September 29, 2022
What should we do (or not do) to make a good first impression on others? Is "humble-bragging" better or worse than straightforward bragging? Or is completely hiding our successes an even better strategy than humble-bragging or straightforward bragging? When do our attempts to signal something about ourselves actually end up signalling something else that we don't intend? What are some long-term strategies for gaining others' respect?
Övül Sezer is a behavioral scientist, stand-up comedian, and Visiting Assistant Professor at Columbia University, Columbia Business School. She received her A.B. in Applied Mathematics and her Ph.D in Organizational Behavior from Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter at @ovulsezer or learn more about her at ovulsezer.com.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you joined us today. In this episode Spencer speaks with Övül Sezer about making a good impression, signaling self-perception, and properly communicating accomplishments.
SPENCER: Övül, welcome.
ÖVÜL: Hi, Spencer. It was great to join you today.
SPENCER: Great to have you on. So all of us want to make a good impression, right? We at least want certain people to like us (if not everyone to like us). How do we do this? And my first question for you specifically, is, if people want a good impression, should they brag? Should they talk about the good things they've done? Or is this actually a way to make a bad impression?
ÖVÜL: This is a great question and something that I spend a lot of time thinking about just in my daily life, even [laughs]. How do we make a good impression? And how do we get people to like us or to respect us? These are very, very fundamental human needs. If we think about the goal of liking and respect, and if you think about all of the relationships in our lives, I would say pretty much these two goals co-exist. Yes, we may care about liking in our family and with our friends. And yes, we may care about respect maybe in our workplace, but we still want both of these dimensions. And what I would say to your question is that there is not one single cure, one single answer that I can give you — “Oh, we should brag, or we should do this, we should do that.” — because the more I study this phenomenon of impression management (how do we actually make a good impression on others?) the more I find out that it's actually our intuitions are often misguided, like what we think works, actually doesn't work. So, I can give lots of to-dos like a step-by-step guide about what not to do. And regarding how we can make a good impression, that's a more of a balancing act, and we need to go a little deeper. But it's not as simple as just bragging. It's not as simple as just not sharing any bragging attempt. Some of us may think, ”Oh, if I just don't say anything good about myself and try to be humble, it will all be solved.” But no, that's also not the best strategy. So, I can give you a guide about what not to do [laughs], if it makes sense.
SPENCER: Great. Well, definitely dig into that. The reason I mentioned bragging is I know you've done specific research on that topic. It's an interesting phenomena because clearly some people brag because they want attention and they want people to like them. And yet, we also often find bragging annoying, like it rubs people the wrong way. We find it obnoxious. And maybe people would even say it's unvirtuous, right? That there's something sort of immoral about it in some cases. So going back to what you were saying a moment ago, what is it that people think works? What are people's naive models of how to make an impression?
ÖVÜL: Well, consider someone who has an accomplishment. So let's say we receive a good grade on an exam, we get a great new job, we get into a great dream school or something like that. We all have this inherent desire to signal our competence to others. And that makes a lot of sense. We have a strong desire to leave a favorable impression on others, particularly of our competence and great quality, so we would like to share that. We all know that having success feels great, and we want to share it. Yet at the same time, we know that it can put people in a very precarious situation because we want to be perceived as both competent and also warm. Because these are the two dimensions in ‘people's perception' in ‘person perception' and ‘social perception.' These are the two dimensions that we care about. When we meet someone, we care about whether they can do a good job, whether they're intelligent, whether they're capable individuals or competent individuals. That's the dimension of competence. The other is warmth. Do we actually want to hang out with these people? Do you want to invite them to our happy hour? Do we trust them? Do we think they are nice? And what we know is that these two dimensions require distinct communication strategies. And people notice. One of the risks of bragging is that if I brag too much, if I self-promote too much, then I may not be perceived as likable because people may think I'm an arrogant person. So, that's the correct model that people have. So in a way, yes, we know modesty is a universal value, and we care about that. But then there's the other risk. If the success has not been communicated, then others may remain unaware of our accomplishments. And in our world where there is a competition for everything — everyone is trying to share their expertise, everyone is competing for our attention; even a YouTube video that's longer than (I don't know) five minutes or 10 minutes we're not sure if it's going to be watched — so in this world, we also want to make sure we let others know about our accomplishments and competence. But we also know that it's risky. Then, people's intuitions start to fail when people try to get the best of both worlds, like, “Oh, I'm going to brag, but I'm gonna also try to be warm about it. I'm going to put a mask on it.” And people have all these sophisticated strategies. One of the things that I studied was called, for instance, ‘humblebragging,' which I still find fascinating because I see it every day (It's like a curse.) That's, for instance, a wrong model, one of the examples of wrong models that we have identified in our research so far. Humblebragging, this bragging masked by complaint or humility, where people actually think it's going to get them the best of both worlds — “I'm going to brag, but I'm gonna also remain humble and be warm.” — but that's actually not how it looks to perceivers and observers. People actually feel quite annoyed [laughs] by humblebraggers. And I can give examples of humblebragging behavior, too.
SPENCER: Yeah, so humblebragging is such an interesting concept. Because with social media, we see this all the time, where people want to brag about something but they know they're not really supposed to. So, they're trying to find some way to brag about it that comes across as not bragging. So could you give us some kind of realistic examples of people doing this?
ÖVÜL: Sure, of course. Every day is an example of humblebragging — I don't know if it's going to happen to you, too, Spencer — but the moment I started even being interested in this project and this phenomenon, I started seeing humblebrags everywhere. Not just not just social media, everywhere. Some examples that I remember from our social media Twitter studies were, people say stuff like, “Oh, why do people hit on me when I'm in my sweatpants?” [laughs] Or, I guess in academia it happens a lot: I'm so exhausted from all the interview requests I get after publishing this paper.
SPENCER: Oh, man, that's so funny. So is the idea that you're trying to sort of signal something slightly negative but embedded in a brag so that it doesn't come across as a brag? How would you like to break down what exactly humblebrag is?
ÖVÜL: Sure. So we define it as bragging masked by complaint or false humility because it comes in two forms. One is exactly like you said, people say something negative but it's embedded in a brag. Like, it's a complaint-based humblebrag. So things like, “Oh, I'm so exhausted from signing these autographs.” [laughs] (I guess a celebrity may say that.) The other is more like false humility. It's more about the lack of belief in any of the success that you get. “Oh, I cannot believe I won this teaching award again.” “So surprising, I will be at the BBC or CNN for an interview today.” Something like that. It comes in two forms, and yet, people actually really do think that it would both impress the other side and would elicit some sympathy. So it would speak to both warmth and competence that they care about. So it's going to tell the other side, “Okay, you're successful,” but it's going to also tell the other side, “You're a warm, humble person.” That's what a humblebragger thinks. But that's a wrong model.
SPENCER: So what actually typically happens when someone humblebrags?
ÖVÜL: So when someone humblebrags, if we focus only on the impressions that they make, instead of getting the best of both worlds or instead of achieving this sweet spot of self promotion, they actually fail on both. So perceivers or target recipients of this behavior (the other people whom they're talking to) do not like them, and they think they're actually not as competent. So just straightforward bragging is a much better strategy.
SPENCER: Because of straightforward bragging, it may ding you on warmth or likeability, but at least people will view you as more competent. Is that correct?
ÖVÜL: That's right. And even in the likeability domain or likability dimension, humblebraggers are liked less than straightforward braggers. And the reason is because humblebragging seems so fake. It seems so insincere.
SPENCER: Right. At least the bragger is not pretending to be doing something else [laughs]. There is no extra level of deception on top.
ÖVÜL: Exactly, exactly. And I think we know those people. Like, sometimes somebody may brag or can be a little too confident, and we can say, “Oh, at least they own it.” You own your self-promotion. You are you, and there's something refreshing about that. Whereas with humblebrag, it's just so fake and so insincere [laughs].
SPENCER: Well, let me ask you a question about that. Because there are some actions that are so objectively impressive, that it feels like even with a humblebrag, people have got to think that that person is more competent. Like, “Oh, I can't believe they gave me the Grammy. What is the schmuck like me doing with a Grammy?” You know what I mean? It's like, “Well, okay, come on that's impressive,” right?
ÖVÜL: [Laughs] Yeah, you're right. The fact that even if it's a legitimate success in the eyes of everybody that definitely gives some credibility to the person who's self promoting, but the key there is we had this study where we had, let's say, high-status people who are already successful and whose success and accomplishments are visible. They engage in humblebragging versus somebody, who's not that legitimate in the eyes of others, engage in humblebragging. You're right, that gives the person a little bit more credibility. But still humblebragging is not better than just bragging. So, instead of saying, “Oh, I can't believe I won a Grammy.” Instead of saying that, if the same person said, “I'm so happy I won a Grammy.” What we found is that the latter would be better. Because, again, straightforward bragging just seems more sincere, more real, more genuine. But you're right, that the legitimacy of the success gives some credibility compared to if it's not even a real success, or if you don't know.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's funny. I remember when I used to see all these people posting about being 30 Under 30, or 20 Under 20, or whatever. So I checked in, it looks like about 1000 people a year get the 30 Under 30 recognition, because there's all these different categories you can get it in, and there's actually multiple countries and you can get it in. That was that, “Oh, it's just 30 people get it.” And then you're like, ”Ah, okay, I guess it is an accomplishment.” But, it's not even the level of accomplishment that I think most people think it is, and then starts to question how much actual steam people are gaining from it?
ÖVÜL: Yeah, absolutely. It's just that anytime those awards are announced, the award season in every career, is fascinating to see how people announce it. You can imagine that I have data constantly with social media.
SPENCER: So let me tell you about how I tend to talk about accomplishments, because I'm pretty aversive to bragging. I try to avoid doing it, but I also tend to not like it when other people do it. And so I kind of have two strategies — because on the one hand, you could just never mention your accomplishments, but that's clearly going to come at a cost. Like, sometimes you need to prove your credibility to someone or you have to show that you're competent in some way. And so, you want to actually be able to mention an accomplishment, but you don't want to brag necessarily. — One, is I will mention it but in a very factual way that doesn't come across as me being impressed by it, if that makes sense. For example, I'll say, “Okay, well, would it be helpful to tell you a bit about my history?” And then they say “Yes,” And I say, “Okay, well, here's my history.” And I'll just very factually state it (kind of one thing I did, and then another and another). So before I go to the second one, I want to hear your reaction to that.
ÖVÜL: So I find it fascinating that you describe it as factual. And do you mean it doesn't have any emotional components?
SPENCER: Exactly, exactly. So for example, I did my PhD in math. And there's a way of talking about that that I think comes across as seeming like you're impressed with yourself. And then there's a way of talking about that where you just feel like you're just listing a series of events in your life kind of neutrally, like, “Okay, so I did this, and then I did my PhD in math. And after that, I did this thing.” And I'm just trying to not give off the vibe that I am impressed by myself, basically.
ÖVÜL: I like the intuition that you have. And also, I'm very curious, and it will be very interesting to find out whether the perceivers would also view it as ‘you're only listing facts', which is clearly, the way that you said, it's clearly listing facts. One of the very interesting things that I find in all of the behaviors that I studied — humblebrag is only one of them — is how the speaker's intent and the recipient's interpretation of that intent can be very different from each other. So, at least one of the nice things about the way you said your strategy was that I could hear it verbally. So, I could definitely see that you're not impressed with yourself. But imagine you were posting this as a social media post, or you were writing this. Would people still feel the same way or not? One of the very interesting findings that we had is that even if people only share some good news — like some positives, if they say some positive thing about themselves — observers, perceivers, and recipients still think there's some bragging there, which is fascinating. Why, why everything has to be a brag? It doesn't have to be. But there's definitely that gap. So I don't know how you feel about that. So, we need to test your strategy [laughs].
SPENCER: It's a great point, because I could be misperceiving and maybe it comes across as being impressed with myself. I think that's what I'm aiming for. I think another thing that can help is mixing together different facts, some of which are impressive, and some of which are more just like standard facts. And if you tell them in the same way, with the same vocal intonation and emotion, then maybe you're not kind of highlighting the things that you think you're gonna impress the person.
ÖVÜL: Yeah, absolutely. Mixing it could be a good strategy because there is actually research that when the recipient is cognitively busy (as they say in the paper), it just means if you're a little distracted, if a lot of things are going on. Let's say there's so many facts you need to process, then the bragging attempt doesn't seem like a bragging attempt. So in that sense, your intuition is definitely on point. I also want to say one more thing about making it factual and not including anything that says you are impressed with yourself. There is actually fascinating research on the emotion of pride. Because apparently, we have two types of pride; one is ‘authentic pride' and the other is ‘hubristic pride'. Authentic pride is about, “I work so hard to get here. I'm genuinely so proud of myself for getting to this place.” Hubristic pride is all about superiority, “I'm great. I'm so intelligent. That's how I got here.” And in a very interesting way, observers actually can distinguish between which one of these emotions are displayed. So you're right that signaling we are not very impressed with ourselves is a good strategy.
SPENCER: Well, one thing that helps me as I'm actually not impressed [laughs] so I don't have to pretend.
ÖVÜL: You're being very modest, though.
SPENCER: No, no, and I'm genuinely not because I set my ambition so high that everything I've achieved in my life feels like a tiny rounding error. So I'm [laughs] genuinely not impressed with my accomplishments. To that point about authentic pride. Can you unpack what authentic pride actually is? What are you proud of in that case?
ÖVÜL: So authentic pride, again, you're not crediting your superiority for your success. It's more like a lack of belief in your superiority compared to others. It's more about the work that you put in, the effort that you put in. And in our studies, we find this effect as well. People actually respond positively to these things. Imagine if one of us said something like, “I got this grant, I published this paper, I have this new amazing podcast, and I worked so hard for this.” I can imagine a lot of people would respond positively to that because we want people who work hard to be successful. We don't have any problems with that. So that's why authentic pride is so powerful, so relatable. It's like, “Yes, they're cheering for you, too. Yay, hard work.”
SPENCER: Yeah, I like that. I like that approach. It's an interesting way of reframing it in terms of the effort you put in rather than something special about yourself. So I want to run my other strategy by you to see what you think of that. Let's say I have some accomplishment that I want to tell people about — like I want to post on social media because I think people want to hear about it, and I think there might be some benefits of people knowing about it, etc. — the strategy that I've hit on here is just expressing my genuine enthusiasm and excitement about it, not giving any other sort of glossing over it, if that makes sense. So saying something like, “I'm really excited that I just published this piece in Scientific America.” I could have said, “I can't believe they published a slob like me in Scientific America.” That would be humblebragging, right? Or I could have said, “They finally published me in Scientific America.” (I don't know, whatever braggers say) My approach is just, “I'm super excited. I did this thing that's making me happy and excited that I've done.” So, I'm curious to hear your reaction to that.
ÖVÜL: Yeah, that actually, I know the answer to that very well, because we tested it. And yes, that's a great strategy. [laughs]
SPENCER: I'm glad to hear that [laughs].
ÖVÜL: Totally, because like you said, that genuine positive emotion that you feel — it can be excitement, it can be joy, it can be happiness, it can be gratitude — those things really resonate with the recipients. When the brag is embedded in a positive emotion, people definitely respond more favorably than if it didn't include any emotion or compared to humblebrags, as you said. And again, gratitude is also amazing. There is only one killer and I'm going to say that, but I want to hear your thoughts about this first. Do you usually share with excitement? Is that what you do?
SPENCER: When I do publicly, I think that's what I tend towards...just trying to express excitement about the thing that happened. When I'm doing it privately, I tend to do the other method that I mentioned of trying to just embed it in like a history or this kind of thing.
ÖVÜL: That's definitely the way to go. If we need to brag using positive emotions and also gratitude, I want to highlight gratitude even a little more. If we thank our teammates, or our friends or our family who helped us to achieve this success, that also leads to a very favorable impression. The only warning I would like to give to our listeners (whenever we need to announce something), is the words ‘blessed' and ‘humbled' — because I think they're overly used on social media — they don't come across as genuine. So even though they may also be expressions of emotions, they sort of rub people the wrong way. So we should stay away from ‘being humbled' [laughs] and ‘being blessed' on social media.
SPENCER: Yeah, [laughs] even just something about that “I'm so blessed and humbled,” it just sounds like an Oscar speech. That's totally phony, right?
ÖVÜL: Right. there's something like, “you're so fascinated with yourself” or something. There's that signal that it gives.
SPENCER: Can I give you some examples from the internet of people (mainly celebrities) that are bragging, and I want to get your analysis and breakdown of them?
ÖVÜL: Sure, let's do it.
SPENCER: Okay so here's one, “It always feels a little odd to me when I get recognized randomly in public. I never know what to say. I'm glad it doesn't happen often.”
ÖVÜL: So first of all, I would like to say this is the first time I'm doing a very direct analysis of celebrity remarks, and it's so fascinating [laughs]. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.
SPENCER: Well, if the whole academic thing doesn't work out, this is a new line of work for you. [laughs]
ÖVÜL: So fun. Well, I must say I don't know who this person was. But there are certain things that I can identify based on our research and great research by others on how there are some wrong strategies there. First of all, finding ‘being recognized' as odd is a perfect example of humble brag. It's “Oh, it's so odd. How come this is happening?” And there's that feeling of generating some insincerity there. Because if this person is really famous, they should already get used to this. If they're not really famous, then maybe they're not that recognized [laughs] often. So it doesn't seem super real there. I think at some point, they also say, “I hope it doesn't happen often.” Something like that?
SPENCER: “...I never know what to say. I'm glad it doesn't happen often...”
ÖVÜL: Oh, yeah. “I'm glad it doesn't happen often.” There's a complaint there. The fact that it happens is an inconvenient or an annoying event for this person. So, there's the complaint there. There is definitely this air of arrogance there. I don't know if you would agree with me. And that's all because of that humblebragging there.
SPENCER: Okay, here's a hilarious one for you. “I'd be the worst at prices right. Brought $20,000 to buy a monitor and It was $350.” And then they reference someone else and say this person can vouch for how clueless I am with prices.
ÖVÜL: This person is bragging about their money and wealth, is that?
SPENCER: Yes. They're so wealthy [laughs] that they bring $20,000. Also, who brings money to buy a monitor? Don't you have a credit card? Do you bring suitcases of cash? [laughing]
ÖVÜL: It's a very, very, very, very wrong attempt to signal anything. It's also funny, though — I remember when we collected all these humblebrags both from publicly available social media posts, or we also ran lots of surveys with different segments from the society, and we asked them, “Do you recall any humblebrag (let's say) from your workplace?” They were actually a lot of ones that are about wealth or money. I remember one of the examples that one of our participants gave was somebody said, “Oh, my house is so big that WiFi doesn't reach,” something like that.
SPENCER: [laughs] How annoying.
ÖVÜL: It's really so annoying. And the other thing is the person, let's say, who posts this, who says this, what did they gain? I always think about that. Why did they need to say this? It's a very unsolicited humblebrag about, “I'm so rich, I don't even know the price.” It's fascinating.
SPENCER: Right. Because at least if some big event happens in your life, like if someone wins an award or publishes an article, at least there's like, “Oh, okay, it makes sense that they're talking about this now,” as opposed to just being wealthy. What made you think that this was a good time to comment on your wealth?
ÖVÜL: Yeah, right. And with that, I only think about the motivations behind these behaviors, like why do we even engage in these behaviors. And of course, again, the focus of my research stream is impression mismanagement (I call it) because I focus on the mistakes. But I also would like to say an impression is never just about just the impression. It's about many things. I can see, for instance, one reason why we say these things, why we engage in these strategies is definitely about our emotional regulation. So there is this wonderful paper by a wonderful scholar Scopelliti and her co-authors who focused on, when people brag, there's actually a very miscalibrated reaction going on because people actually feel good when they brag about themselves. But the other side doesn't feel good. The recipient feels negative. So there is this positive emotion and negative emotion gap. But these examples just tell me even if there is no impression management benefit, people may engage in these strategies because they just feel good. It feels great to say something great about yourself.
SPENCER: And usually people don't criticize you, right? Like, if you brag in front of someone, it's unlikely that they're in the moment going to chastise you or something. So you feel good and that creates a reward loop. You feel like you've accomplished something. If you post on social media, probably some of your friends will be like, “Congratulations,” or whatever. And the people think you're a jerk. They probably are not gonna say anything. Maybe one or two of them. Well, but usually people don't post that kind of thing.
ÖVÜL: Exactly. There's this incredible lack of social feedback. It's a perpetuating loop. It's so hard to call people out on their humblebrags or interesting arrogant statements. We can never do that. Even the eye roll would happen after the moment has passed.
SPENCER: I sometimes think about what social media would be like if there was a dislike button as well as the like button and how incredibly different it would be because people would be much more attuned to, “Am I going to get a negative reaction to the thing I'm posting,” Whereas today, okay, sometimes you get crickets, nobody responds, and that's sort of negative feedback. But you can be like, “Well, maybe nobody saw it,” or whatever. But if you had two thirds of people disliking the thing you posted, that would be real reinforcement of, “Don't do this behavior.”
ÖVÜL: Yeah.It's fascinating. Maybe that would be the intervention to make social media a little less braggy. I totally agree, yeah.
SPENCER: And anonymous dislike button, right? It can't be linked to the person who did it. Otherwise, you probably wouldn't engage in it very much. Or maybe you only get one dislike every week, so you have to use them sparingly [laughing] if you really dislike something. Okay, I want to share one more brag, and I think this one's hilarious. I want to get your analysis of it. “I just did something very selfless. But more importantly, it was genuine. And I know it means a lot to the person in the long run.” And then they use ‘#SoWorthIt'.
ÖVÜL: [Laughs] I'm sorry, this is just a fascinating masterpiece...because there's so many...
SPENCER: I don't know if it's just a performance or just a humblebrag. [laughs]
ÖVÜL: What I like about these examples is that they reflect our common misguided intuitions, but we can also see the internal conflict in the person. There's this paradox, “I should say it's worth it, maybe not. But it feels genuine.” Like, even in those very calculated, very polished posts that they share, I can almost hear the internal dilemma this person is feeling regarding should they say it or not?
SPENCER: Yeah, she's like, “Which hashtag should I put on this? Okay, #SoWorthIt. That's the right one.”
ÖVÜL: It's actually called the ‘soft promotion paradox' in the literature, because it is such a paradox. “Should I do it or should I not do it? But if I do it...” And also another thing I like to say about this is I guess they've done some maybe poor social behavior or something like that.
SPENCER: Right. They said, “I just did something very selfless. But more importantly, it was genuine.”
ÖVÜL: Yeah. Bragging about ourselves is one thing. The other category of bragging could be bragging about good deeds to others or prosocial behavior. That's even more interesting. There is actually research on this, and the research says that if we don't know what the good deed is, bragging does not help. So this person not only showed this dilemma and paradox that they're going through, but we don't even know what the good deed is. Because there's a way to interpret this as a pure motive for doing good deeds. But the moment you talk about them, then the pure motive is questionable. Did you do this good thing because you want to brag about it or not? So the paradox also becomes even stronger when we talk about our virtues.
SPENCER: Yeah, not to mention the fact that they signal that they're not aware of the research literature on humblebragging.
ÖVÜL: Yeah, it seems like they're not.
SPENCER: So we've talked about the problems with humblebragging. You say maybe bragging actually works better than humblebragging. But a lot of people don't like bragging. And that can leave a bad impression as well, and it can make people think we're less likable and less warm. So another strategy is we just hide our successes. So is that what we should do?
ÖVÜL: I would say no to that as well [laughs] — I know I'm giving a lot of nos today in terms of which strategies work. — It is because when somebody hides their success, that also may rub people the wrong way because of other reasons, not because of insincerity this time. I'm sure we all had that friend, or maybe we were that friend who gets a good grade on an exam. But then our friend maybe doesn't have the same grades (they have lower points or something like that) and do we actually share our success with them or not? When we asked about this — and we ran these studies in parks, in actual people on the street — a lot of people said “No, no. There have been times where I have hidden my success because I don't want to make the other side feel envious.” Let's say, if you're making more than your sibling, or if you're getting pregnant, even your friends are having problems with that, would you share it or not? And a lot of people have this intuition of “No, no, I just want to hide it. I just don't want to make anybody upset or envious or jealous.” And we looked at this phenomenon of hiding success and we found that there are so many relationship consequences of this behavior. People actually think, “Oh, you think I'm going to be jealous? You think I'm going to be envious? That's so offensive!” So people don't feel close to you anymore if you hide success. So not seeing anything and hiding good things also comes with great relationship costs.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's related. I've seen cases where people were upset because they're like, “This important thing happened to you, and you didn't tell me about it? I wanted to congratulate you and celebrate with you.” And so it can make friends feel left out.
ÖVÜL: Right. “How come you don't share this with me? How come you think I'm not going to be on your team to celebrate with you?” And also, there's something super offensive about this feeling of, “Oh, they thought I would be jealous because of their success. They thought I wouldn't join them in their happiness and celebration.” There's something so offensive about it. “How dare you control or try to manage and regulate my emotions?” That's so offensive and condescending to people.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's a good point. I would also just add that there's nothing wrong with people thinking you're competent because you did something cool that shows competence. Why not share that with people, as long as you can do it in a way that doesn't rub them the wrong way and doesn't leave a negative impression? Okay, so we've talked about a lot of things that you shouldn't do [laughs]. Supposed someone wants to show their competence while leaving a good impression and not being less likable or coming across as less warm, what are some pointers or steps they can take?
ÖVÜL: One of the strategies that we highlighted was, again, saying it with positive emotions and excitement and joy and happiness. These are helpful emotions to include. The other thing that, I think, is the most powerful bragging strategy that has existed since the beginning of time is really having someone else do it for you, that intermediary wingman of bragging.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's such a good point. And I think startup founders can do this very successfully, where two founders who are going to a room pitching investors or whatever, and then each one of them talks about how awesome the other one of them is. But in a way that's ideally very genuine. Like, why do they think that person is awesome and what amazing things that person did. And it just sounds supportive and not bragging because it's towards another person, right?
ÖVÜL: Yeah, exactly. That's definitely a very, very powerful strategy. Because again, when someone does it for you, then you don't seem like you have this ulterior motive. You don't seem very strategic at all, and they still remember the good information about you. In our very recent work, we look at introductions—how people introduce themselves to others. I think it's very important for, as you said, maybe startups entrepreneurs, or any of us who's in networking events. And people who can actually give information, even in limited time about the process of their journey, rather than just the outcome — what I mean by that is, rather than just seeing the success, if you can say something about your story, your process of how you got there — that's definitely memorable and much more effective than just listing the bragging attempt.
SPENCER: Right. So in that case, it would be like, you start by telling the story of how you started working towards this thing, “10 years ago...” and all the different steps you took to get there. And then you end with like, “Now I achieved my big goal.” Is that that kind of idea of how to embed it?
ÖVÜL: I think for some of us, the process is even invisible. To us, it is visible, of course, because we know that information. But to others, it's not. One example could be for instance, this is my 16th year in the United States. I've been living in the United States for 16 years. Now I teach. I love school, I'm in academia. I'm operating in my second language. And this is something that nobody even — I mean, they recognize, of course, because of my problem with accent, you definitely hear my accent — but still, it's not something that occurs to people that I started learning English, literally at the age of 15 (which is not so early.) And it's fascinating that when I say that and share that, even my very close friends will say, “Oh, I did not know that you started that late to learn this language.” Even something like that, it can seem mundane, it can seem very regular to us — just like that some information about the process — can make the story more memorable. It can also show the effort that you put in. And it's definitely better at making a more favorable impression than just listing where you are right now or what you are doing right now. Something for networking strategy, for sure.
SPENCER: So what's a really big accomplishment you've had in the last few years?
ÖVÜL: Oh, for me?
ÖVÜL: Oh, wow.
SPENCER: To brag about it, and see and see how you do it? I'm gonna put you on the spot. [laughs]
ÖVÜL: If I start like, “I'm glad you asked.” [laughs] I don't know and I actually didn't think about the biggest accomplishment in two years. It's such a fascinating question, I have to think about this. I would say the thing that I'm very proud of is I feel very grateful that I get to do what I love with the people I love. Because there's really amazing teamwork. I'm not just saying this just because...
SPENCER: That's like the worst brag you just... [laughs]
ÖVÜL: It's really true, though. Because all of the scholarly work (you know this, too) is there's just so much work going into it from the idea development to actual execution of studies, and then writing and publishing and sharing it. It's just crazy level of coordination, cooperation, and collaboration. So I am really proud of that.
SPENCER: Okay, so we know you're a really nice and humble person. We know that that's true. But suppose that you just had a great accomplishment. Let's say you publish on the top journal in your field — like the journal everyone wants to publish in, and it's almost impossible to get published — and you want to communicate this to people because you want them to know that you have this accomplishment, and it makes you look good and shows you're competent, and it's important for your career, and etc. Can you give us an example of how you would talk about this? And maybe in a couple of contexts. Maybe one is you're talking to coworkers and maybe another is you're posting online or something.
ÖVÜL: If it's like a broader audience, like online and there's a general public, I definitely think that I should say something about the content of the paper as well—why this is relevant and important or interesting, which is something that I see a lot, which I really appreciate. I really love it when authors share their papers and work and explain it with a couple sentences. That's one thing.
SPENCER: So would you just sort of very neutrally say, “I just published this paper and such a journal on this topic and here's some interesting things we found.”
ÖVÜL: I would definitely start with the actual excitement or maybe you feel joy, maybe you're thrilled (I don't know) whatever you're feeling. You may feel proud too; that's perfectly fine, too. “I'm so proud of this paper that finally came up.” I would definitely combine it with a positive emotion. Number one, I think because it's genuine. I definitely do feel very good positive emotions when that happens. Number two, I think it makes it relatable. Usually something that I do — and I think it's because of our process paper that we're working on — I would like to give some background context about how much work it took, how many people are involved, and what kind of life stages has the paper seen. Sometimes papers see the birth of children or graduations or starting a new job, because it takes so long to publish your paper. So I would do that not just from my perspective, but from the team's perspective. And I would also publicly recognize, even if I'm just talking to a colleague on a hallway rather than just social media, I would also publicly recognize co-authors and collaborators. And I think if you can make it like a conversation, make people engage in a conversation on what's this paper about, whom did you work with, what's the next step; I think that's exactly the effective brag. The information is there, you give the information, and you're engaging with them.
SPENCER: Well, you touched on another strategy which we hadn't talked about, which is giving credit to other people. Like saying, “I couldn't have done this without my team,” or “I want to thank so and so.”
ÖVÜL: Yes, exactly. That's also a very, very important strategy for lots of things. Number one, of course, as an impression management strategy, it's very effective If you recognize your teammates. I think number two, it's important for the team as well. Again, it's very rare to have very individualistic success. In science, I can definitely say that. But in art, in other domains, in startups (as we said, like one of the other things we talked about so far), everything requires some sort of a team effort. So, it's great to recognize the people who contributed so that they also would like to collaborate with you again. We don't also want to annoy them. It can be hard at the moment, but sharing credit is an incredibly effective social lubricant that we all need. So, we want that as well.
SPENCER: So one topic I think is quite interesting is this idea of counter-signaling, where basically, people might expect you to signal something — like for example, they might think, “Oh, a wealthy person is going to wear expensive clothes or something like this,” and then the counter-signal is you essentially violate the expectation in a way that can actually indicate even more of that positive attribute because it shows a sort of indifference towards the signaling. An example would be, if a person everyone knows to be really wealthy shows up in sweatpants looking totally disheveled, people are like, “Oh, that person is so high status that they don't even care about coming across as being well put together.” So, it's sort of this polarizing thing where a super low status person might come to a meeting really disheveled, but also a super high status person who is just not going to be affected by the fact that they look bad.
ÖVÜL: I like how you said it's counter-signaling; so true. Because, it's almost like, in some cases, we infer status and competence from nonconformity — not always, not every time, but sometimes — and there is actually a fascinating paper on this exact phenomenon. They call it the ‘red sneaker effect'. Because, imagine there is this event that everyone goes with like suits or with more business casual outfits or something. And this very well known, rich, highly intelligent, high status person, shows up with the red sneakers or turtlenecks (we have seen that with Steve Jobs, we see a lot of heads of the companies show up not so dressed up). What they've shown is that it can actually signal power and status, as long as it's viewed as intentional, though. If it's an unintentional violation of normative code, it leads to social disapproval. But if we think that they're actually doing this counter-signaling on purpose, then it definitely looks better. It looks like higher status, higher power, higher competence. It's a fascinating phenomenon.
SPENCER: Because it's basically like they don't need the status. So they're purposely not bothering to collect it, and that shows just how high status they are. Is that the idea?
ÖVÜL: Yes, exactly. It really depends on where they are in the hierarchy. Because when they do it, we know that, “Oh, they don't even need to care about this anymore.” That's why they can do it. So it even seems cooler than if they follow the norms, right? Just so fascinating to me. I'm not at the point to counter-signal anything in my life yet. [laughs] I always show up with a jacket, then. But it is a fascinating phenomenon.
SPENCER: I remember when I was young, and I was doing my first ever meetings with investors, I just was clueless [laughs] and were close that were not necessarily appropriate for the meeting, and they were baffled by it. But I think they were not sure whether it was counter-signaling or me just being naive. [laughs]
ÖVÜL: Exactly. But I guess, this also shows how these impressions — the status, power, respect, all of these — are in the eyes of the beholder. Like, even in professional settings, dressing unconventionally can be perceived as having higher status and possessing more competence. So interesting to me, still.
SPENCER: It reminds me of cases where animals will do things that seem counterintuitive to their survival. For example, a deer that when there's a predator nearby will leap up into the air and become really visible. And you might think, “Well, that's crazy, because now the deer is drawing attention to itself,” right? But it's actually sort of signaling to the predator, “I am so strong, I don't give a shit if you see me. And look how high I can leap.” It's sort of a paradoxical strategy that the predator is like, “Oh, maybe I should go after different deer, because this one looks like it's going to be tough to get.”
ÖVÜL: Yeah, yeah. This is such a great point, and it just reminded me of this other new paper that came out very recently. It is about the use of jargon in the workplace — you are doing this fantastic podcast, I'm sure you have so many experts. And probably, you have seen firsthand how some people use more jargon than others. — And what they find in this paper is that the use of jargon is also related to status signaling. People who use jargon want to look more competent and signal their expertise more, but it backfires again. [laughs] (another backfiring strategy) I know you asked me about what works, and I keep listing the things that don't work. [laughs]
SPENCER: It's a useful advice, though. If you've read these things, you can do a better job. But so you're saying, and I feel like this comes up a lot, like when someone's asked to write an essay or something like this, and they'll start using all these words that they would never use in normal life that make it seem kind of sophisticated. One fun example, I think, is the word ‘utilize' because almost always, when you say that word ‘utilize', you could just use the word ‘use'. And yet it's sort of like a more sophisticated sounding version. And I started having a negative association with it. I probably use it sometimes. I probably utilize it sometimes without realizing it, but I started to get a negative association with it, because I started thinking it's just sort of a way of sounding sophisticated but you're actually just saying us anyway.
ÖVÜL: Yeah, it's like the use of complex language doesn't help. It actually makes it harder to digest.
SPENCER: Before we wrap up, I want to switch to a broader topic, which is just beyond bragging and humblebragging and all this stuff. What can we do to get people to respect us more?
ÖVÜL: Such a great question, because I think we even have misperceptions about what works or how we should do it. The way that I think about impression mismanagement is that almost the opposite end of it, to me, is kindness. And I find it fascinating how people think that it can be taken as a weakness. And I don't know why there's this belief out there. I kind of want to get into maybe even cynicism literature; the fact that this belief, “everything comes down to self-interest”. And what we find is that these shortcuts (like a lot of things that I talked about) — you try to mask your bragging with a complaint and make it humble, or you use jargon, or you try to hide success — a lot of these things are like shortcuts. But what makes us respect worthy is a very long-term game. That's why, I think kindness is the way to go. It's a consistent act of giving credit, consistent acts of being a little more patient in terms of signaling our humility and the respect worthiness. I know, this sounds too abstract. I couldn't give any one strategy yet. But that's exactly the point; there is no one workable strategy to get people's respect,
SPENCER: Is the idea that by consistently showing virtues, that's really the best way to earn respect over time, rather than kind of running strategies to try to get people to respect you.
ÖVÜL: Yeah. These shortcuts don't really work. We have to be consistent. We don't need to talk about our virtues all the time, either. But again, we're having a kind request. If you have people who are working with you who are looking up to you saying, “Thank you,” it goes a long way. There's research on that. Just saying ‘thank you' can motivate people way more than giving the same task but not ending with a ‘thank you'. Or, recognizing other people. Having these recognition rituals almost, or giving them credit verbally when you announce and not taking the stage. Doing these things consistently will definitely make someone more respect worthy. That's why it's like a more long-term strategy, and these other shortcuts wouldn't work. And the other reason why it's not a verbal thing, it shouldn't be a shortcut. It is ironic. If I want to signal I'm so respectable but also humble, the moment I say, “I'm humble,” I'm not humble, right? I can't say, “I'm the most humble person ever.” [laughs] It just doesn't make any sense. So it shouldn't be just this verbal, one thing. Somehow, celebration, recognition rituals for you and for your teammates, having this as a long-term game, recognizing others, thanking others, these are the things that we should do. And that's why kindness should not be taken as a weakness, because it's not. It should rather be like this long-term strategy, both to signal how respect-worthy you are, but also to cultivate a great culture. We don't want to be in a place where people just brag arrogantly or where people hide their successes and accomplishments all the time, because they don't feel safe to share. We want to cultivate a safe environment.
SPENCER: One of the things I take away from what you're saying is that if you want people to view you as X, one of the most effective ways to do that is just focus on being X. And if you just focus on being X, people will — maybe they're not gonna get the moment they meet you, but over time — people will realize that's the sort of person you are. And that's also the authentic way to signal something is just to really embody it.
ÖVÜL: Exactly. I love it. You said it's so well. It's really about being that, rather than telling people, “Hey, I am that.” It's just being that and eventually people would recognize.If it's, again, persistent and continuing, of course, people would recognize.
SPENCER: It's like that famous rule in writing, “Show, don't tell.” Don't tell the reader that this happened and that happened. Paint the picture, give them the scene, just actually show them what happened. Just be that person rather than telling them that you're that person.
ÖVÜL: Exactly. Exactly. Just show, don't tell. I love that strategy. Maybe that's probably the best impression management advice out there.
SPENCER: Going back to the two axis system you mentioned before of competence or (as others would refer to as) power versus warmth, which is also related to likability. So, it's competence versus warmth. We can think about these as quadrants. If we think of a two-axis system, you've got the competent and warm, incompetent and warm, competent and cold, and incompetent and cold. And when people are trying to do impression management, sometimes they're just doing it sloppily. Like, they're doing humblebragging and they're actually moving backwards in both quadrants. They're coming across as less competent and less warm. So that's just totally counterproductive. Sometimes, people are doing it somewhat more competently, but they're just trading one thing off for another. So, maybe they're bragging and then it's making them come across as more competent but they're coming across as less warm or less likable. So they're getting an advantage in one way, but then they're getting a disadvantage the second way, and there's just a trade-off there. But then the question is, how do you actually move in both warmth and competence simultaneously, and not sort of what we're talking about here which is, if you show the trait genuinely and you embody it, then they're gonna think you're competent and they're gonna like you simultaneously. Does that seem like a way to encapsulate the different strategies?
ÖVÜL: Exactly. And like you said, people think humblebragging is going to get them the best of both worlds and get both warmth and competence and put us in the upper-right quadrant, if we describe it visually. But instead, it actually backfires and it's actually worse in both dimensions. And getting to both is really about your great strategy — the way you said it — show don't tell. For instance, humor could be a great strategy to signal both your intelligence and how likable you are. But you have to do it, you have to be funny. You cannot just say, “I'm so funny.” [laughs] It just doesn't work. I can't imagine someone in a stand up show saying, “Hey, I'm so funny, thanks so much for coming.” It would be the shortest stand up show ever. So, strategies that are in the ‘show, don't tell' category, if they are done successfully, would actually get us the best of both worlds.
SPENCER: I think it's interesting to think about narcissists with regard to these dimensions, because in my experience, really, extremely narcissistic people, they tend to brag a great deal. And what ends up happening is some segment of the population is sucked in by it and like, “Wow, they're so amazing.” How do I know? Because they tell me they're so amazing. So, they kind of believe them and get sucked in. Now, I do think that they take a hit in warmth, but it's like they still, sometimes, are able to thrive this way, because they have enough people...imagine that they tell 100 people that they're amazing and brag about their accomplishments, maybe 50 people will find them really annoying and are put off by it. But then, maybe 20 of those people are super impressed and are like, “Wow, this person is amazing. I want to be around them all the time.” So I'm curious if you have any thoughts on that, and how that kind of interacts with narcissism?
ÖVÜL: This is a great question. I haven't done any research that connects narcissism to these behaviors; it will be a fascinating area to explore. Because as you said, narcissists would love to have their grandiosity and they love bragging. They love the attention. And do they actually have any net gain out of this? Because like you said, some people may take it at face value. It's interesting. It could be that way, but it could also be like anytime they need to build something long term, maybe it's not also working for them, though. For a short span of attention, maybe getting likes or social media attention. maybe you're right that's because narcissism and these behaviors would probably be correlated — again, we haven't tested that yet. There may be some benefits that they are gaining, especially with the attention that they get, but because anything that's super meaningful in life requires a more long-term approach (as we said before, regarding this building of respect worthy reputation for yourself), probably at some point, they lose that fan base. [laughs] Or maybe I'm just an optimistic person in general, that I would like to think that nice people finish first rather than narcissists.
SPENCER: Well, it's an interesting question. I think nice people finish first, in some ways, and narcissists finish first in other ways. My experience with this is that if a narcissist is really incompetent, I think it's hard for them to play this off properly, because people are like, “This person's full of shit.” But if a narcissist is actually quite competent and has actual real accomplishments, in my experience, what ends up happening through extreme bragging, they end up creating a self-selected group. Yes, they put off a lot of people. But in the modern world, we don't live in a small tribe of 100 people, even if you piss off half the people you meet, actually, you could still end up with a lot of admirers. And then, you hang out with them. And then you kind of build a network around that. So, that's kind of what I've seen happen is that they will isolate a lot of people, but that doesn't sort of matter. Because in this world, there's just endless people to associate with.
ÖVÜL: Yeah. It also reminds me — I know this is slightly a different topic — but I think it's so related to this whole environment. Because, as you said, we don't live in a small community of 100 people anymore. That's so true. And I think if this happens, which is likely, (I agree with your intuition there. I don't have any data on this, but it may be true.) Maybe that's one of the reasons why bragging or self-promotion also becomes a norm. Why do we use social media for these things right now? This is a fascinating question to me. — I think this is so random, but literally a couple months ago, I went back to my Twitter accounts, which were one of the very old ones that I had. I looked at the first tweet I shared and I wrote something like, “I like to cook.” Now, it's a whole different thing. — And I wonder if we see that it's working for some people, that's why everyone engages in these behaviors. It's also connected to this idea of there's no social feedback, there's lack of negative feedback. And the fact that we see some people get away with it, makes it a norm. So we live in this world where there's almost a race of self-promotion right now. I find it fascinating. We live in a world where everyone is famous, but we don't know anybody. It's just crazy.
SPENCER: Yeah, it's really interesting how with social media, people have a sort of celebrity-like status, even if it's only to their 100 Twitter followers or whatever, right? It's not that they're worshiped, but it's that they're putting forward a face. They're putting forward a public image. Whereas, maybe that didn't exist so much before social media.
ÖVÜL: Yeah, it's fascinating. And some part of it will be maybe related to these narcissism phenomena. People who are narcissists may be getting away with this, and that sets examples for some people, for sure.
SPENCER: This idea of ‘showing rather than telling' that we were talking about before, it makes me think about another concept that's related, which is this idea of ‘unfakeable signals'. Let's say, you really want to prove that you're a certain way, and maybe it benefits you to prove that. There are certain things you can do that just absolutely, definitively prove it in a way that can't be faked. As an example, someone could post on social media all day about what a great artist they are or they could just paint a really beautiful painting and just post a picture of it on social media, like, “Hey, I just finished this painting.” There's a sense in which the second is so much more powerful, because anyone can say they're a great artist, but only great artists can actually paint a great painting. Within reason, maybe people can get lucky or whatever.
ÖVÜL: Yeah, it's just incredibly way more powerful, way more powerful for everything — like any work of art, scientific discovery, any activity that we like to do — that's way more powerful than trying to convince people how great we are. But I wonder if you recognize this too. For some reason, we see a lot of telling. We don't see much of the showing—sometimes, but not too much.
SPENCER: Yeah, I think it's interesting to consider how we can show more rather than tell. One example of this I found, as soon as people will ask me for my advice on something, and I want to make a good impression on this person (like, the relationship is important to me, maybe someone I just met, but I'm like, “Oh, I really want to get to know this person better.) And so, what I can do is instead of just giving advice (anyone can just say a bunch of words), I'll actually go do a thing for them. Let's say they're like, “Oh, I don't know where to find a list of such or such.” I'll just go track it down and be like, “Oh, here, I found this for you.” And I feel like that kind of thing is very powerful to just do a thing for a person in a way where they're like, “Oh, wow, this person clearly invested 20 minutes of their time to go get this thing for me. Even though it's a small sacrifice, they made a sacrifice.” And that's a certain ‘unfakeable' signal of caring about that relationship, because they made the sacrifice. You could talk endlessly about how much you care about someone, but if you don't actually make the sacrifice, how would they know?
ÖVÜL: Yeah, and also by engaging in the act and showing, we also show our sincerity and genuineness about it. I find it's incredibly important in any behavior that we study, the fact that whether it seems sincere and genuine or not, can really make or break the relationship or can really make or break the attempt. It's so important that in another dimension that we care about a lot in our interactions, which makes sense. Like, we really like real, genuine, sincere people. And showing off the acts, engaging in the things, also shows how we are invested and how we really care, how we genuinely care about the thing.
SPENCER: Övül, thank you so much for coming out. It's really fun.
ÖVÜL: Thank you so much, Spencer.
Click here to return to the list of all episodes.
Sign up to receive one helpful idea and one brand-new podcast episode each week!
Subscribe via RSS or through one of these platforms: