THE ART OF THE BRAG
Not keen on bigging yourself up? You might want to rethink that-self-promotion is the key to career success and mental wellbeing. So why do those who are less than humble get a bad rap?
Because not blowing your own trumpet is getting you nowhere
There’s nothing quite like a quick scroll through Instagram to fuel your contempt for other people. It’s the evening commute and you’re avoiding eye contact with strangers by staring at your feed, which consists of other people’s cats, other people’s babies and other people’s dinners. Then you stumble across a perfectly filtered selfie of someone you probably used to work with but can’t quite remember with the caption: ‘Can’t wait for you guys to check out my new blog post!’
Now, answer honestly: what’s your reaction? Because if it’s one of eye-rolling judgement, roll those eyes over this news: while most of us expect corporate brands to advertise, apparently the same can’t be said for individuals like you or me. ‘Some people are put off by the commodification of self,’ explains Dr Janelle Ward, assistant professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam’s department of media and communication. ‘Because some of us are perhaps not used to seeing explicit self-promotion online, it doesn’t sit right with us.’
And it seems those negative reactions are amplified when the person doing said promoting happens to be a woman. Research from Rutgers University in New Jersey found that women who self-promote were viewed as less likeable (and thus less employable) than their male counterparts. And while we’re often told to be more assertive in the workplace, a study by Stanford Business School suggests that it’s avoiding this trait, rather than channelling it, that will help you scale the greasy pole. Researchers found that when women possessed the ability to turn off traits that are traditionally seen as being more masculine – think aggression and all-out confidence – they were more likely to get
promoted. There’s even a phrase for the response the professional world seems to have to assertive women: the backlash effect. It’s vexing – as women who actively self-promote can attest to. ‘I use Instagram like a modern version of a showreel for producers who might give me work,’ says presenter and body-positivity influencer Chessie King. ‘It’s allowed me to spread my message and show people what I’m about. Plus, I like to celebrate my success with the people who follow me. But I’ve received hundreds of negative comments, about 70% of which I would say come from women. While men tend to leave derogatory or sexualised comments, women are a lot more personal. It used to make me think twice about what I posted so I would hold back on sharing, but now I remind myself who I’m doing it for – and it isn’t the haters.’
WHY SO JUDGY?
It’s estimated that in 80% of all social media posts, we’re talking about ourselves, arguably turning these platforms into an endless stream of self-promotion. But if the vast majority of us are doing it, why do we judge each other so harshly? ‘There is a widely accepted stereotype that women have to be humble,’ says Dr Sharon Coen, a senior lecturer in media psychology at the University of Salford. ‘The very second you’re not – when you display your competence and empowerment – that contradicts the expectations of a woman. That contradiction is at the root of the negative reaction from others.’ And it seems this stereotype runs deep – so deep that it has the power to influence your own behaviour throughout your life. ‘From the outset, girls are socialised not to be assertive as it contravenes those gender stereotypes,’ adds Dr Joan Harvey, a senior lecturer at Newcastle University and chartered psychologist. And as women get older, Dr Harvey explains, they’re also encouraged to present themselves as accurately as possible, while men are encouraged to overstate their achievements. It means that while we’re just as capable of blowing our own trumpets from time to time, we’ve been conditioned to leave them in a drawer to gather dust.
BEST FOOT FORWARD
It’s worth remembering that self-promotion isn’t just limited to social media; you’re much more engaged with it than you might think. ‘You do it all the time, whether you realise it or not,’ adds Dr Harvey. ‘It’s not a special skill that you switch on and off. When you dress nicely for a party, put on make-up to hide a blemish or write your dating profile, you are presenting a version of yourself.’
Perhaps one of the most important places to self-promote is in the workplace. Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at UK media agency Mediacom and author of The Glass Wall (£9.99, Profile Books), in which she argues that what is holding women back isn’t a ceiling, but their inability to speak the same working language as men. While writing the book, she interviewed hundreds of men and women, as well as the people who hire and fire them. ‘What we saw time and again is that women think that doing a job well is all they need to do. It isn’t. You have to let your boss know that you’ve done a great job – not just so they know, but because your male colleagues are doing it,’ she explains. And it isn’t just about climbing the ladder. Unerman believes the reticence women feel when it comes to shouting about their successes is leading them to undervalue themselves. ‘What became clear [during the interviews] is that women don’t ask for enough promotions or pay rises and, even if they do, a “no” will make them go away,’ she adds. ‘One recruiter I spoke to told me he regularly deals with roles with six-figure salaries. When he offers a woman £100k she will say thank you very much and accept. When he offers a man £100k he will say thanks, but I need £150k.’ Not only does this influence the gender pay gap, according to the Fawcett Society – a women’s equality charity – it also influences the gender bonus gap, which often relies on negotiation.
This need to self-promote becomes even more vital when you work independently, such as running your own business or working freelance. A new report by Kingston University found that the number of mothers who are freelancing has doubled over the past 10 years. ‘Freelancing is a way of escaping a masculine culture within an organisation,’ explains gender equality campaigner Polly Trenow. ‘It allows women to opt out of having to present themselves in a certain way to get recognition.’ Despite this freedom, many women who work as ‘slashers’ – those who juggle several careers simultaneously, like a make-up artist slash blogger slash PT – still claim they’re reluctant to self-promote for fear of looking pushy or boastful. But by going ahead and doing it, you could gain vital self-reflection, explains Dr Coen. ‘Posting a selfie or rereading content you’ve put out there about yourself is a way of making sense of who you are,’ says Dr Coen. ‘It can help you to understand and elaborate on your identity.’
It means that dusty trumpet could see you miss out on career progression and money, as well as maintaining your mental wellbeing. So, when it come to self-promotion, what are we so afraid of ? Well, bigging yourself up is a gamble. ‘The problem with self-promotion is you’re not in control of how other people view it,’ explains Dr Harvey. ‘You might frame a selfie or a boast as something that’ll impress and increase your social status, but others might perceive it as boasting or selfcentredness.’ This fear of being judged, it seems, is sufficient to stop you from doing it.
Case in point: the selfie. Modern Marmite it might be, but we’d hazard a guess that while you eye-roll-and-scroll past other people’s selfies, you let yourself off the hook should the desire to point and shoot strike. A recent study from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich confirmed as much. Despite 77% of the 238 participants being regular selfie-takers, they tended to
IT TURNS OUT THE HUMBLEBRAG IS ACTUALLY LESS EFFECTIVE THAN AN OVERT BOAST
attribute greater self-promotion motives and less authenticity to other people’s selfies, while believing their own to be more authentic and ironic. This aura of authenticity is particularly key when you’re promoting yourself online, explains Dr Ward. ‘We crave authenticity in all our interactions and relationships,’ she says. ‘But online profiles can be particularly tricky as you’re dealing with carefully crafted bios without the help of normal social aids, such as non-verbal cues or facial expressions.’
BOAST YOUR CONFIDENCE
So while you might spend hours deliberating over whether or not to post that carefullycurated trumpet-blow – a promotion at work, an award or some feedback that caused your features to fall into #proudface – the fact is you still have zero control over how it will be perceived once it’s out there in the world. So is there such a thing as successful selfpromotion? Let’s talk about the humblebrag – an out-and-out boast masquerading as modesty, eg, ‘Ooh, your NHS glasses are way cooler than my Céline frames.’ Despite its intention to make people like you by cloaking a clear brag with a hint of humility, it actually has the opposite effect. A 2017 study by Harvard Business School found that the humblebrag is less effective than an overt boast because it overlooks one critical factor: sincerity. While the humblebragger receives the positive feeling of not explicitly bragging, the recipient reacts negatively to both the self-promotion and the attempt to mask it.
The upshot? If your intentions are sincere, it will translate. ‘Bragging involves an element of inappropriateness, whereas it is perfectly appropriate to ensure that you’re operating in a fair and equal work environment,’ says Dr Marilyn Davidson, emerita professor of work psychology at Manchester Business School. ‘Don’t be afraid to speak out. It’s not about boasting, it’s about career opportunity and equality.’ Women’s Health Digital Editor Amy Hopkinson agrees. ‘Self-promotion is the best way to connect the dots so others can see what you’ve done and how you’ve done it,’ she says – something she has learnt from juggling her role of wellness influencer and ambassador for activewear brand Lululemon alongside her day job.
‘Yes, sometimes I cringe as I post a self-celebratory image, but the truth is that I’m no almond croissant: I’m never going to make everyone happy. Now
I’ve accepted that, self-promotion has become a little easier.’