How to Brag Without Being a Jerk
DC-based PR and communications expert Meredith Fineman schools us on the art of the permissible boast
Meredith Fineman doesn’t want you to shut up. She just wants you to not shut up strategically.
The founder and CEO of FinePoint, a D.C.-based communication and professional development company that combines public relations tactics and leadership coaching to help promote voice and visibility, Fineman knows “brag” isn’t the four-letter word we often make it out to be.
In her forthcoming book, Brag Better, out spring 2020 with Penguin Random House’s Portfolio imprint, Fineman seeks to break down the stigma surrounding bragging, reclaiming the term to help individuals learn how to use self-promotion as the powerful and necessary professional tool it is in today’s workforce.
“We reward loud,” says Fineman, who’s not talking about physical volume — although she does add that in certain cases success does seem to be measured in decibels. “What I mean is, we don’t reward the person who has done the most amount of work or is the best at their job. We reward the person who is talking the loudest about that.”
In 2019, putting your head down and doing the work isn’t enough if you don’t know how to talk about it, which is why Fineman has dedicated her career to helping individuals, especially women, master the art of self-promotion.
The issue, she tells InsideHook, is a widespread idea that bragging and self-promotion are merely “fluff,” the cherry on top of a successful career, rather than an indispensable part of completing the work itself.
“The problem is — and I have seen this with hundreds if not thousands of people — they think their work will speak for them, and that’s unfortunately not always true.”
While Fineman’s work tends to focus on helping women — who, surprise, face disproportionate stigma and massive systemic hurdles surrounding self-promotion — she maintains that Brag Better isn’t just for individuals of any one gender. “It’s for people who have done the work but have trouble talking about it,” she tells InsideHook. While “gender puts a lens on it,” Fineman holds that “the core concerns — the shame, the anxiety, the fear, the doubt, the guilt,” are the same across the board.
Perhaps even more importantly, Brag Better is for men who already are skilled — or at least avid — braggarts, and who need to learn how to use their voices to promote others. “If you are in a position of privilege, it is your job to pass the mic to someone who might not be heard,” says Fineman.
So how can you, a man whose privilege precedes him in a society designed to broadcast your voice above all others, brag without sounding like a certain very stable genius? It’s easier than it looks, and it’s all about learning how to pass the mic.
Know what you’re talking about
This one should go without saying, but as we’ve all seen, it doesn’t always. When it comes to the matters of voice and visibility Fineman focuses on, there tends to be an unfortunate disparity between those with knowledge and those with voices, which is why she’s dedicated to closing that gap by helping the former become more vocal. “It’s a matter of making sure that people who know their shit, that have done the work, really start figuring out how to be loud, proud, and strategic,” she says.
Likewise, that also means making sure that those who are already loud and proud actually know their shit. Equal opportunity self-promotion is a two-way street, and confident, strategic bragging should begin with self-education. In other words, before you go off, make sure you know what you’re talking about. And if you haven’t done your homework? Instead of BS-ing your way through a blind, confidence-fueled monologue, use your lapse in knowledge as an opportunity to pass the mic to someone who may actually know the answer. They get a chance to self promote, and you get a chance to learn something. Win-win.
A few minutes into John Mulaney’s Kid Gorgeous special, the comedian describes a conversation with a friend that sounds a lot like 90 percent of conversations that have ever taken place: “He was talking and I was waiting for him to be done so I could talk.”
Listening is boring and we’re all terrible at it — not just men! However, because men tend to get listened to at least a little bit more often than women, it falls on you to help close the gap.
“Men need to listen to women,” says Fineman. “We tell women to speak up, but we also need men to be quiet.” However, it’s not just about shutting up and waiting for women to be done talking. It’s about actually listening to women and other historically silenced minorities in order to actively and accurately promote and reinforce their voices using your own.
It’s not a matter of getting the “loud people” to stop talking, says Fineman. “It’s more powerful for men to co-sign and echo the voices of women than it is for them to not talk at all.”
Use your privilege to someone else’s advantage
Much like bragging, we tend to think of privilege, at least as we use the term in modern social justice contexts, as something inherently negative. In reality, privilege is an incredibly powerful tool, and whether it results in something good or bad depends entirely on how you use it. With privilege comes opportunity, and you’re not the only one who stands to benefit from it.
“Change will happen in women’s voices by men co-signing them because men are the people in power,” says Fineman. “I think that men have a responsibility, but I also see and understand why they might want to preserve that power. There are a lot of these systems in place that do suppress voices of people that aren’t white men. There’s a lot of work to be done.”
As a man, you have the platform and the opportunity to start doing some of that work, and it doesn’t have to come at the expense of your own self-promotion.
“Be strategic in how you use your voice for yourself and for others versus just speaking to speak,” says Fineman. In other words, recognize that giving someone else the space to self-promote doesn’t mean putting yourself at a disadvantage. With a little strategy and a lot of self-reflection, you can be the rising tide and one of the boats, instead of just some clueless loudmouth screaming from the mainland.