Hey look at me!
January 4, 2014 11:50 AM   Subscribe

I am fascinated and more then a little curious about self-promotion. Not the kind that you use to get hired or promote a new project or in a professional way, more of the spectacular kind of like the Xmas letter variety where everyone and all is so super great, but not just limited to that.

There are a couple of people we know (not connected in any way) who are the kind like “look at me everyone, I just bought a super expensive car” or “look I just bought a billion sq ft house - just in time for my quadruplets graduating from Yale”. I guess I find it contrary to what I was brought up with (or it could be my age pushing 50). I wonder where it comes from and does it really mean they are insecure or are they super over secure or are they just right? Since as I get older I don’t really care about that stuff so much but some people still do and I’m just curious why.
posted by lasamana to Human Relations (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It's called conspicuous consumption. Read Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class where he talks about the acquisition of "trophies" to demonstrate prowess, wealth, and success. These days, since mere material objects are no longer impressive things to own (anyone barely into the middle class can get a Rolex if they put enough on their credit card), they are displaying their success by showing off their custom made houses or talking about the social/academic accomplishments of their children.
posted by deanc at 12:16 PM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

does it really mean they are insecure or are they super over secure or are they just right

Could be any of the above. Perhaps they feel that sharing their joy with people will prompt people to share their own joy and generally make everybody happier about things. Or maybe they're bragging. There's a fine distinction between the infectious joy of "Holy cow, I got/did X!" and the put-down of "I got/did X," with a silent "and you didn't" added after. And, like almost anything humans do to each other, which one the same action will be perceived as is going to be totally dependent on the context and who's saying what to whom.

So it could be either, or anywhere in between. I'd definitely say that sending those kinds of news out in the current economic climate is tone deaf at best, though.

I dunno, I can see a bunch of different perspectives and possible motivations here, and I have a close friend who's fond of this sort of "wow I'm so awesome" news, but I just sort of roll my eyes inside and let him get on with it, because I don't think he means any harm or malicious intent, it's just how he is. So maybe this is just how these people are.

You say you care less about that sort of thing as you get older. Maybe they just haven't reached that point yet. Some people never reach that point, and I guess there's probably dozens of different reasons why: seeking approval, living up to expectations, crushing their enemies and hearing the lamentations of their women, etc. I'm not sure there's really an answer you can find here that will be really meaningful, especially in terms of explaining this couple that you know.

I guess what it comes down to for me is that people like to share details of their lives, and what is totally normal for them may not be normal for everyone around them, so some things they share or the way they share them can come across with unintended subtext. Maybe sometimes the subtext is intended, but I dunno, I try to let it go. Don't always succeed, mind you.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:20 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think a lot of it must be people who have not yet figured out that everyone's life is the same mixed bag of accomplishments, failures, messy private lives, etc. Every passing year brings news of the people living in a billion square foot house with quadruplets graduating from Yale getting divorced, going to rehab, serving time--but when you're younger, you don't realize that's how it's going to be. There's a reason you see less of this stupidity from older people. Of course some never learn, or just have a deep need for external validation. I'm sure people will point to the evils of social media, and I do totally agree, but I can tell you that people managed to be just as obnoxious in the old days of snail-mail Christmas letters and landline phone calls. It's one of the great reliefs of getting older, to realize that everyone's life is messy. (I also think this is one of the few ways in which practicing law is good for your mental health--learning the secrets of so many people's lives is a real education in how the world really is.)
posted by HotToddy at 12:25 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Oh and there's also the possibility they're desperately trying to Live The American Dream, are up to their eyeballs in debt, and had to remortgage the house to pay for that fancy Yale education. Maybe they're trying to convince themselves, via their acquaintances, that they've made the right choices.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 12:29 PM on January 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

Sometimes it is, as you say, about insecurity, or arrogant superiority, but sometimes it's just sharing. We commiserate over our defeats with friends, why not also share our triumphs? To begrudge that may say more about their envy than our (perceived) condescension.

I had a nice car in grad school. I loved to give friends rides. I loved driving it everywhere. I suppose to some people I looked like I was showing off or trying to make folks feel inferior. I happen not to be set up that way...it's not my nature (I'm a jerk in other ways, just not that one). So it was a world-rocker when someone first bitterly accused me of this.

I did understand where he got the idea from (I hadn't considered how I was coming off), but, looking neutrally at the situation, there was no superiority on my end at all...just a lot of misplaced bitter envy on his. My feeling was...it's just a car! Hey, you're handsomer or smarter or more athletic than I am, but that doesn't make you superior (nor me envious). I wasn't viewing the car as a status item or even an equalizer for my sense of inferiority. It was just a car. It was cool. It was fun. Come for a ride! I'll even let you drive!

Really, I'm way more creeped out by friends who experience some success and then hide it from me (or downplay it) out of concern of making me envious. What does that say about me (and their perception of my smallness)? Where does that leave the dynamic of superiority and condescension?

Nothing reveals one's sense of superiority more transparently than a meticulous act of modesty. "Don't show Linda your modeling photos, dear, you know how homely she is...."
posted by Quisp Lover at 12:40 PM on January 4, 2014 [19 favorites]

OP are you male or female, and are the people you're seeing do this primarily male or female? I ask because I am nearly your age, and female, and I was definitely raised in a "don't crow about your accomplishments, it's unseemly" environment. My brothers, on the other hand, were encouraged to be and are competitive and driven, & both chose professions that depend on their ability to self-promote.

My anecdotal data point is that men in my world do this sort of thing in the real world with skills and acquisitions, and women do it online/on social media with their children's accomplishments. Few women promote themselves directly, but indirectly through the successes of those connected to/reliant on them.

I think this may be generational though; my kids have come of age in an environment where that online self-promotion is ubiquitous & gender-neutral.
posted by headnsouth at 12:58 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's individual. Everyone has a different life story. Of course you can group these behaviors into patterns, but ultimately, you get to know little more than you already do:
some people brag because they want to see others squirm, some people brag because they want to reinforce class differences, some people do something that sounds like bragging because they're clueless, and yet other people brag because they got huge insecurities of one kind or another and need to cover those up with their huge Mercedesses (combinations being the rule rather than the exception, it seems).
posted by Namlit at 1:14 PM on January 4, 2014

Response by poster: headnsouth - I'm female and the people are either but mostly male I guess. You're right - I was taught not to say anything that seemed even slightly boastful.

I wanted to add it's not that I don't care at all about nice things and accomplishments - it's the bragging kind of thing I guess. I think as I've aged, I've realized everyone has their ups and downs and that's part of life, but some people (around my age) still participate and I wonder why. Also I wonder if you fail after such public swagger, is it hard to recover?
posted by lasamana at 1:26 PM on January 4, 2014

You didn't ask this directly, but as a followup to my anecdata, I will add that I personally get annoyed by the self-promotion of others - I see it as shallow or overcompensating or conspicuous or whatever - and when I'm being honest with myself I know damn well that the reason it bothers me has nothing to do with them - it's because I don't know how/am not comfortable doing it. If I could do it, I would be earning more, wouldn't have settled in relationships, etc. Their bragging gets filtered through my baggage and boom - a new peeve is born.
posted by headnsouth at 1:38 PM on January 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

OP, you might want to look for some of the old questions about the little, discreet ways you can tell someone is wealthy. It might help round out the reasons why and when people do and don't make these kinds of displays.
posted by Room 641-A at 1:56 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Why is announcing your children's graduations considered to be crowing? Yale or State Junior College is still an achievement. We get an annual card from a former colleague who travels extensively, with photos of him and his spouse in exotic places, and while I'd love to be able to go where he does, his trips don't mean there's one less excursion in the goodie bag for me.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:06 PM on January 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

My vote is for just plain insecure. I got plenty of these and I enjoy reading them, rolling my eyes, then making mustaches and horns and 'doobies on the pictures. Its not the announcing of a graduation or a vacation, its the adjectives that come along with it. "We went on a luxurious trip to the south of Spain where we where pampered by the local hospitality and met with all the locals", when you know from conversation they went to club-med or whatever. At least in the small sample size I know the Christmas card is some kind of UDP/broadcast/oldschool linked in where they send the cards to 100's of people they don't really know and its most definitely a "look at the amazing shit I've done have you crawled out of the ghetto yet" thing. The only excuse for this type of behavior is desperate insecurity or being raised by wolves (which would actually make for an interesting card).
posted by H. Roark at 2:31 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Once upon a time, showing off was unacceptable, bragging was rude, envy was a "sin." I think Facebook is a pretty good barometer of where those values -- even the word feels endangered to me -- stand today.
posted by thinkpiece at 2:33 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

If this is some kind of weird personal attack on the real-life quadruplets graduating from Yale this year, who are very nice people and are upfront about receiving financial aid, please stop.

Surely your acquaintances are not literally saying "Look at me everyone, I just bought a super expensive car." So it's hard to judge if they're being crass or if you're overreacting. It is normal for people to discuss major, life-altering purchases, and trust me, it is equally disconcerting when a very wealthy person tries to mask that fact.
posted by acidic at 2:40 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

It may be a way of signalling social status to gain certain benefits, including preferential treatment from others which can enhance social mobility, or even provide financial returns, according to the article.

I think the people who do this could very well feel insecure, OR quite secure, but either way they have some awareness that they will be treated better, or thought of better, at least by some, if they engage in this behaviour.
posted by Ouisch at 2:40 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

[I had no idea there were real-life quadruplets graduating from Yale. Quadruplets, my comment in no way referred to you specifically!]
posted by HotToddy at 2:47 PM on January 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

I had three coworkers like this. Thankfully, two retired and one left for a new job. One would constantly bring up his boat, Porsche and Harley Davidson in conversations that had nothing to do with recreation or driving. Like, every day.

me: "How is that TPS report coming?"
coworker: "That TPS report came out great, but if you want to see something REALLY great, you should have been out with me in my Porsche this weekend! Whoo nelly!"

I would get sucked into similar one-sided conversations with the other two men, on other topics that seemed important to them. I always chalked it up to insecurity and perhaps a little narcissism.
posted by medeine at 4:48 PM on January 4, 2014

One thing I often have to keep reminding myself (as a non-parent) is that people who come across as bragging about their kids' accomplishments might be doing it because they see their kids as individual humans distinct from themselves. Which is awesome. Talking up other people's accomplishments isn't bragging.

(Of course, some parents don't see their kids this way and genuinely believe that they themselves are personally responsible for the kids' achievements. Which is non-awesome.)

Secondly, when people talk about new stuff they have bought, or show off new clothes or whatever, sometimes I think they are trying to bond with the people they are showing off to because they think those people also like the same stuff they like, and by buying something the other people will think is awesome, they are showing they belong to the same group. It often backfires, but sometimes I think that's the intention.
posted by lollusc at 5:31 PM on January 4, 2014

I think it is simply an aspect of Western (i.e. Western European and North American) culture. Individuals are encouraged to publicize their accomplishments - because that is what the majority of people they know do and they would like to fit in. I don't think it means they are necessarily insecure or overly secure, just that they are trying to show they are members of a group that is "normal", or what they perceive to be the successful folk in their particular worldview. I don't believe the behaviour you describe is common in other cultures unless you are talking about Westernized groups within these cultures (those that are wealthier and therefore more educated, increasing their access to "American" influences). For example, in the rural Caribbean my own experience is that those who draw attention to their accomplishments are seen by the majority as very foolish - this would attract envy, which in turn would entice others to commit acts of violence, out of a desire to take or destroy what they cannot have. My mother would call it "maljoo", which is akin to the "evil eye" concept in Eastern Europe. I suspect that in cultures where the concept of the "evil eye" is strong, you will find many people are quite uncomfortable with making their achievements common knowledge. I guess this is my roundabout way of answering your question, by saying self-promotion is a very culturally specific impulse, and doesn't imply something lacking in or exceptional about the person engaging in it.
posted by partly squamous and partly rugose at 6:01 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

There are certainly people who are using a newsletter or facebook status to brag, but I think there's an element of "just sharing" that's going on. It would be weird if someone I know but am not really close to just called me and said. "Guess what!" But it would be weirder if they never contacted me about anything, particularly if it's a family member. (Friends are allowed to drift away when they aren't close, but family you're stuck with unless they're egregiously awful.)

I get a lot of "We had a baby! We got a dog! New car! House!" stuff and I think one motivation is opening up a conversation. They're giving me a thing to talk about if I want to say hello, or the next time we're at a social thing together. This is a way people offer to be closer -- by offering something to ask about that they're willing to share. They may also have, like, cancer or taxes or a dead dog, but they're not going to lead with that, especially not with the friend/family member who is their "Christmas card or facebook contact only." I agree that it's tacky to show off the Porsche, but I try to give the benefit of the doubt and just assume they're really happy and wanting to talk. (If they're trying to one up you, that will quickly become obvious.)
posted by blnkfrnk at 6:01 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is also a feeling for many, including myself, that Christmas Cards, facebook posts, etc should be in the realm of positive. I know some people post when they are having a bad day or screw up, but my family really discourages it. For example, this fall I bought a house and so my mother was crowing over that in her Christmas letter, but she failed to mention that my family and I spent three months in an RV in the trailer park while we were looking for jobs and suitable housing. We all had a good laugh about it and how we should write our true Christmas letter about showering at the YMCA every day and stealing internet from our trailer park neighbors.

So, I guess what I'm asking is every post about buying a house, a car, etc considered in your question or just when someone buys something that you consider ostentatious? If the person had just posted about buying a used minivan would it be the same thing?
posted by aetg at 6:12 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Aaaah, man. I had a weird experience with a friend a few months ago.


I was chatting online with a friend when my boss pulled me aside for a chat. Boy, was I nervous!

Turns out, he gave me a 10,000 dollar bonus for doing a good job this year. TEN THOUSAND FREAKIN' DOLLARS.

I make a decent living, but am underpaid for my field and city, so this news was a huge, happy deal!

I walked back to my desk, and the chat win down with my friend was still open.

I told her my INCREDIBLE news... Not even thinking about the fact that she makes less than me, and probably always will, because her field is generally less lucrative than mine, and people have the tendency to get stuck at a single level for years at a time.

Oops, I guess. Ugh.

She responded by telling me I was insensitive and a braggart, and that she couldn't even believe I would mention it to her.

God, did that ever make me sad.

In my mind, I had just experienced a huge joy in life, and wanted to share with my good friend. It didn't matter to me if is just made a million dollars, or if I had merely not burnt the turkey -- I wanted to share amazing news with my friend.

I was being pretty tone deaf, I guess, but so was she, now that I think of it.


All this to say that people have different motives and different perspectives.

I wouldn't be quick to judge one way or another, and I really wish my friend would have given me the benefit of the doubt.

I hope this helps, as a view from the other side.

(Apologies for grammar, on mobile.)
posted by ulfberht at 6:43 PM on January 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: If this is some kind of weird personal attack on the real-life quadruplets graduating from Yale this year, who are very nice people and are upfront about receiving financial aid, please stop.

Holy crap I had no idea that there were real quads graduating from Yale, so sorry.
posted by lasamana at 7:15 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I wonder where it comes from and does it really mean they are insecure or are they super over secure or are they just right? Since as I get older I don’t really care about that stuff so much but some people still do and I’m just curious why.
I don't think it's "really" about insecurity... At least in my family, Xmas letters are a way of keeping in touch, and aren't so much about showing off. They're a way of celebrating a year and successes in a world where your little accomplishments might not be acknowledged. Can't a letter be a letter?
posted by spunweb at 8:42 PM on January 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Extra favorites, spunweb.

I get a few of these from family and old friends, most are our once-a-year correspondence. Maybe my letter writer friends aren't as braggy as yours, but I enjoy them. I really like hearing about my high school friend's annual trip with her husband; they always go someplace interesting and it is a fabulous trip and I don't think she's being insecure to share it - she had fun and joy and why wouldn't she share that with me? I like seeing her kids grow up year by year and know they graduated from college. I like hearing about the paths my SO's old work buddies have taken since he left that field so many years ago, and how things have changed in their profession.

I am glad that my friends stick to the good news. Once a dear Auntie sent one that was all who died and who's dying and what aches and what costs more these days - oh downer. It's not that I don't care about her troubles but holiday letters seem better suited to a celebration of (and thanksgiving for) the good things we enjoyed over the year. Why not share?

I notice I get fewer and fewer of these now. I don't think it's age, I think most people are posting this stuff on Facebook as it happens, and it's killed the newsy annual holiday letter. I miss some of them.
posted by evilmomlady at 6:54 AM on January 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think this is something that varies a lot culturally and even, if this is a real thing, micro-culturally? Like, neighborhood to neighborhood and family to family? Basically in some cultures there's an expectation that you will display and even exaggerate your good fortune, while other cultures see this as being in poor taste. It's certainly not just a modern Western thing - conspicuous consumption has a long history all over the world.
posted by mskyle at 1:11 PM on January 5, 2014

I generally think folks deserve a pass on holiday letter "bragging." I was raised "you only send them to blood relatives," but I'm by no means offended to receive them from acquaintances/friends. They're often highly entertaining, although DH and I had a bit of an uncomfortable laugh when we received an Xmas card from this now-8-year-old boy's family sharing the news that he was "excelling in second grade." Oy. There's nothing per se "wrong" with that though, and to each their own.

Seems like most of the reader discomfort is caused when there is too much numerical specificity in holiday letters. "Graduated from Yale" is fine (awesome for them). "Got a perfect score of 2400 on her SATs" not so much. "Still works at X, Y, Z firm" is fine. "Got paid the highest year-end bonus ever in firm history" = whoa, hell no, don't include that.
posted by hush at 5:16 PM on January 6, 2014

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