Kids These Days

Braggers Rites

A humbling experience in social media.

By From the April 2014 issue

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Millennials are a competitive lot, but we also don’t want to kill ourselves getting ahead. So it should be no surprise that we have perfected the art of bragging. They say that flattery will get you nowhere, but if you’re a self-flatterer, you’re just fine where you are. You also need everyone to know how great it is to be where you are (and how hard you worked to get there). After all, evoking jealousy in others is hard because it requires you to accomplish great things. But if you don’t accomplish many great things, well, all the more reason to brag about the few items worth discussing. The Millennial generation isn’t merely the “Me” generation; it’s the “Pay Attention to Me” generation.

Enter the sophisticated variety of bragging deployed handily on Facebook, Twitter, and the million other social networking sites we Millenials insist everyone participate in so that they can’t get anything done, just like us.  

There is, for instance, the humblebrag, this era’s “aw shucks, you guys.” “Can’t believe I’m finally going to Argentina,” one writes in a Facebook status update, informing us that dreams do come true, or, rather, his do. Billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s ever-present hoodie is itself the embodiment of the humblebrag, a fashion statement that can only say “Can you believe I’m worth $30 billion?” 

How can you spot a humblebrag? Usually they begin with the words “Humbled” or “So lucky.” “Humbled that I was selected to represent my school at the upcoming competition,” or “Humbled to receive this Oscar,” or “Humbled to live in such a great city.” For those of us who didn’t get selected to represent the school, win an Oscar, or flee a small town, our own humility must go unnoticed. We must languish in (humble) silence. 

Once you’ve finally (or barely) achieved something humblebrag-worthy, the smallest inconvenience becomes an excellent occasion to whinebrag. How to spot the difference? 

Humblebrag: 

So lucky my parents got me a brand new Prius. #Blessed

Whinebrag: 

My Prius can only fit three bicycles in the trunk. :( 

Whinebragging is a great way of introducing yourself and what you do for a living as conversational topics. Start it with an “Ugh.” 

The Diplomat’s Whinebrag:

Ugh, can’t go. I have to go to this stupid dinner with the Saudi Ambassador. He always makes me play with his pet falcon.

The Journalist’s Whinebrag:

Ugh. White House Correspondent’s dinner tonight and I can’t find the right dress.

Whinebrags are often synonymous with “First World Problems”—“This is a bad year for Malbec!” or “My new iPhone doesn’t get good reception in my pied-à-terre!”—but the only privilege required for a good whinebrag is not being able to fully enjoy a particular moment because your standards are already too high: 

I’ve become so accustomed to having much more energy since I started working out that I forget to slow down for others.

If you think whining is an effective way of getting people to hate you, whinebragging is its better-looking, more successful sibling. Nothing makes a person more despised than his complaints about running out of champagne in first class.

When that champagne is there (because otherwise what’s the point?), you need to photograph it with your iPhone and post it to the Internet with all due haste, lest you miss out on a good photobrag. Sometimes people can’t visualize for themselves how well things are going for you, so why not include the airline cocktail napkin for good measure so everyone knows you’re drinking on a plane? 

Services like Instagram were designed for this. Instagram itself was named after the Roman Emperor Instagram, who would have slaves carve busts of him in different outfits, giving us the term “selfie,” from the plural form of the Latin “selfus” (translation: “Really? Another one?”).

With photobrags, you’re the photojournalist covering your own glamour tour, so be sure that you also capture beautiful sunsets, bare legs on a beach, or that dinner for which you waited in line two hours because your time’s not that valuable and the restaurant doesn’t take reservations. And the need for a good photobrag doubles when on a boat. For the love of God, everyone must know that you’re on a boat.

It’s especially important to let others know that you’re on vacation because you’ve spent so much time busybragging. “Things are completely crazy today,” you might inform everyone in your life who is polite enough not to question how you’ve managed to work a Facebook post into your “insane” schedule. Acquaintances of a more sadistic bent may ask why it’s “so” crazy and egg on your public self-humiliation.

Let’s say, on the other hand, that you want to show your softer side, by which I mean, your “better,” “more human” side. Well, try the sorrybrag, the shiniest wrench in the braggart’s toolkit. It’s perfectly insincere, vaguely noble, and completely belittling to anyone within earshot. The sorrybrag informs others that you have feelings, too, and that’s why you’re ignoring everyone else’s. You can usually detect a sorrybrag with the phrase “I feel bad though”: 

I’m sorry I have to cancel dinner plans because my best friend is in town and we’re going to a concert—no, it’s not okay! I feel bad though.

The important thing is not that you’re on your own for dinner. The important thing is the sorrybragger’s feelings. This has the added benefit of turning the tables and forcing others to reassure the sorrybragger that it’s no big deal.

“Recognize how bad I am feeling while I am doing this” is something no hired killer would ever think to say while throwing a body in the trunk, but conveying empathy also isn’t a job requirement for hired killers. Braggarts, however, need empathy to exploit humanity, and sorrybrags are a natural outgrowth of people’s complete disregard for how apologies work. 

Some are simply meant to implicate the moral depravity of others, while lifting yourself to the level of Mother Teresa:

I’m sorry he felt the need to treat you so poorly. I certainly wouldn’t have done that.

Other sorrybrags are just about getting credit for apologizing: 

Well, I did say I’m sorry.

Still other sorrybrags are just a deflection from admitting you have no regrets:

I’m sorry you feel that way.

So long as the discussion is out in the public for all to see, everyone will know just how not really sorry you are. And have an opportunity to comment. And cheer on your righteousness.

Yet when you’re feeling truly down, you can still lord over others with some good emobrags and share the depth of your feelings. Relationship not working out? Recently have a fight? Have drama in your life you can’t stand? What better way to cope than by informing the world via social media that you can’t handle it all. The emobragger is convinced that no one has ever known love like the love the emobragger experiences. What the diary once was to a young teen, the social media profile has become to a Millennial, a veritable scratchpad of heartbreaks and heartaches. Except instead of being covered in unicorn stickers and protected by a flimsy latch lock, it’s visible to the entire world and deserves only one kind of attention: pity.

Social media showcases Millennial solipsism; older generations should know better. But they have also gotten it wrong, and they did so long before the Internet. When President Clinton “apologized” for his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he actually sorrybragged throughout, accusing America and particularly the media of invading his privacy and demanding he and his family be left alone so he can get back to work, because, after all, he was a busy guy. This sorrybrag had the perfect effect: For years after, the public debated whether lying to a prosecutor mattered when the lie was about a relationship, a legal distinction that O.J. Simpson would have cherished.

Speaking of which, even O.J. Simpson was a busybragger. Following his acquittal, he famously announced:

When things have settled down a bit I will pursue as my primary goal in life the killer or killers who slaughtered Nicole and Mr. Goldman.

Such bragging tendencies are endemic among media figures or those who aspire to join their ranks, particularly when they backfire. Journalist Sam Youngman, a former White House correspondent, wrote a 2,500-word whinebrag, gently titled “Take this Town and Shove It,” excoriating Washington’s toxic political culture and asserting the sanctity of Real America—a mere three months after he moved back to Kentucky. (He wrote the piece for Politico, of all outlets.)

In another piece, entitled “Dear America, I Saw You Naked,” Jason Edward Harrington, a former TSA agent, sorrybragged his way through lurid tales of his fellow agents abusing their authority. So he started a blog, rather than report this abuse to the inspector general, of course. He admits that he left his job not because he was disgusted with TSA’s abuse of power (which he was), but rather because he had finally secured admission to a graduate writing program and plans to use his experiences as the basis for a novel.

Even the current administration’s photobragging tendency has gotten it into hot water, such as when the president was caught taking a selfie at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Doing such a thing might never occur to you or me, but this was no ordinary funeral: It was the funeral to see and be seen at. Therefore, President Obama could have offered a perfect excuse:

I’m sorry I was so excited to be seated between the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and Denmark at Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Was so exhausted from the flight to Africa. Sad he’s gone.

Photobrag becomes a sorrybrag, a humblebrag, a whinebrag, and an emobrag, all in one. Check and mate.

Perhaps it’s more appropriate to say that famous people, whose fame should make bragging unnecessary, are just like the rest of us, and social media has only made that clearer. Which, if you think about it, is really, really humbling. 

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About the Author

J.P. Freire is a writer in Washington and a former editor at the Washington Examiner and The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jpfreire.