Humble Bragging with Ovul Sezer

INJ 52 | Humble Bragging


Ovul Sezer is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She teaches Negotiations and Decision Making, and she studies the unproductive ways that people try to influence others. Ovul is also a stand-up comedian, developing her skills at open mics, comedy clubs, and comedy festivals.

Listen to Episode #52 here

Humble Bragging with Ovul Sezer

Our guest is Ovul Sezer. Ovul is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She teaches Negotiations and Decision Making and she studies the unproductive ways that people try to influence others. Ovul is also a stand-up comedian developing her skills at open mics, comedy clubs and comedy festivals. Welcome, Ovul. If you weren’t working as a professor or doing stand-up comedy, what would you be doing with your life?

Maybe a drummer.

That’s a first. I don’t think I’ve had anybody say they’d be a drummer.

I like the rhythm.

Sheila E, The Glamorous Life. She was a lead but also did percussions. Do you have a favorite drummer?

I am still learning and getting into it. That’s something I haven’t tried much. People say something they are good at when they think of their alter ego.

You’re Turkish?

I am from Turkey. I grew up in Istanbul and moved to the United States in 2006.

Is there a famous Turkish drummer?

I don’t think there is any Turkish anything. Baklava is famous in Turkey. There are many talented people, but I don’t think anyone has gotten to international fame.

I was once an assistant professor. I know what that’s like. You picked up stand-up comedy and you’re picking up drumming. How do you do this with the demands of your job?

With the drumming, I don’t allocate that much time to it yet. Maybe I do one hour a week. It’s still manageable. With stand-up, I didn’t start thinking that it would take this much time, but it is taking time. I do see some similarities between my actual job and stand-up comedy. Both of them require a lot of identifying odd things. When you come up with your material for your stand-up, you have to tell the truth. It has to be coming from some deep discomfort you had in your life. That’s my strategy. The funny stuff is always the stories where you felt most uncomfortable, most confused, most frustrated. There is also light funny stuff. You can also talk about that, but if you want to go deep, the big laughs are coming from those stories. As social scientists, we also look at the world trying to identify odd behaviors. I’m a behavioral scientist. There’s some complementary action between the two. That’s how I find the time. Stand-up comedy is only at night. That’s also another advantage of the scheduling difference between the two.

I, as an assistant professor, did many extra things that people would have said you shouldn’t be doing, but they made my life better. When you talk about unusual things, the list of things you’re interested in and studying as a professor of organizational behavior, this is from you: humblebragging, backhanded compliments, namedropping, inside jokes saying, “I told you so,” fishing for compliments, mansplaining. These are things people do. Conversely, they also fall for ass kissing. I’m sure I do these things, but I’ve never thought of studying them. I don’t know the research on them. Can we talk about them a little bit? Do you talk about these things in your stand-up?

Sometimes I do talk about them or sometimes I do engage in those behaviors to get some jokes.

When you talk about these things in stand-up, how do you do it? Do you have some jokes about mansplaining or fishing for compliments?

Mansplaining happens because if you’re a female comic, there are lots of mansplaining going on there. I would get most laughter from women too if I make jokes about that. Sometimes I would use these other things that I study as if I’m engaging in those behaviors, for instance. Now, I’m engaging in that behavior.

Are you going to kiss my ass here?

That would be an amazing example too. If I engage in humble bragging and if I act to be clueless, it is funny. If I say, “Why do men hit on me even in my sweatpants? I didn’t even put makeup on and people still ask me out. It’s confusing. Can you guys help me?” If I name drop and say out of the blue, “At Princeton, we used to have coffee in the morning,” we’d say something like that. I’ve never been to Princeton, but people definitely can relate to that because there’s someone in there.

For the audience, Ovul went to Harvard Business School.

I was hoping to create the context, but my subtle ways alas have been discovered in this show.

She sent me her bio and it mentioned Harvard Business School in it. I chose to omit it. Not only does she have a Ph.D. from Harvard Business School, but she also has a Bachelor’s Degree in Applied Mathematics from Harvard University. Let me brag for you. Let me be your hype man.

That’s the best strategy to brag. We should always have someone bragging for us.

A hype man like in boxing.

We can make a pact with you. Anytime your name comes up in our conversation, I’ll go and please do the same. I’ll definitely say much better things.

You use some of these techniques when you’re on stage. You say that they’re unproductive ways to influence people or some more unproductive than others. I have to assume that mansplaining is a terrible way to influence.

It is a terrible way to influence people. The even more interesting thing we are discovering is that not people who mansplain, they’re not all aware of it. With all these behaviors, that’s the key part. People engage in these behaviors thinking that they will be effective and not consciously either. I criticize humblebragging, name dropping, all these behaviors and sometimes I’ll catch myself humble bragging. You see these behaviors in yourself as well because we engage in them. That’s the key thing. We are not aware of these things. Even in mansplaining, some of the mansplaining examples we heard in our studies are terrible and outrageous. Some of them seem more subtle.

Sometimes people who are engaging in these behaviors are not even aware of it. That’s the dilemma. We think they’re going to work or if you’re not even aware of it and we are trying to achieve some goals there. With humble brag, we want to get the best of both worlds. I’m bragging, but I’m trying to do it in a subtle way so that you also like me. You think of me as a competent respected person, but you also see me as a likable person whom you can hang out with. When I try to achieve these best of both worlds, it backfires.

I should just brag?

It’s much better than humblebragging, but I would still recommend having it someone else.

Let’s go through each of these. The mansplaining is interesting because it’s the one gendered of these. As a potential mansplainer, my definition is more limited than it’s used. I define mansplaining as a man explaining something to a woman about being a woman. It’s not a man correcting a woman or explaining something to a woman because to me that’s not necessarily mansplaining. If I correct a woman who’s mistaken about something because I’m a man and because she’s a woman to me doesn’t qualify as mansplaining. When I say, “The menstrual cycle is so on and so forth,” the idea that this guy has expertise in an area that he thinks he would know more than the person who truly knows. I could be wrong about that. That’s what I’ve always thought mansplaining was.

That’s definitely the category of mansplaining. When you explain things to a pregnant woman, “The third trimester is the worst,” something like that or, “You should do this when you get menstrual cramps.”

“As a female comic, you should consider doing this.” That, to me, is the exemplar of mansplaining. What’s the next level?

Woman topics or areas about being a woman, being in a menstrual cycle or being pregnant. In the example, you touched on this a broader definition when you said, “If I give an explanation to a female comic about how to be a comic.” The way we find in our definitions, but we are trying to drive it from people’s examples and with some coding of other participants because it a socio-cultural phenomenon and this word existed by itself. We haven’t invented this word. This already existed. We are trying to understand what it is and what it’s not.

It happens to men too. Mansplaining is when men explain things to both men and women and the thing that makes it mansplaining is that they explain something in an area where the recipient is already expert or they already know more than them. The nature of mansplaining that women receive versus the nature of mansplaining that men receive is different. Women report experiencing this more and men usually report, “There’s this older man at work. He thinks he knows and he explains this to me.” This is definitely part of mansplaining that women experience as well, but women’s experiences are a little more prevalent and across the board. It’s not coming only from high-status men. It’s coming from all across the board about different things like they get explained about how to use the grill. What’s the sport? I have no clue about how grills work, but sports or computers or work-related stuff.

Those are the things that you’re finding, but it’s not only happening to women. It happens to some men and potentially younger men more who are starting in their careers. This is something I heard from my participants. Somebody wrote there’s also femsplaining, womansplaining let’s say, woman explaining things to men, especially people in romantic relationships. Some men wrote, “At the house, my wife explains everything to me. This is how to cook. This is how to take care of the child. You don’t know what you feel, you’re feeling overwhelmed.” People get explained on their emotions as well, although I haven’t done research on femsplaining yet. Mansplaining is harmful to organizational life, but femsplaining may be harmful to romance. We need more evidence.

I like to give advice and I like to take advice. My taking advice is pervasive. I constantly am getting feedback. I gave a talk and it was designed to almost fully to get feedback. I tricked the audience into giving me feedback. I believe in the wisdom of crowds. I believe in expertise. I like to check my thinking about things. I’m constantly calling people, emailing, showing them things. My professional and personal life is better off for it. I’m more informed. I can feel more confident in executing things. My desire to give advice, it’s not to feel important. It’s because I want to help people. I give advice to people I care about or people that could use it. I try to keep it in the world of things I have expertise on. I realize that is not always welcome. They’re not asking for it. They’re not looking for it. It’s difficult and so I keep going, “I’m going to stop doing this,” especially hearing about mansplaining makes me not at all want to ever give anyone advice unless it’s truly solicited. As we know about coping, a lot of people aren’t problem-focused copers. They’re emotion-focused copers. They want someone to listen to.

One of the things that come up when we ask people, “Have you been mansplained? What it is? Can you explain it to us?” A lot of people talk about condescension a lot. I am hoping we are not in a world where giving advice wouldn’t be coded as some bad behavior. When we give those examples to completely independent people, men or women, they agree there is some condescension at least in the experience of it. We don’t know what happened in those events. That would be my take on it. Now I’m giving you advice, but I wouldn’t say you should refrain from giving advice. You can definitely, even if it’s unsolicited. There may be people who find it useful for sure, but people distinguish between this condescending tone versus helpful tone.

I’m going to write a book. If you want it, you can use it. Humblebragging is worse than bragging, which is worse than someone else bragging for you.

Humblebragging is a combination of bragging complaints. It’s hard to give all these talks. Anytime I give an example, they’re good. My hand hurts from signing autographs.

I’m exhausted from all these dates. It’s hard.

We compare perceptions of humble bragging against both straightforward bragging where you say, “I’m attractive. I’m smart. I’m great.” Whatever it is you’re talking about, or the complaint piece like, “I’m bored. I’m exhausted. I’m tired.” It’s worse than both complaining and bragging. Even a simple complaint like, “I’m bored,” is better than someone who humble brags. We don’t like people who complain either. The key mechanism is that at least it’s sincere. The thing that bothers people when they see someone humble bragging is come across as fake and insincere. It’s like, “I see what you’re doing. You’re trying to brag but you also want me to comfort you. I know. It must be hard.”

It’s hard to be that attractive.

[bctt tweet=”Mansplaining is a terrible way to influence people.” username=””]

You won in life. I’m sorry you’re going through all these requests and everyone wants a piece of you.

I’m not mansplaining. I have a paper about Humorous Complaining. In my humorous complaining paper, we disentangle when humorous complaining is good and when it’s less good. When it’s more effective at helping you meet a goal. We’d like humorous complainers.

One thing I may say regarding the humble bragging, first of all, you weren’t mansplaining. Whenever I talk about my work, it makes me feel self-conscious and I enjoy it. Thank you for your kindness.

I’m not usually on the defensive on my own show.

Regarding the humorous piece, there is something interesting about the humblebrags that we found. There’s something funny about them for sure if you are not the recipient of it. Some people would, especially on Twitter and social media, they would put #HumbleBrag. I would write a humble brag like, “Why do men hit on me all the time? It’s hard. #HumbleBrag.” We thought it may be better than a humble brag because at least you’re recognizing your own humble brag. To our surprise, we found that it was worse than even saying the humble brag. If you recognize it, if you put a label on it, it’s even worse. We asked people why? People were like, “You’re trying to be funny, but you are not.” It’s like a meta humble brag almost. You’re not cool anymore. Anytime there’s some self-promotion if the source is someone else if it’s not you, it works for you. If the source is you, even if you try to make it funny, the chances are it may backfire.

These are truly useful lessons that people can take away. Let’s talk about name dropping. You worked with this Nobel Laureate or you know this famous person. This is name dropping.

You try to do it casually. That’s why it’s drop. That’s the interesting piece there. If you ask me, “Whom do you work with?” and if I list five famous academics, first it’s solicited.

When I was at Princeton working with Nobel Laureate, Danny Kahneman, we would go to coffee in the morning.

You’re making it you go for a coffee. Do we call them with nicknames?

You’re like, “Danny and I used to go to coffee.” They’re like, “Who’s Danny?” You’re like, “Daniel Kahneman.”

There are a lot of ways that we use to make it a drop so that it’s more casual. That’s the exact reason why it backfires to make it that drop. That mask is what bothers us, similar to the humble bragging piece, the mask of being humble or the mask of having it as a drop. This is an example that has happened, “Zuck doesn’t want me to leave Facebook yet,” or if you mention personal information about a famous person, “Zuck and Priscilla invited me to barbecue party, then Melinda and Bill called. We couldn’t make it.”

I like to say Jay-Z and Beyoncé but the same principle.

One of the things I’m working on is when and why these behaviors are likely to happen more. They do happen when the norms are a little fluid. I ran a study for name dropping in an academic conference. Any academic who’s been to an academic conference knows that it’s the name dropping galore. It’s a lot of name dropping going on. I ran a study in the reception at a conference and asked people, “Have you seen someone named dropping in this conference? Have your name dropped?” There’s a big difference.

You see lots of it and no one’s doing it.

INJ 52 | Humble Bragging
Humble Bragging: The funny stuff is always the stories where you felt most uncomfortable, most confused, or most frustrated.


With humblebragging, it comes a lot in job interviews. “What’s your biggest weakness? I’m a perfectionist. It’s hard to deal with. I work hard. I’m such a nice person and people take advantage of me.” It’s interesting that these behaviors do come up in areas where the norms are known, but there’s still some freedom there, like a networking reception or job interview or a date. There’s some ritualistic action going on but the conversation is not necessarily one way.

I want to digress for a moment and talk about dating.

My expertise. That was sarcasm. All of us are confused about dating.

I’m going to ask about dating. You go out on a date with someone. You’re meeting them for the first time for real. The goal was clear to get to know them. There are in many ways a decision point. Do you want to see them again? There seems to be a tension between dumping all of your positive attributes out on the table to impress this person, but the worry that you’re going to seem like a bragger. The discovery process is happening through a conversation where the norms aren’t always clear. There’s an incentive to say the good things about yourself and disguise the bad things about yourself. You can’t bring your friend to be like, “You know Pete,” you can’t do that. Would you hide the good stuff about you until the right question gets asked?

There’s research. I will try to base this conversation on the research findings because clearly, I’m not the expert on data. There’s research that shows that if you create contexts for your brags, it’s better. You can start by asking, “What’s the most interesting job you have done?” and hope that they will ask you the same thing. Something along those lines may work.

How much can you bench press?

That may be a little not so subtle, but that still requires some cooperation. The person may not even ask you the same thing. It’s up in the air. There’s also research that shows if the recipient of your bragging or self-promotion efforts is a little cognitively busy, they may take it better.

They’re drunk.

That may work or maybe when they’re ordering to the waiter or something. When they’re looking at the menu, you can bring that stuff up. This is based on research. Speaking of first dates and if the goal is to get to know them, asking questions leads to more liking. There’s also research that shows that because it leads to more disclosure from the other side so that they would feel closer to you.

I’m not asking for myself. I’m asking for my audience.

I’m not talking about myself. This is my friend who mentioned. Probably the goal of any interaction shouldn’t be, “I’m going to brag and let this person know how amazing I am.” At the same time, creating a context in subtle ways and hoping that they will also reciprocate. If you ask them what’s the most interesting job you’ve ever had and if they don’t ask you the same.

Never ask them out again.

Who decides the topic selection is also an interesting thing to watch.

You should send them an agenda in advance with all the questions that are stated. There’s a moderator of this if I can get a little bit geeky. Has the person Google stalked you or not? We now live in a world where I have to assume at least 50% of dates have Google stalked.

[bctt tweet=”We don’t recognize other’s correctness that much though; we should.” username=””]

Why not 100%? Who’s not googling before?

Some people want mystery and discovery. I see that you google. You said 100%.

I don’t google. This is not me because I don’t have the luxury to google. If we think of online dating there’s just a name and there’s no way to find that person. If you google Ovul North Carolina, all my life stories are there. It’s not what I’m doing but I heard that a lot of people know much more about me.

You’re googleable. Saying I told you so. It feels good to say, “I told you so.” Nothing good comes from saying I told you so.

Hearing it is not good but saying it feels good. There are a lot of people who say it like, “I don’t want to say it, but I told you so.” That doesn’t help with lots of things. That definitely doesn’t help in terms of the impressions you make. Whoever it is, your mentee, your wife, your husband, your close friend, they don’t like it. There’s more, they also don’t want to take advice from you again, even if you’re giving them great advice and even if the other person gives them bad advice, which is counterproductive. At the same time, the interesting thing is being right feels good. We want to remind people, “I was right and I told you so.” That gap between the recipient and the person who says it is fascinating to me, that asymmetry.

The flip side of that is to tell someone you were right like, “Ovul, you were right. I was wrong.”

There is no expression for that. The funny thing about I told you so is that it’s a universal expression. In every language, there’s an I told you so.

How do you say that in Turkish?

“Sana söylemiştim.” It felt good to say it in my native language. Thank you for the opportunity. It’s been a while.

Saying, “Ovul, you were right. I was wrong,” feels great for the other person. I don’t think there’s a saying for that.

We don’t recognize others’ correctness that much. Probably we should. I will try to look into that in the next experiment that we do for this project to give that. I told you so maybe rightfully said, but the person still rejects that advice. Maybe when we tell them, “You’re right. You were great,” they take our advice more because flattery unfortunately works. Even insincere flattery works like, “I am smart. Thank you for telling me that. I like you.” Anyone who says that gets our bonus points.

As someone who likes to give and take advice, admitting when you were wrong and the other person was right is an important thing to do. I try to do it. Fishing for compliments, what’s an example? I’m sure I do this. People do this all the time. It’s like, “My hair looks terrible now.”

It’s like a self-insult like if I say something, I go, “I’m the worst. I’m not that smart.”

You’re quite smart. You went to Harvard University for undergrad and graduate school.

Thank you. My favorite interview ever. When we fish for compliments, a lot of people are nice and give to you, but they still hate the conversation. Imagine someone is doing all the self-insult like, “I’m ugly. I don’t even know. There’s no one for me.”

“I’m going to be alone forever.” I say, “Congratulations.”

Being single is much better than being in a bad relationship. Here’s the advice for now. Get divorced, which is good advice.

Is this the making of a stand-up bit?

I always advise getting divorced. I always say that in my bit.

Do you have a joke about that?

The happiest time in life is time after the divorce. What may be happier is time after the second divorce. I’ve been divorced. It’s wonderful.

How many times?

Once. It may be great, so the second one may feel better. Negotiations were hard. I hope I don’t go through that again. It’s definitely great advice. What were we talking about?

About fishing for compliments.

If someone says, “I will always be lonely and no one will like me. I’m ugly.” You don’t even leave it to silence. First of all, you don’t say, “That’s terrible.” You don’t even leave it to silent treatment. You have to say something. You have to come back with it. Still, the person does not enjoy that conversation at all. I didn’t love doing this experiment. We told half of our participants, “You are the fishers. Your goal is to get a compliment in this five-minute conversation. For every compliment, we’re going to pay you $1.” The other people are neutral, naïve people. We told them they were going to chat. They had no idea. First of all, the study is that people engage in. To get that compliment is one interesting, fascinating thing. We asked them how much they enjoyed that conversation, how much they liked their conversation partner. The people who had to give the compliment in a forced way did not like that. We do that. It’s the norm. We have to give that to the person if that happens.

This is not on your list but self-deprecation. This is relevant for you as a comedian. Comedians are well-known for using self-deprecation as a way to create comedy, especially early in their comedy set. Saying something negative about themselves often as their first joke. In my vernacular, self-deprecation is almost exactly a benign violation. It’s wrong to say bad things about yourself, but it’s okay because you’re saying them about yourself versus someone else. Not only does it get laughs but it has a licensing effect. If I self-deprecate, now I can deprecate. If I can criticize myself then I can criticize everyone else because I’m an equal opportunity. My first question is do you have a self-deprecating joke that you use?

My whole bit is one big self-deprecation. In every area, I am the actual victim of the joke or I am the one who’s confused. I’m the one who doesn’t understand. I’m the one who’s frustrated. That gives a lot of trust from the audience. The first thing you want as a comic is that you want that trust. Comedy is interesting. You can be conversationally funny but when you’re onstage, people are worried that it’s not going to go well. Vicarious embarrassment is a thing in comedy. They worry about you. What you want is that you will need to make sure that they don’t need to worry about you. You will choose an area where you self-deprecate, but at the same time, it should be an area that’s relatable they should be also thinking about themselves.

What’s an example of a bit that you do when you’re confused or you’re victimized?

[bctt tweet=”Flattery works.” username=””]

This will all make sense now that I also revealed I’m divorced. I talk about stages of sexless marriage. That’s one big hit for me. This is in terms of my comedy bits. This is my job talk. It’s one of the bits that I practice a lot because I do it a lot. In between the stages or different parts of it, I also talk about being a Middle Eastern in America, being from Turkey. Like I said, “I’m from Turkey but I like democracy,” and then I’d say, “Kind of,” and things like that. I start like that. I say, “If you don’t like my jokes, that’s fine as long as you think I’m thin. It’s okay.” These are all about my self-doubts like I’m from Turkey. I like being from Turkey, but I don’t like the current state of affairs there. The sexless marriage thing, I usually start by asking people, “How many of you are engaged? How many of you are single? How many of you are married?” I request a big round of applause for married people because I say, “It’s been a while since you haven’t had sex.” They also participate in my humor. I am making fun of myself and they say, “We’ve been there,” by giving me their laughter.

The data on sex and marriage is the average married couple has sex five times a month.

That’s impressive I would say, based on experience. This is a little public.

You do have a BA in Applied Math. My point is saying five is that means that’s an average. We know the floor is zero. The upside is 1,000. We know extreme numbers poll averages up. The point is that the average might be five, but what you’re saying is there are a surprising number of people who are having zero.

Less than what they want, let’s say. I have a joke about this where I talk about, “Sexless marriage is the opposite of friends with benefits. All the bad household tasks like taking the trash out, paying the bills and still no fun.” I call it enemies with drawbacks. The official clinical definition of this and I did look into research as a nerd, it’s less than ten per year. If you check out, especially Reddit, there’s this amazing chat room there called DeadBedrooms. The jargon there is also amazing. LL, Low Libido. High L, High Libido. People will be like, “I’m a female, High L, married to a man, LL.” I don’t think anyone is necessarily less than ten. Clinical definition is close to zero sex in a year. A lot of married people or a lot of people who are in long-term relationships may find themselves in this super non-excited, not super desire hot state. When I talk about this stuff in my bit, it’s relatable. Maybe not all people are married or maybe not all people have been in exactly zero sex marriages. When I say, “Test them some time,” people always give me laughter. It’s relatable. Friends with benefits are the opposite of enemies with drawbacks.

That can appeal to the single folks because single folks are used to getting a lot of blowback for not being married. Why aren’t you married? What’s wrong with you? They get to delight a little bit in that marriage isn’t as great as it’s made out to be. You can tell the joke that both are funny to married people.

I also find that optimism funny. If you’ve never been married or if you’ve never gone through this, you think, “You’re different. You’re cute.” The other thing I talk about is coming out of a long-term marriage and especially when it’s sexless is quite funny because this is true. People can check this out. I literally googled how to French kiss and there’s a video about this on YouTube. How to French Kiss, three minutes, 34 seconds. It starts like this. The woman shows up and she says, “First, find somebody.” It’s French kiss for dummies. It was a similar experience to learning how to drive in North Carolina, me and a bunch of teenagers on the same page.

What was easier?

I watched the video, but I haven’t practiced the techniques there. Driving is harder though. There are lots of stuff about that. Coming out of a long-term relationship, dating is a huge area. If I say, “Have you tried online dating? I signed up for Yelp.” That gets lots of laughter. Things like that.

Your self-deprecation is around some of your own personal experiences and so on. What about self-deprecation as an interpersonal tactic?

It is a successful tactic if people know about your competence beforehand. I still wouldn’t self-deprecate because it’s a good thing. If you go and if you meet someone for the first time, whether it’s professional or personal setting, if you tell them, “I’m a weirdo,” it will definitely lead to some more organic and authentic conversations which may work for you. In terms of the impressions you make, you still have to make sure that your competence or status is a little known beforehand. That’s why people googling you may not be necessarily a bad thing if you have the goods on your page.

Backhanded compliments.

When people tell me, “Your English is pretty good for an international.” I’m pissed off with that. My English is great. Speaking of fishing for compliments, could you say that?

Your English is outstanding. I’m sure you’re writing is also outstanding.


Thank you so much. I enjoy this very much.

Why do people do backhanded compliments?

It’s a praise that includes a comparison with a negative standard. If someone tells me, “You’re pretty confident for a young woman.” There’s not only the comparison, but there’s also a comparison with some prior belief that this person has about you or your category.

I have one for you. You’re quite charming for a Harvard grad.

That felt good. That’s not backhanded, that’s pretty good. It’s true. Thank you. Why do people do it? We run studies about this where we told people, “You have these messages to select from. You can either send a compliment or backhanded compliment to a recipient.” We gave them different interpersonal goals in our experiments. In the first group, we told them, “Your goal is to make them like you. They’re going to rate you. Which one would you like to send?” About 95% of the people choose the compliment, I don’t know about that other 5% who choose to send a backhanded compliment. I don’t know what they’re thinking about but it’s going to fail. There we have the right intuition, compliments work.

When we tell them, “Your goal is to signal your status. Please signal your status to them. You’re higher than them.” Overwhelming majority flips badly. About 80% chooses backhanded. If we tell them, “Do both,” then people are equally likely to choose either backhanded compliments or compliments. Whenever there is some status quo, either maintaining status while you elicit liking or signaling status right away, people think that having that qualifier to a compliment would work for them. Which is this interesting mistake and the sad lay belief that we have about life because it doesn’t, we also look at whether they do signal status and it backfires?

When is your book coming out?

It’s not in the works yet but hopefully soon.

This seems exactly the thing the world needs more of this stuff. I’m already a better person for this.

Thank you. Likewise, I enjoyed it. Hopefully, the comedy thing kicks off first and then the book or both at the same time.

I could imagine weaving them together, especially if you develop bits that are related to these things. Now, you’re translating your comedic thoughts.

Comedy is incredibly interesting because one of the things that I’m also discovering is that people share a lot of things with me. I end my bit and I’m like, “This is done,” and lots of people come up to me and say, “I’m in the same situation or I’ve been there.” It’s an amazing level of trust and I love it. I make myself vulnerable and the audience usually reciprocates by sharing their stories or how they find it relatable. It’s been a great journey.

I’ve been asking this question to mixed results. Do you have a rival, frenemy or enemy, whether it is in academia or comedy?

No rival. Definitely not at work. I don’t think I’m there in comedy yet. I’m getting there. I need to get better first. May I ask why do you ask this?

[bctt tweet=”Saying something negative about ourselves often is the first joke.” username=””]

You’re a behavioral scientist because you’re asking me why I’m asking this question. Comics never ask why I’m asking questions. It’s an interesting idea. We didn’t get into this, but oftentimes the topic of this show is about the underlying process people have as they pursue success in their professional or personal lives. I am openly puzzling about the value, the benefits and cost of having a frenemy or rival or something like that. We know in business that competition is, on one hand, bad, but on the other hand, can lead to creative innovation and creatives successes that wouldn’t have happened if there wasn’t a rival. Pepsi is much more creative than it would be otherwise if Coca-Cola didn’t exist and so on.

In the world of academia, in the world of comedy, we certainly are surrounded by accomplished people who on one hand might be admirable. On the other hand, they might not be likable. It’s easy to celebrate our friends’ successes in academia or comedy or it’s easier than the people we don’t like. Even when friends do well, does it suggest, “If they can do it, I can do it?” That it might serve as an extra motivator. It might serve as a motivator to think in new ways. I don’t think people like to admit that they have rivals, enemies or frenemies.

Maybe they choose a high person. Imagine you asking what’s my rival and I give a Nobel Prize. That would be funny.

I always say like, “I, unfortunately, benchmark my life against Jay-Z because Jay-Z and I are the same age.” I was like, “That’s a mistake.” On the other hand, I find the man inspirational. I also see a downside to having an enemy or rival in that you place a lot of control over your life over someone who doesn’t know about you, care about you.

Do they also think of you as a rival? If you only think of them and they don’t care, that’s a sad statement.

I watched a bunch of episodes to Mad Men. I finished watching the show. There’s a scene where Don Draper, the lead, this amazing creative director, beautiful man, charming, well-dressed, the whole thing. One of the copywriters said, “I feel bad for you.” They’re in the elevator. He addresses his boss. Don looks at him and goes, “I don’t think about you at all.” It’s the worst burn. This young copywriter is thinking about this person all the time. He’s like, “I don’t even know your name.”

If you think of someone as your best friend and they’re like, “We just know each other.” It’s an interesting question and I wonder if some experiences take you out of that. When I think of my high school experience, I can definitely think of people whom we were a little bit more like rival and also friends. I feel a little out of those things. I don’t know if it’s because of these experiences in other domains of life. Your definition of success becomes much broad. It’s more about life and there’s not one dimension and maybe that’s why. Mine was an honest answer that I don’t have one. Maybe in comedy, I will have one because I’m new there and it’s exciting. If there’s a gap between whom you think of as your rival, I’m interested in these gaps and asymmetries between people and if they don’t care about you it’s like Don Draper. That’s sad.

I’m puzzling over it and I haven’t done any reading or anything.

Do you have one?

I definitely have people I find inspirational. I’ve moved away from that. There were times in my life where I certainly did, whether it is athletically or academically and so on. I know comedy has it a lot, especially because the success is measurable. You’re in the green room, you hear people laughing, it’s clear that person is doing well.

It’s such honest feedback too. There is no way to fool it and soften it. It either lands or bombs. This is one of the things that I find surprising about comedy. Academics are fascinating people in general. All the self-importance and the academic jealousy, it’s fascinating topics. There’s a funny side to it but it’s real. That’s why it’s funny. When I started doing stand-up comedy, I didn’t know it would be this much competition. People care about whether they were the best comic. There are people also who do only this for a living. This is my side thing but fascinating topics. It is competitive.

Comedy and academia have a lot in common. What are you listening to, watching or reading that stands out, that you think is excellent? Besides How To French Kiss on YouTube.

INJ 52 | Humble Bragging
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

I watch that every day to take good notes. There is some good advice there. You don’t do it immediately. You count until four, that’s one piece of advice. Inside your head, not out loud. In terms of the TV shows, I don’t have anyone but I heard Mrs. Maisel.

Have you seen it?

I haven’t seen it, but people are recommending it highly and they love it. It’s also about a person who started doing stand-up in the ‘50s, ‘60s. I’m going to watch that because I heard it’s great. I’m reading a lot of funny texts again. I go back to Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde and try to understand what did they do that they created these texts that are still funny after many years.

I don’t know if you’re newly single or not.

It’s been a while, about a couple of years.

Oscar Wilde’s quote is, “To love one’s self is to begin a lifelong love affair.”

I love the quotes. Somebody asked for, “What’s the secret to happiness and romance?” I said, “I’m not young enough to know everything.” That was also an Oscar Wilde quote. Several years ago, I had all the answers.

I would suggest if you like this stuff is Mae West. She’s a comedic actress from the ‘50s and a bit of an eccentric soul and funny and has great one-liners. I would add her to that list.

I will check it out because I like thinking about what makes things funny. There’s no specific formula. Everyone has their own thing. It looks like I didn’t like how-to guides. This is the theme of this show. I find these texts interesting because they survived years and they’re still witty, interesting and funny.

To your point about truth. Ovul, this was a lot of fun. I feel like I’m going to be a better conversationalist as a result of this show.

Thank you so much. Likewise, I learned a lot.

Resources mentioned:

About Ovul Sezer

INJ 52 | Humble BraggingOvul Sezer is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She teaches Negotiations and Decision Making, and she studies the unproductive ways that people try to influence others. Ovul is also a stand-up comedian, developing her skills at open mics, comedy clubs, and comedy festivals.


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