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I’m a graduate working in another industry than the one I studied for my BA, so I’m undertaking lots of external training relevant to my job. I've been studying quite hard and have been doing really well in the exams. Sometimes a co-worker will ask how I’ve performed in the exam and usually I try to answer vaguely because I don’t want them to think I’m showing off, and also to avoid the awkward question that usually follows, “Wow, you must be really smart!” In university I would have been fine saying something like, “I did fine,” or “Well, I passed!” and people wouldn’t tend to pry.

However I find that people in work tend to keep asking until I tell them the specific grade, and then I feel like I’ve created even more of a fuss by being purposely avoidant. On the other hand, if I try to be straightforward from the start and tell them my score outright, I end up feeling like I’m bragging (especially because I’m trying not to, and can never figure out if I should smile/look neutral, etc. and in my discomfort I may end up reverting to aloofness).

So I’m wondering, what’s the best way to answer questions about my grades to avoid sounding arrogant, or inviting further comments about my intelligence? For context, I'm in Europe.

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    If they kept asking how much you are paid, how would you handle it? It gets down to why you think they need to know, or why you want to tell them. – user3169 Sep 25 '17 at 21:56
  • How do they know you took some external training? – user3169 Sep 25 '17 at 21:58
  • In most cases I've told them in previous conversations. Most people would have guessed anyway since I wouldn't be in the role I'm in now without this training. – sudowoodo Sep 25 '17 at 23:05
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    "For context, I'm in Europe." Could you be more specific? There are a lot of different cultures within europe, narrowing this down will help get better answers. – user288 Sep 26 '17 at 0:26
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    Just brag a little, you've clearly worked hard, and earned your bragging rights! – JMK Sep 26 '17 at 10:33
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Generally when people ask you questions, they don't so much want an objective fact as your reaction to that fact. Therefore, if you got a very high mark, say 98%, you might reply to "how did you do on the exam?" with:

  • better than I'd hoped, actually! I'm very happy with it
  • it went great, I studied very hard and got the mark I wanted
  • oh, it was really hard, and I actually fell a little short of the goal I set myself, but I will be ok with the mark that I got

(You'll notice you could give exactly the same 3 responses to a mark of just 1% above that required for a pass.)

It would be rude, in my North American culture, for someone to continue to press and say something like "but what number did you get?" If someone were to ask, I would be fine saying "oh, I don't like to share numbers, it often leads to hard feelings" and then coming back again to the emotional content of the conversation such as really feeling rewarded for all the work I put in studying, or really feeling lucky that so many of the questions covered areas I had prepared on, and so on.

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    And if you don't go for the numbers, but instead keep on the tangents and on the emotional content, the conversation is kept alive for longer. It is really a good skill for introverts and pragmatic people to obtain (and here's wishing I could go and tell that to myself 20 years ago). – Mindwin Sep 25 '17 at 19:44
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    Interesting, I wonder if this is a cultural thing because personally I'd quite happily share what I got and what I was aiming for and if someone shared in this way I wouldn't think them to be bragging or anything. – Cronax Sep 26 '17 at 11:02
  • -1 There's no reason not to just tell the person who asked your score what you got on the test. Because you were asked, it's not bragging. The indirectness this answer suggests won't cause problems, per say, but it's unnecessary. – Kevin Sep 26 '17 at 16:46
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    @Kevin you're welcome to your opinion, but the OP clearly said they didn't want to say the number, because people tend to react awkwardly to very high marks. The OP feels awkward and wants to avoid that feeling. You stating that such a feeling doesn't exist negates the OPs own experiences and reality. – Kate Gregory Sep 26 '17 at 17:49
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    "oh, I don't like to share numbers, it often leads to hard feelings" - this sounds more arrogant than just giving the figure... – ESR Sep 27 '17 at 2:00
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As you mentioned, if you avoid saying your actual score/grade and they pry enough for you to have to say your score, it will look like you think you're smart. It will look like you are acting like you know more than them or that they needn't undermine your abilities. People always tend to assume that you knew you were going to tell them your scores and you wanted to build it up before you told it to them.

Just tell them your score off the bat. The best way to do that without coming off as conceited is to undermine yourself. Not act like you're dumb and then tell them your high score. That will be worse. But start the sentence off with something like:

Surprisingly, I got an A+

Act like you're shocked about how well you've done in the test. Make them feel like you didn't expect yourself to perform so well.

Of course, this only can work so many times. After that, it will go back to: "Yeah OK, we get it. You're smart". So after a while, after you tell them your (high) score, move to something like this:

I've taken a few tests in this field now, so I am getting slightly better at this. I'm glad these classes are working out so well for me.

After a few times of saying this, again, you need to change your tone a little bit. Go to something like this:

I don't know, having taken so many tests in this field, I expected to score more than an A, but I guess the difficulty goes up as I go through more tests.

Once they've adequately understood that you are capable of doing well in tests, you can be straight up factual to them. Like this:

Got an A+ in my test. I'm glad I'm still doing well in my tests and haven't lost interest in these classes yet. I usually get tired of tests but this subject has really kindled my interest.

For your first sentence, you could use a few variations so that you can delay the second phase a little bit. Here are a few examples:

My teacher is amazing! He practically got us an A+.

The test was hard, but I studied the right things and took a lot of notes in my classes. It came a long way in helping me get this A.

Stayed up all night the past week so I can make absolutely sure I do well in this test! It paid off.

I was worried if I got a lot of the answers wrong, but thankfully, I didn't. This subject is still a bit confusing for me.

If the questions are not exactly as I studied them to be, I get thrown off. Luckily, I had questions that I expected to have.

Telling someone you scored high in a test in itself doesn't make you conceited. It is all about how you tell them you got a good grade.

In addition, always add a tiny little sentence that gives the person an opportunity to "share their wisdom" with you. This makes it look like you're still down-to-earth and not on your high horse.

I hope this helps.

  • -1 There's no reason not to just tell the person who asked your score what you got on the test. Because you were asked, it's not bragging. Even the limited indirectness this answer suggests can come off as humblebragging and seem more pompous than just giving a direct answer. – Kevin Sep 26 '17 at 16:47
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    @Kevin while your conclusion stands true to most people, the OP specifically asked about how not to feel like bragging when telling someone your test score. This answer directly addresses the OP's concern about sounding humble. I honestly agree with OP's concern because I am like that too. Telling someone something good about myself, even when asked for it, makes me feel like I sound conceited. I try to polish my response a little bit so I sound humble still and that "I am learning well", not "I am smart". – Crazy Cucumber Sep 26 '17 at 17:03
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Personally I find deceit in interactions like this generally backfires, so I tend to be as straightforward as I can be. Don't bother worrying about whether you sound like you're boasting; don't lie and pretend you think you're worse than you are; don't act cagey about revealing your score. Just tell things how they are. There's nothing illegal or unfriendly about being qualified or skilled (and being seen so).

But this is a lot easier if you have a plan for a follow-through; I usually treat "what score did you get" as a conversation starter rather than a literal inquiry for data. Talk about how the things you've learned have changed you, your plans, or your perspective. So:

  • Oh, I did really well, I got 98%. This earth sciences stuff is crazy cool! Did you know that there are naturally-formed nuclear reactors where fission material just happens to be under the right pressure and temperature to sustain a reaction?
  • I've been trying a "steady studying" diet where I avoid all-nighters and study a fixed amount every day instead, and I think it really paid off. It's gotten me thinking about these crazy crushes we've been getting ourselves into on Project X, you know? Maybe we should be pushing back against management on those big last-minute changes!
  • Oh, yeah, I've really been in flow on learning cryptography. With all the extra credit I ended up over 100%. I'm really glad I'm in that class, too, it's given me a great idea about how to fix the security holes in our Candy Crush app so people can't send the servers faulty scores. You want to hear the protocol I have in mind and see if you can punch any holes in it?
  • My wife's best friend's cousin's roommate speaks French as their first language, and I've been having them over every weekend to practice with me. I ended up nailing the test, plus I'm making a friend. We're going bowling this weekend and she's going to teach me sports lingo.
  • I got a 98%! The way they've been teaching geometry has been pretty abstract, but I've been finding ways to relate it to my woodworking hobby to ground it for myself. I've really started appreciating the cleverness of some of the old-fashioned nail-less joints in Japanese architecture. Let me show you something cool on this whiteboard over here.
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An analogy to working...

My 2¢.. being coy about your grade seems more like a humblebrag than just being straightforward. I felt this way when got my first professional job, and all my buddies were still working temp jobs. People would ask me "what're you up to these days?" and I'd feel weird telling them where I work knowing they were still at McDonalds or something.

Eventually I realized how this came across as arrogant, because I was projecting my feeling of superiority over their life.

In reality I know plenty of people who would probably prefer working at a fast food restaurant (ect..) to what I do. I know a lot of people who are just still working towards finishing their degrees (I was very fortunate to have my college paid for). I know people who frankly don't care what they do for work, as long as it pays enough to afford rent. I know people who are more concerned with making as much money as possible even if they hate what they do.

My job does not make me superior to anyone. It's something that I am personally proud of because it is something I worked hard to get, and being proud of your achievements is perfectly acceptable (so long as you're not insufferable).

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When your coworkers ask you about a test, they're genuinely interested in how you did. There's no need to be afraid of coming off as being haughty. You can just answer them directly! You can even be happy when you tell them - they'll likely be happy with you.

This is something that's taken me a while to learn. I had some rough experiences in college, and for a while, when friends asked me about what had happened, I tried to give indirect answers because I didn't want them to feel like I was dumping my problems onto them. But they asked me because they truly wanted to know, and they were reasonable people fully capable of deciding how to handle my news for themselves. So I eventually learned to answer the questions people asked me honestly and frankly.

Earning high marks on a test isn't a negative experience, of course, so our situations are comparable only in a limited sense, but I believe the same principle applies: Answering your coworker's questions about your scores honestly is very respectful, not a way of showing off, because they wouldn't have asked if they didn't care about you as a person enough to truly want to know.

If your coworker responds by saying, "Wow, you're really smart!" they're not indicating that you're intimidating them or showing off. They're giving you a compliment and celebrating with you. Please feel free to enjoy the compliment. Saying thank you without getting self-conscious shows that you're confident and friendly, but not at all arrogant.

This only works when your coworkers approach you about your scores first. Bragging about your scores without being asked does come off as cocky. But I don't think you're at risk of doing that if you're this shy about sharing your scores already :)

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Typically "good enough" without focusing my attention on the one who asked the question to signal this is a complete answer gets across the vibe that it's a topic I would not want to talk about in detail with the respective person.

But if the topic is fine from a privacy perspective, just state the grade. There's no reason not to appear smart. If they really just derive from grades the level of smartness they attribute to you, it's their fault for being easily impressed.

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there's nothing to be ashamed of. If you did well, own it. Beam radiantly and say that you aced it. Or for a change of pace, "It was touch and go for a while, but I pulled it off." Your colleagues (at least the ones worth hanging around with) don't want to know exact numbers... They want to celebrate your success.

Most people won't follow up with "You must be smart, huh?" But if they do, you can gently deflect it. "Oh, you!" Or my personal favorite answer to that question, "Uhhh..." ;D

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