The Rules of Bragging

The following post could have been written by Polonius.

What’s more rewarding than being understood? Something we all  want.  Simple, right? Not so fast.

La Rouchefoucauld’s maxims have phrased these ideas — and many others — far more gracefully than I have in this quick post. But I have him in mind — the penetrating analyst of vanity.

The great aphorist lived in a milieu of vanity, the French court. But vanity — Catholic theology calls it Pride, that tree trunk from which grow the other deadly sins — knows no single court or season or person. It is fundamental to our nature — a weakness, a flaw. It is not self-esteem that’s in question. Not the “good” sort of pride of craftsmanship or ethical choice or professionalism. Vanity is blindness. It is Lear blind to the evil sisters’ perfidy and Cordelia’s love. (“He never knew himself but slenderly.” It is shallowness. It is meanness. And it’s transparent and detestable and ridiculous. Mostly, it’s farce. But it can be tragic, as with Achilles. But in polite society it’s merely regrettable, cringe-worthy, graceless, awkward and off-putting. It’s Malvolio.

Take a guy I’ll call Jerry. An academic who teaches, writes, publishes and brags. (Don’t we all brag, especially in the digital age when it’s as easy as posting, tweeting — the sound of blowing your own horn?)

But there’s bragging and there’s bragging. Some people do it better than others. Some folks can’t seem to do it without sounding, well, like braggarts. Mine’s bigger than yours. Abrasive. Contentious. Invidiously comparative.

Bragging’s an art. It can be done so gracefully that it doesn’t seem like bragging at all. To know how to do, it’s useful to understand how poorly it can be done — and do otherwise.

Here are the rules of bragging. Or marketing. Or PR. So much in common.

1. Be modest. After all, if the point is to show off, drop magisterial feats, do it with a wink. Not false modesty (Dickensian character’s “umble” obnoxiousness). But don’t brag in capital letters. Unless you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize, we’re not going to be bowled over. And Pulitzer Prize winners really don’t have to brag, do they? Others — family, friends, syncophants — do it for them, inserting themselves into the limelight. Modesty is, after all, a matter of realistic self-assessment — and realistic self-assessment is a matter of realistic comparisons with other baggarts and Pulitizer Prize winners.

2. Show self-irony. Bragging is so unsubtle, like a pitcher who can only throw fastballs. Feature a curve, a knuckleball. Some wit. A steady diet of fastball bragging is witless. It diminishes your reputation, not contributes to it. Self-irony (is this my own neologism?) navigates a path between false modesty and braggadocio. Self-irony requires a kind of metaphysical thinking about oneself — an expressed public recognition of the self-within-the-self that we admit, recognize, monitor and supervise. Self-irony is intra-personal communication. We are in perpetual conversaton with ourselves. We hear voices — or we ought to — which makes us sane, not crazy. Not to hear voices is to be a self without a history — which is both absurdity and poverty.

3. Credit others.  Sure you earned that doctorate, published that novel. But didn’t you have teachers, mentors, editors, agents? Listen to a few award acceptance speeches. Download the Academy Awards show. It’s the Team Thing. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and so forth. It’s all true, all those cliches. Failing to recognize them is merely simple arrogance. What Samuel Johnson called ‘blockheadedness.’ Don’t be that person.

4. Know you’re lucky.  Listen to that famous speech by a guy you wouldn’t think of as particularly lucky — Lou  Gehrig. Standing in the middle of Yankee Stadium in front of 50,000  fans who knew he was dying, he told them he was the luckiest man alive. Do you know why they cried? Of course you do. Because they were knocked over by his brave lie. And because his lie contained a great truth: He was a lucky man — in the face of the awful wasting disease. And they knew in that moment that  for all his athletic greatness, this was his greatest moment of all — the one we remember him for. If Gehrig could make the theme of his fall, his illness, his imminent death less important than his great good luck, then so can the rest of us.

5. Be kind. Kindness, some say, is the greatest wisdom. The world can seem a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers. So your good fortune, trophy wife, BMW, honorary Ph.D., American Idolatry may well be — and often is — someone else’s rotten break, harridan, clunker, flunkout. Don’t be a lunkhead (not in the Johnson Dictionary but probably in Webster’s). Know that when you announcing what you’ve won, you may be laughing at what someone else has lost.

Yes,  I know. It sounds trite and platitudinous. But ignore these platitudes at your peril, you self-important, pompous fool. Laugh sarcastically. Earn the enmity of the world. We will be laughing at you behind your back, just out of your hearing. And sometimes right in your face.

Who are my heroes of irony? Swift showing the absurdity of a ridiculous scientific experiment that so impressed Gulliver: (“Yesterday I saw a woman flayed alive — and you can hardly imagine how it altered her appearance for the worse.”).

Dickens. Gogol. Kafka. Sid Caesar. Lucille Ball. Woody Allen. Henny Youngman. Degas. Warhol. (I’m not talking role models.)


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Filed under Ethics, Persuasion, Public Relations

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