How do you respond to cringeworthy bragging?
May 3, 2021 7:09 AM   Subscribe

I've had a couple of professional interactions recently where my interlocutors were straight-up bragging about their accomplishments, how much money they make, how in demand they are, and so on, for an hour, in meetings where I was asking for a favor. What is the best way to respond?

Given that my social and professional circle tends to lean modest (with occasional namedropping or humblebrags at most), I am completely at sea with this behavior, and felt extremely uncomfortable. I smiled and nodded, but it felt insincere (as it was), cringing internally.

For context: I did not set up the meetings. I merely asked for a favor that could be done over email, but they elected to give me hours of their time, which sounds generous, except that the meetings were 100% about them. I chalk this up to Covid loneliness on their part?
posted by redlines to Human Relations (23 answers total)

"Oh, how nice for you!"

"Well, aren't you the special one!"

"...Bless your heart."

(in order of escalating contempt)
posted by WaywardPlane at 7:14 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]

If you need a favour from them, I think you’re going to have to suck it up, within reason. When it’s more of an equal relationship, of course you have some more latitude to raise an eyebrow & offer some feedback.
posted by rd45 at 7:18 AM on May 3 [25 favorites]

You were asking for a favor. You're stuck. If the meeting is dragging on and there's no further relevant information you need to convey/receive, you can of course use the usual tactics to end it ("sorry, Bob, I've got another call in five minutes. Thanks so much, and...").
posted by praemunire at 7:22 AM on May 3 [5 favorites]

“Hey, that’s great.”

“Sounds like things are going really well for you!”

Just delight in their delight. You don’t have to monitor the appropriate level of bragging in the world.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:23 AM on May 3 [61 favorites]

Some industries people talk to each other about how much they charge, how much they pay for rent,how many employees they have etc. If this is a professional networking thing maybe they're just telling you where they are "at" financially speaking, or it's standard elevator pitch stuff that didn't get tailored to you as the audience.
posted by jello at 7:33 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]

"Your mom must be so proud of you." You can deliver it in such a way that it sounds like a compliment.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:34 AM on May 3

One time, years ago, in the course of doing my job I had to spend time in the company of someone who kept talking about his neighbors "Tom and Gisele." Since I am only vaguely aware of both supermodels and football, I had no idea who he was talking about and so was just politely countering with like "it's nice to have good neighbors, isn't it" and other bland stuff. He was getting visibly annoyed and kept saying their names a little louder. I figured something was up but he was bragging to the wrong person because I Did Not Get It.

In reflection I realized that my response to him was exactly what I would have WANTED to respond, had I known what he was bragging about. Holding that denial of deference with me in my heart has served me very well in all this time since. People are not owed praise for things they did not achieve.

(That said, if someone wants to brag about something that they worked hard for or earned, I will listen to them and validate them even if it isn't my personal cup of tea. Not everyone has a supportive family, etc, and there is a difference between, for instance, earning a promotion and simply making a lot of money, and it is human to seek external validation.)
posted by phunniemee at 7:34 AM on May 3 [26 favorites]

Don't be rude or passive aggressive. Acknowledge their statement but don't take the bait - otherwise the conversation risks veering into The Them Show, where you constantly have to go, 'Oh, wow, amazing, how cool!'

Then, quickly reorient to the topic at hand.

"I am the top salesperson at this company! Last year, the CEO himself came by to thank me. This other company offered me a huge bonus to switch."

"That sounds great! Good for you. [Smile.] What I'd really like to talk about is the parking situation for the finance department. We're really hoping to get this solved by June."

You will need to find the fortitude cut the person off, gently, so they don't ramble on for an hour.

I find that people who have the habit of dragging on ad nauseum kind of know that they are "talkers" and are used to having to be redirected, so don't feel bad. The ones who reeeeally need attention (like those you describe) might keep trying to draw the focus back to themselves, so you might have to interject several times.
posted by aquamvidam at 7:37 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]

There's different cultural expectations around this sort of thing.
Don't assume yours are the default for everyone else.
posted by signal at 7:41 AM on May 3 [11 favorites]

Sometimes I notice folks do that when they feel disrespected. If I'm asking a technical question and now they're talking about how good they are and how smart and how experienced and how most people can't do what they do, it sometimes means they felt challenged or undermined by my question.

For those folks it helps to open with an honest recognition of their skill and experience. Even something simple like "you're the expert and I'm sure you would have a good reason for this, but I'm not really familiar with the difference between X and Y, can you explain?" (Where I'd normally just be like, "why not Y instead of X?")
posted by Lady Li at 8:04 AM on May 3 [8 favorites]

I would need more context to really understand this, but this sounds so weird that I wondered if what you think of as “favor,” they think of as “activity or opportunity for which I usually expect to be financially compensated.”
posted by pinkacademic at 8:07 AM on May 3 [14 favorites]

There are rational reasons for telling you about things like this:

- Telling you about their connections may be an indirect invitation for you to ask them to use those connections for a future favor;

- Telling you about their skill/accomplishments may be an indirect invite for you to ask them for advice in the future;

- May be a way for them to tell you about themselves without getting into overly personal (and maybe inappropriate) details;

- May be an invitation for you to talk about your own experiences and accomplishments, or goals and ambitions, so they can get to know you better;

- If they did something altruistic, may be a way to make this kind of altruism seem more common or normal, so people like you will feel less weird about doing and talking about other altruistic things;

- If they did something altruistic, may be a way to motivate others to do something altruistic to be competitive;

- May be a way to make themselves attractive to you without flirting inappropriately;

- If they aren't able to be relaxed with you, may be the only "safe" topic of conversation they can think of..

Most of these possibilities can inspire a possible response on your part, even if you don't know which one applies. You could say, "Wow, that's great. Do you wish more people would ___?" or "I've heard enough to know that I'm lucky to know you. Do you often help your friends by introducing them to Ms. _________?" Or even "I wish I had two hours to talk about that right now! If I want to do something like that in the future, can I call you for advice?"

If you're interested in talking with them and connecting with them, you can also -- in fact you might have some responsibility to -- steer the conversation in other directions. What do you think are good topics to really connect with someone? Their geographic area? Their choice of Zoom garb? Lots of things can be personally revelatory without being too intimate.
posted by amtho at 8:12 AM on May 3 [7 favorites]

I'm a little confused...You need a favor from them, and they're sort of obnoxious and braggy and that's it? Many appropriate times in life to just nod and toss out an empty "Nice!" or "That's great!" and this is one of those times, I'm not sure what else there is to say?
posted by windbox at 8:26 AM on May 3 [4 favorites]

I think that your experience is really part of a larger issue, where people simply like to talk about themselves, even if it doesn't involve bragging per se. This is actually the main reason why I hate making small-talk with people, because I get really irritated about the fact that the conversation typically does not revolve around some subject of mutual interest, but is instead all about the other person's banal concerns. There isn't much that can be done about it, except to endure it and try to avoid speaking to the person in the future.
posted by alex1965 at 9:15 AM on May 3

It sounds like they were saying, "In exchange for this favor, you will listen to me brag for an hour. If that is unacceptable to you, you don't get the favor. If you are willing to trade an hour of your time for the favor, come listen to me brag."
posted by hworth at 9:48 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]

I dont know what favour you asked, but when someone perhaps less experienced than me is thinking of going freelance like I am / looking after any kind of guidance I tend to be super encouraging and, I hope, inspiring by being positive about my own trajectory because it has genuinely been good and I want them to reap the benefits too. This will include sharing information about high salary, and also being very busy, just to show them it can work out really well in our industry (many of them are nervous about making the leap). This may come across as bragging, but its really that I feel lucky and not necessarily deserving of such luck. But I want to share it and provide encouragement.
posted by flimflamflop at 9:50 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]

Maybe I'm a jaded person, but my main response is to make a mental note that this is the person's weak spot. I.e. if I want something from them in future, appealing to the braggy side of them is how I'd manipulate them.

And then I just...move on. Is there a problem that needs to be solved? People use each other all the time. As audiences, in your case. It's okay, within reason. This guy never has to be your friend.

If you're thinking that an hour of bragging is too high a price to pay for this guy's favours, maybe try to head it off by saying at the beginning that you only have 20 minutes before your next thing. Maybe he's gotten it out of his system now and he'll be easier next time. Maybe, as you note, covid is exacerbating his tendencies. Or maybe the bragging is just your price of admission here.

(Also, I can't tell if you're female, but I feel this is a really common and comparatively harmless dynamic with men who do favours for you.)
posted by Omnomnom at 10:19 AM on May 3 [2 favorites]

Good rule, especially with emotionally unclear, irritating situations:
In any interaction ask yourself "what does this person want from me?"
Because only then can you decide whether you're willing to give it to them.
posted by Omnomnom at 10:29 AM on May 3 [3 favorites]

In terms of blandly agreeable comments, if you get bored of nodding and saying "nice", something along the lines of "I never had the talent / drive / personality to tackle something like that" can be both flattering and true, so it isn't a bad one.

In terms of managing internal emotions & reactions, I remind myself that not everyone is like me (thank god) and that not all professional cultures are like mine. I try to remind myself to withhold judgment until I can make one on their merits.

In terms of "Why?" it could certainly be extroverted personalities combining with Covid isolation. If it's an internal group it could also be they feel they are underused or underappreciated and making an implicit pitch for future collaborations. Also, as someone on the technical side, I've encountered people from sales or admin who seem to think that their areas are not respected by the PhD crowd (sometimes correctly) and come in hard to establish their credibility and value.
posted by mark k at 10:29 AM on May 3 [1 favorite]

If these are dudes, bootleg or get from the library a copy of The 48 Laws of Power. Seriously, it’s poorly written and contains a lot of nonsense, but it does have some good advice on dealing with people who like having their egos massaged. If they are women, it’s very possible they’re trying to mentor you. I have a friend who likes to see herself as inspiring others in the workplace. I occasionally call her on her namedropping, which I can do because we’ve been friends for ages and I don’t want anything from her.

It’s always good to remember that favours aren’t free. You need something from them, and in return they’re getting an admiring ear.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:44 AM on May 3

something along the lines of "I never had the talent / drive / personality to tackle something like that" can be both flattering and true, so it isn't a bad one

I think that's a great personal strategy, but not a good professional one - you're basically signalling that you're not a go-getter, which is annoying to have to worry about (I mean, do we really all have to be?) but really does have a bad career effect. Doubly so if you're female in most fields.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:22 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]

It's a good reminder to be careful of the context, warriorqueen. Across specialties I think it can be fine but requires judgment (so for me personally as a chemist, saying I wouldn't want to be a litigating attorney has not had a negative impact.) But I realize I'd never even consider using that for anything within shouting distance of my actual professional role.
posted by mark k at 12:38 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

Became exhausted by reading your description. Goddess bless you for enduring such torture for the sake of your cause. I find that enduring bloviating personalities like this isn't worth it –– if career-related or whatever, I'd rather apply for food stamps (nutritional assistance, not sure of proper term nowadays) or forge ahead on my own, unassisted.
posted by zenpop at 12:04 PM on May 4

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