Vaguely I can recall an era when I had to leave my house to buy a book. When the news came in paper form. When I killed time by looking out the window and thinking. When travel agents were essential, high school friends were figures of fond nostalgia, and bragging was an art.
Of course people still brag; they always will. How else could we fulfill the basic human needs of convincing our parents to love us more than they love our siblings and making our friends feel just a little bit bad about themselves? Until the end of time, children will be exclaiming, “Look what I made!” “I aced my test!” and parents will be finding casual ways to mention their children’s SAT scores.
The Internet, of course, makes bragging easier than ever; Facebook is a virtual bumper for the stickering of boasts. And that, paradoxically, is what is killing the art form. Once upon a time—back when humans interacted in person—social norms discouraged one from bragging after a certain age. That meant that a person with the natural desire to point out his or her accomplishments had to get creative. Crafting a stealthy brag was a complicated endeavor, like getting lesbian sex into a movie under the Hays Code.
We might start with an easy one, perhaps a brag by complaint (“My fingers really cramped up doing that New York Times crossword so fast”), and move on to a brag by self-criticism (“Damn! I just don’t think I’ll ever get my marathons under 2:45”). Perhaps we could try a brag by apology, in which we allude to the enormous effort we made while begging forgiveness for some paltry effort we shirked (“There’s raspberry jam, grape jelly, and apple butter. There’s marmalade, too, but I’m afraid it’s store-bought”). More experienced braggarts could pull off the brag by compliment, ostensibly other-directed but deliciously mean (“I’m amazed at how you manage to keep up with pop culture! I wish I were the sort of person who could relax and enjoy Honey Boo Boo.”)
Childrearing naturally expands the boast zone, giving parents some additional bragging options. There’s the classic brag by worry: “Pierre’s so far ahead of his peers, I’m afraid he won’t have anyone to talk to.” And the brag by query: “Does anyone know a good aeronautics camp? Ellsbeth is just dying for a challenge.” Which is nothing compared to the brag by gratitude: “Thank you so much for bringing Todd over to play. It takes a nice, normal kid like him to drag Hugh from his Mensa puzzles.”
That kind of artistry is becoming a thing of the past, as Facebook fills our screens with “Look at my new kitchen!” and “Just ran 40 miles through the desert!” and “Firstborn headed to Harvard!”
Have we really lost the ability to craft a brag more sophisticated than “Hey! My kid got straight A’s”? Or are we just saving precious time in order to watch Jimmy Fallon and Michelle Obama do “Evolution of Mom Dancing” again? (No, I am not including a link.)
I know. I sound like a fuddy-duddy: behind the times and bemoaning a golden age when I had to call my mother to find out who played Aunt Bee on Andy Griffith. Maybe straight-up bragging reflects a healthy move toward transparency. Maybe it’s more honest to brag outright.
I wish I were the sort of person who could.