12/24/2013 07:32 am ET Updated Feb 23, 2014

My Festivus Grievances About Online Comments and Self-Promotion

Yesterday was Festivus, the secular holiday invented in protest of the commercialized Christmas season. As every Seinfeld fan knows, it's a tradition to start Festivus with the airing of grievances. In the lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek tone of this fictional holiday, I'd like to share my complaints about what I've learned from reading online feedback from strangers over the past year, and propose a set of guidelines for us all to follow.

So get out your aluminum poles and prepare for your feats of strength. As Frank Costanza would say, "I got a lot of problems with you people!"

My most recent post was on 12 exciting business books that will debut next year. In response, one person wrote to say, "You left off an important book." Eager to learn about it, I read further, only to discover that the sender was recommending his own book.

Contrast that with an endearing note from another author: "While you were checking out advance copies of next year's books, I do wish my publisher had sent you a copy of my book." He went on to explain why it was relevant to my interests and values. (You had me at wish. I'm reading your book, and it rocks.)

I love discovering compelling new ideas and doing what I can to help spread the word about them. If you're going to tell me about your work, though, keep in mind that blatant self-promotion will probably backfire. Studies show that the more you toot your own horn, the more negatively you're evaluated: Self-promoters are not only less liked, but also earn lower salaries and fewer promotions. Bragging about yourself violates norms of modesty and politeness -- and if you were really competent, your work would speak for itself.

Instead of broadcasting your own successes, here are some alternatives:

(1) Let other people sing your praises. Research demonstrates that when your accomplishments are promoted by a third party, even if that person is a friend or agent known to be biased in your favor, you're perceived more favorably.

(2) Master the humblebrag. If you don't have someone to promote you, mix some self-deprecation into your swagger. Evidence suggests that people who make balanced statements about themselves are better liked -- and perceived as more honest -- than self-promoters. One of my favorite examples is the bio of the bestselling humor author A.J. Jacobs. Here are two excerpts:

• "The Know-It-All... was praised by Time magazine, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, USA Today, Janet Maslin in the New York Times and AJ's uncle Henry on"
• "He wonders if he fooled anyone with this third-person thing, or if everyone knows that he wrote this bio himself. "

A.J. strikes a brilliant balance between telling you about his amazing achievements and using his comedic talents to show that he's perfectly aware of humility norms. For more advice on the humblebrag, see Bruce Kasanoff's forthcoming book How to Self-Promote Without Being a Jerk.

(3) Promote achievements that are objective, not subjective. It's one thing to say that your book was a New York Times best-seller. It's another thing entirely to claim it's important. It's more socially acceptable to tell people about verifiable accomplishments than about idiosyncratic opinions. (Within reason... if you're in your thirties and still bragging about your SAT score, get over it.)

(4) Focus less on yourself and more on others. The whole problem could be circumvented if we shifted our attention to other people. Rather than telling people how great you are, tell them what intrigued you about them.

But sometimes, people take focusing on others in strange directions. When my work was profiled in the New York Times, instead of engaging with the substance of the ideas, some readers decided to try their hand at diagnosing me with OCD and Asperger's syndrome. One even went so far as to speculate that like all Penn professors, I abuse my secretary. Never mind that I don't have a secretary -- and between my three degrees in psychology and my wife's in psychiatry, we might know something about these diagnoses.

More recently, a guy made this comment on one of my posts: "Your shaved head means you're balding and prefer not to have those embarrassing, unsightly hairs on your head. It also makes you look younger so you have more appeal to the 18-35 audience."

Dude, you missed the mark. My real motivation for shaving my head is an insatiable desire to look more dominant, taller, and stronger. (Yes, there is actually research showing that bald guys gain these benefits from shorn scalps. How else would I make my opponents shudder in fear at the Festivus feats of strength?) Plus, I like not having to brush my hair.

If you're going to say something online about someone you've never met, what if you tried sticking to the content of their work -- or shifting from asserting opinions to asking questions? Warren Berger's profound new book, A More Beautiful Question, is full of advice on how to do this more effectively, and I've also learned a great deal from Dan Pink's analysis of the power of questions in To Sell Is Human, my favorite book of 2013, and Shane Snow's tips on how to ask better questions.

In a wonderful New Yorker piece on the psychology of online comments, psychologist Maria Konnikova asks "whether the outliers, the trolls and the flamers, will hold outsized influence." She concludes that the answer is no, because people are remarkably good at voting down the least helpful, informative, and respectful comments online. I want to go a step further: that if we all follow the principles above, we won't have as many trolls and flamers to begin with.

In celebration of this great holiday, let me close with a question: What are the worst habits that you see in online comments and emails from strangers? Air your grievances here -- or at least write a comment so terrible that someone else will have the chance to complain about it. That will be a Festivus miracle.

Adam Grant is a Wharton professor and the author of Give and Take, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller on the hidden power of helping others. One of his goals in life is to make A.J. Jacobs laugh.