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How to Be a Travel Show-Off

Being a travel show off in Olympia, Greece.
A wannabe travel show-off posing in Olympia, Greece. Don't know the guy.

“I’d pay, but I only got drachmas on me.”

That’s my friend Chip a couple decades ago, after returning from a trip to Athens. He’s fishing through his wallet, feigning surprise at the lack of dollars he finds. “Yeah,” he says, making a sideward glance to other brunchers nearby and then breaking into a faux soccer-dad voice: “I just got back from Greece.”

This isn’t earnest; it’s an act. Yet, even if you find it funny, it’s showing off in unacceptable fashion. At least it is to psychologists who study bragging in the modern age.

In a 2012 Psychology Today article, a UMASS psych professor Susan Krauss Whitbourne reminds us “it’s healthy to brag about yourself to yourself” (a Harvard study found that bragging triggers the same parts of our senses as food and sex). She outlines seven ways people show off, though warns only one is “moderately acceptable.”

This gets a little confusing. Basically she says it’s not “acceptable” to show off a characteristic you have (“yo soy brilliant surfer”) or a deed you’ve done (“I crushed my Spanish vocab exam in Quetzaltenango”). It’s not even acceptable to paraphrase what others said about you too (“the Delhi market guy told me I haggled like an Indian, not some tourist”). And even if you trying being self-aware by posting on Facebook that “I know I shouldn’t brag, but I’m in Machu Picchu b*tches!,” it’s foul play.

It’s only OK, she says, if we have clear, verifiable sources. Sounds a bit like work.

Normally we speak of ourselves only a third of the time, but social media has tempted more self-touting. Now many of us ask for both awe and sympathy via the “humblebrag,” as coined by Parks & Recreation writer Harris Whittels. So instead of just saying “YES! I’m in Paris!,” it becomes “Christ, just tried to use my NYC MetroCard on the Paris metro!” It’s sly, but it’s also perhaps the worst kind of brag there is.

(And you definitely can’t say this.)

Another no-go is what blogger Jen Doll identifies as the look-at-how-bad-I-am “underbrag” (“yeah Cancun, that’s what your toilets get for putting all that tequila around me last night!!!”). Underbraggers don’t appear to care what you think, yet understand that you’ll appreciate their gall. Think Charlie Sheen. Or brothers Gallagher from Oasis.

None of this is OK, if done regularly. (I’d say we all get a single daily exemption for a plain, uncomplicated brag during trips and the few days after a return.)

Before we continue, let’s walk through a few more subtle, yet unacceptable attempts at showing off.

  • You know, you’ve been in London too long when you start dreaming in “colour.”
  • Fly ball just knocked the guy in the head next to me at Yankee Stadium — dangerous sitting right behind the catcher!
  • Mama mia! [Shot of full table of Italian food]
  • Yeah, this sure beats the office [Shot of legs crossed before surf in St Martin, Caribbean]
  • I just read five articles on the humblebrag phenom and don’t know if I can ever say a word again.

So how can we show off, head held high? I mean, we all want to, right? Two ways.

First, be more like journalists and less like rambling memoirists. Journalists treat a story like a circle, approaching it from multiple viewpoints, find sources to quote to defend points, and keep themselves out of the narrative almost as a rule. So before sharing 200 photos, edit them down and create a dialogue that’s ultimately about the destination, not you.

Journalists also use verified sources, which returns us to Whitbourne’s lone “moderately acceptable” brag. That’s something the observer can immediately verify on their own, like a quote or a photo.

To do this, sure, post that photo of an Alpine cow grazing in the dandelions before a snow-capped Swiss peak. Just caption it with something as simple as “Switzerland is one scene like this after another — unbelievable.” People can judge for themselves your claim, and you win points for not thrusting your look-where-I-am-now face front and center of every pic you share.

Remember, it’s about a place or experience first. Let your take be in the “comments field” of the story itself.

The great travel show-off secret, I feel, is the vastly untapped “second-degree show off.” This is a cultivating tactic that encourages your friends and family to show off for you. Without asking them to. It’s easy.

After a trip to Targu Mures in Transylvania, you could wear that 70s-style “Transylvania” t-shirt with a gothic castle on it once or twice. But long-term, you’ll get more points, if it’s your cousin Chris wearing it. So give it to him. Each time he wears it, he’ll be asked about it, and he’ll have to answer, “nah, never been — my cousin Robert went awhile back — said it was awesome.”

You just won.

But your cousin? If he doesn’t temper his answers — if he starts taking pride in them by association, like a proud grandparent of a second-grader’s soccer trophy — well, he’d eventually become an unacceptable show-off himself.

Sorry Chris, but that’s your problem now.

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen Lonely Planet guidebooks, talked travel on TV shows like the Today Show and CNN Headline News, and writes regularly for National Geographic Traveler. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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