Gamifying the Humblebrag: “No Humblebrags After Dark”

“Humblebrag. Take a drink.”

For my group of friends, this phrase has initiated countless evenings which, by the next morning, can only be described as “A Night.”

Though humblebragging is undoubtedly an art form honed over the course of millennia, first by the actual neanderthal — “Sorry I couldn’t make it to the mammoth hunt last night, I just discovered fire” — only in the past few years has it become a phenomenon. That is thanks to late writer Harris Wittels, who coined the term circa 2012.

In his book, Humblebrag: The Art of False Modesty, he wrote that he discovered the behavior when he moved to Los Angeles, “a nonstop humblebrag-fest; people complaining about how their pilots probably won’t get picked up or how a studio gave their screenplay some shitty notes.” Fair. Though I’m not one of those New Yorkers who thinks LA sucks, living there for two summers taught me a thing or two about hanging out with the locally famous siblings of actual celebrities to say that it’s just fine. (Wittels would, rightly, categorize that aside as a humblebrag.) But while the culture of the locale certainly increases people’s tendency to humblebrag, it’s the amplification of them that was previously lacking.

Twitter is where the humblebrag found its ascendance. Wittels calls the medium “perfect” for it — a place where you can provide not only textual but visual evidence of your experiencing something cool that someone else is not. Yet people never want to known as a braggart. Thus, supplementing these with a relatable moment keeps the author grounded; “a type of bragging that included some amount of fake modesty.”

With that context in mind, Wittels defines a humblebrag:

Humblebrag (noun, verb) [1]: a specific type of brag that masks the boasting part of a statement in a faux-humble guise. The false humility allows the offender to boast about their “achievements” without any sense of shame or guilt. Humblebrags are usually self-deprecating in nature, but there are a few exceptions.

He goes onto list several examples from celebrity tweets, and much of the book follows this format. He expands on this definition thoroughly, so that’s not where I’m going to focus. I’m here for the self-deprecating aspect.

I submit a second definition of the humblebrag, one that is an interactive experience. This iteration isn’t merely a vehicle for someone to deliver self-aggrandizing information, but is also an opportunity for listeners to deliver their rebuttal — an “I see you.” It is a type of humblebrag that you encounter in the everyday, and one you can call out, and even punish. But like, in a way that’s fun for everyone.

Example: “While grocery shopping at Whole Foods, a stand was giving out free samples from a new local hot sauce startup!”

You’d be bored to death by this anecdote with or without the specification that the speaker was at a Whole Foods. Specifying the destination, though — possessing the want and means to go to the Whole Foods — is a humblebrag, and the mundanity of it just makes it worse. Now, normally, someone who burdened you with this information would get away with it. But for the true humblebrag connoisseur, there is a whole other level that was conceived — of course — while a few good friends were knocking back brews at a dive bar on a casual Wednesday night.

The evening had begun with us all ducking out a bit early because it was “just one of those days” in the media, where our company was pivoting to one new thing or another. We sauntered over to our local where, over the years, we had spent enough on $6 pintsize cocktails that we might as well have invested in the joint. Most of us knew each other well enough by that point that we didn’t need extra liquor to loosen up, but we went for the shot and beer combo just for the hell of it.

Then we settled into checking in on how everyone’s weeks were, The News, the weirdest and best thing we saw on Tumblr last night, and when would someone put some money into the jukebox so we could listen to some good music (which included “Gangnam Style” and “Hanginaround” by the Counting Crows, but that’s a whole other story).

In those conversations, with people you see everyday, the most dull of those days is bound to come up: you went to the dentist and didn’t have any cavities (“No Cavities Club” member since 1988, what up), your old roommate got your jury summons and The Man still doesn’t know where you live so you’re spared your civic duty for a few more months, you had to go to the Apple Store because the cat barfed all over your computer charger but you talked them into a free replacement. The qualifier from that list that I hope you’ve noticed is that each one included one thing that you care even less about than the rest.

While the majority of humblebrags are — wittingly or unwittingly — a means of communicating privilege to strangers, the type of humblebrag I’m talking about is the kind you only hear from close friends, the people you feel truly comfortable with. Going into the details of your day-to-day is something you do with your equals; you aren’t trying to demonstrate your superiority to your good friends (at least I hope not). This is a more intimate species of humblebrag.

With the basic understanding of a humblebrag pioneered by Harris Wittels in mind, I suggest a second definition that requires a more discerning mind, and active participation. This one was created over the course of that night and many more after it, a type of humblebrag that (d)evolved into an exercise in calling out your bud for including some stupid fact or weird footnote on a story that didn’t need it and maybe didn’t need to be told at all. You do that by simply yelling “Humblebrag!” as soon as they say the thing. And then they must take a drink.

Let’s try to define this version:

Humblebrag (noun) [2]: You are telling your friends a story about something that happened to you that isn’t really that cool or interesting, and to “liven it up” you embellish it with some other tangentially related fact that happens to be even less interesting and important to the proceeding or surrounding statement.

Example: “I’ve been traveling a lot more this year, mostly to New Jersey.”

When my friends and I picked up on this trend, we noticed that it almost always took place when having drinks, and usually after dark (after all, the winter constitutes like eight months out of the year in New York). We had already been identifying humblebraggers whenever we caught them inserting a pointless comment into a story, but what is the point of that if you’re not teaching them a lesson, and moreover a lesson that gamifies the experience?

Taking into account the aforementioned points, “No Humblebrags After Dark” was born. You could get away with a humblebrag — no matter how embellished or relevant it was — as long as it was before dusk. And if you couldn’t restrain yourself even after the night falls, then obviously you are deserving of a drink. That’s just how it is.

Over the years since, I’ve tried to explain those rules to many different people in many different professional and extremely not settings. Each time the unbelievers ask me to define a “humblebrag” for them, I’ve usually had to say that you know when you hear it. But I hope that this brief history and accompanying definition will serve as a reference point for the next time you hear a ten-minute story about how a friend was on their way to a vacation to the Caribbean and then they found out their parents’ dog flunked out of obedience school and it ruined the whole mood.

If you find yourself in a situation just like that, and it’s after 5pm — 8pm in the summer months — now, you know what to do. Take a drink.