just trying to share an experience. So, just try being happy for the good fortune that others come across!
Again, no matter how new-agey and pretentious it sounds: someone else’s success is never your failure. Ever.