On Being “Humbled”

A peacock, anything but humble, shows its feathers.

One of my language usage pet peeves of late has been the increased use of the word “humbled” in contexts that demonstrate a lack of humility. A connection of mine recently posted on LinkedIn that he was humbled to have been selected to receive an award. I suspect that he was in fact feeling honored or proud rather than humbled.

Dictionary.com provides the following definitions of “humble”:

adjective, humbler, humblest.

1. not proud or arrogant; modest:
to be humble although successful.

2. having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc.:
In the presence of so many world-famous writers I felt very humble.

3. low in rank, importance, status, quality, etc.; lowly:
of humble origin; a humble home.

4. courteously respectful:
In my humble opinion you are wrong.

5. low in height, level, etc.; small in size:
a humble member of the galaxy.

verb (used with object), humbled, humbling.

6. to lower in condition, importance, or dignity; abase.

7. to destroy the independence, power, or will of.

8. to make meek: to humble one’s heart.

Of course, language is not fixed and popular usage changes over time. Other words in the English language are often used to mean the opposite of their original definitions, as can be seen in the common hyperbolic use of the word “literally.” (That one has never really bothered me.) I think the rise in the use of “humbled” to convey a false modesty may be symptomatic of an underlying cultural shift, though.

Saying that you are humbled to receive an award is perhaps the clearest possible form of a humblebrag.  Why not come right out and say that you are honored to have been chosen and that you are proud of what you’ve accomplished? Do people employ “humbled” in this way because they are afraid of being seen as arrogant? Is it now faux pas to feel satisfied with what we’ve achieved, and to credit our own hard work and skills for our accomplishments?

I’m all about giving credit where credit is due, recognizing the influence of others, and appreciating that in any field or undertaking, there will almost always be people who are better or greater than we are. Those sentiments could be expressed by saying something like, “While I am honored to have been chosen for this award, thinking about the past recipients and their great accomplishments is humbling. I can only hope to one day reach their level, but this award encourages me to keep striving.” Such remarks express true humbleness.

What are your thoughts about using “humbled” in place of “honored” or “proud?”

For a more in-depth analysis of some research on this topic, click here.  Also, humblebragging doesn’t work.

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2 thoughts on “On Being “Humbled”

  1. I agree. “Humblebragging” tends to have the opposite effect on me than I think the humblebragger intended. I think it’s okay to proudly state your accomplishments, especially those hard-earned ones (as I did recently on FB because I was proud and honored to have been recognized for my work and contributions).

    I wonder if this trend of humblebragging stems from the “trophies-for-everyone” trend? Do people feel they need to downplay (“humblize”) their accomplishment because others weren’t recognized (i.e., didn’t get a “trophy”)?

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