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I wonder whether there exists any difference between humblebrag and false modesty. E.g., is false modesty more general than humblebrag, or are the two expressions synonymous?

4 Answers 4

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Firstly, false modesty is an uncountable noun, and humblebrag can be either a count noun or a verb.

The two terms are certainly related, but to me, as a native US English speaker, there are some subtle differences. False modesty is, quite simply, being modest or downplaying your accomplishments in a way that is not true modesty, maybe to call attention to them, or to encourage people to keep praising you.

A humblebrag is a more specific kind of behavior about calling attention to yourself by saying something that looks modest or self-deprecating (the "humble" part) but contains a self-praising subtext that is the real message (the "brag" part). For example,

I hate my lambo! Police is ALWAYS pulling me over just cuz its a lambo so they always think I’m speeding but I’m not!! Then they let me go!

The surface message is "I get pulled over for speeding and I hate it", but the real message is "I have a Lamborghini."

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    +1 And to add that a humblebrag may be understood by both people as a veiled brag, whereas false modesty usually means being deceptive about your intent.
    – gotube
    Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 16:06
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    As you say, a key difference is that false modesty doesn't always involve words, while a humblebrag is more specific. False modesty would include things like standing in the shadows knowing you will be called forward to be praised. A humblebrag exists to allow you to show off by subtlely revealing some new information, while false modesty normally exists to attract praise you are already due (as with someone who has done something notable but downplays their talents knowing they will soon be rewarded and praised).
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jun 1, 2022 at 21:33
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    "Police is"? Shouldn't it be "The police are"? Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 2:12
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    @MaxD I think it isn't possible. Humblebrag and false modesty are similar in that the speaker wants the listener to learn about something, but also pretends not to do that. In both cases they are deceptive about their intent. The difference is in the nature of the thing. If it's really praiseworthy, it's false modesty. If not, it might be humblebrag.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 5:29
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    @MaxD Not a direct comparison, but someone wanting to display false modesty about their new Lambo might drive it to work and leave it in a visible place, and leave the keys out on display on their desk, but when people bring up their car they'd be playing it down while secretly enjoying the attention. They wouldn't bring up the subject of the car like the humblebragger would.
    – user81621
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 10:20
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A humble brag is when you say something that sounds like it is a bad thing but is in fact a good thing for example

Oh my dress, it is quite an old <really expensive designer brand) dress

so they start off saying they are wearing an old dress but end up actually pointing out they are wearing a really expensive designer brand dress.

random blog about humblebragging

false modesty is much wider and can refer to anything, like deprecating your own achievements, or saying you couldn't do something. It isn't you pointing out something good, which is why it isn't the same as a humblebrag.

person 1: could you update the widget on the thingumy
person 2: oh no, I wouldn't know how to do that it is far too complicated
person 1, but you designed both the widget and the thingumy didn't you?

false modesty
noun [ U ] UK /ˌfɒls ˈmɒd.ɪ.sti/ US /ˌfɑːls ˈmɑː.dɪ.sti/ behaviour in which a person pretends to have a low opinion of their own abilities or achievements: He shows great pride in his work and has no false modesty about his success.

cambridge dictionary

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First, about modesty and bragging.

Modesty and bragging are opposites.

Modesty is downplaying your own achievements or abilities, almost trying to make them go unnoticed; because you think others' are more important, or just don't like being the center of (undeserved, in your opinion) attention.

Bragging is boasting your own achievements or abilities, making sure they do get noticed; because you want to feel superior to others, or just like being the center of attention.


Now, to your question.

False modesty, just like false currency, looks like real modesty: it is still downplaying things. But, just like false currency, it's origin is not "true": false modesty happens when someone fakes modesty to be polite, but they still think greatly of their achievements and like being the center of attention.
False modesty is not necessarily bad -- as I said, sometimes it's just a way of being polite. However, it can be seen as something bad if it is "too fake".

Humblebragging is still a kind of bragging. You're still calling for attention over some fact, achievement or ability that you want others to notice. However, you're doing so in a covert way, disguising it in a more "humble" scenario; by doing so, if someone accuses you of bragging, you can always say that you were not actually bragging: you were just talking about the humble scenario, it's the other people the ones fixating on that thing they are accusing you of bragging about.
Humblebragging is usually regarded (IMHO) as a worse trait than false modesty, because there's no politeness in it; it's just bragging with an alibi.

In that sense, "false modesty" is still (faked) modesty, and humblebragging is still (covert) bragging.
Since modesty and bragging are opposites, false modesty and humblebragging cannot be synonymous.

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    "Bragging with an alibi" - I like that :-D
    – user81621
    Commented Jun 2, 2022 at 10:15
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Let me just add some historical context, if that helps at all. The phrase "false modesty" is at least 150 years old. (I don't have a specific origin date, but several famous authors used it in the mid-1800's, if not before.) Conversely, the term "humblebrag" has only been around for just over a decade; it's creation is attributed to Harris Wittels (executive producer of the NBC show Parks and Recreation), on Twitter in November 2010, where he apparently gave several examples. It was added to the "Urban Dictionary" four months later.

With the advent of social media, there are of course many opportunities to do either. How many IG posts are there where the young lady complains "how bad her hair/makeup/clothes/body look today," complete with photo spread, only for the purpose of reaping compliments? In this sense, I don't think you have to be anyone special to have false modesty.

However in one of the examples given by Wittles, "I just realized I have only showered in one of my five showers", that does seem to require that you actually do have something to brag about, even if you are doing it "humbly".

false modesty (see "References in classic literature")

Humblebrag

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