DEAR MISS MANNERS: I frequently encounter an even worse cousin of the “humble brag.”
At the three or four charity fundraising galas I attend each year, the organizations give out awards to recognize dedication, hard work and, most often, essential and generous financial support for the work we all believe in. No problem there.
The problem stems from the way in which the honorees begin their acceptance speeches. Almost to a man, they announce that they are “humbled” by the award. Now, also in attendance are many recipients of the charity work: people who have intimate knowledge of what it actually means to be “humbled.” There could be teenage single mothers kicked out of their homes by their parents, high school students from poor families attending excellent private schools on scholarship, recovering addicts, or persons with serious mental health issues.
In addition, serving the dinner are friends who also work for and believe in the charity, but who cannot afford to attend, and so supplement their incomes as waiters and waitresses. They are therefore literally waiting hand and foot on their fellow volunteers, the people who run the charities, and the honorees.
The award recipients are handed an engraved sculpture, and are then photographed and given standing ovations. That is the very opposite of being humbled; it is being exalted.
Can you advise your readers in similar situations to find a more accurate and gracious way of expressing any feelings that they are not worthy of being so honored -- other than by claiming to an audience of people who have felt the keen sting of being humbled that they, too, have now been humbled? It may only be semantics, but isn’t semantics an important part of etiquette?
GENTLE READER: Indeed. Miss Manners has always been one to oppose analyzing conventional phrases literally, but frankly, this one grates on her, too.
Yet she understands why people keep saying it. They are trying to show that despite being praised, they have not gotten too full of themselves.
A better way to do this would be to express gratitude -- first for the recognition, but then for the mission of the charity and for the many other people who contribute to it. Believable humility is acknowledging that you are one of many.