On the day after Christmas, the The New York Times published an Op-Ed piece by guest columnist Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard. Patterson’s piece discussed the issue of authenticity versus sincerity. Authenticity, according to the piece, is defined as expressing the true inner self, prejudices and all. Patterson claims this popular viewpoint is overrated. What Patterson cares more about is sincerity, defined as presenting oneself to the world according to standards of social interaction, concealing socially unacceptable feelings in favor of behaviors that, although they may exist on the surface only, function to keep non-intimate relationships running smoothly.
This is an interesting premise and something that I have always promoted in my work with clients. It works in a couple of ways: The more obvious one is when a client has to deliver a presentation. Almost without fail, the client expresses concerns about authenticity, worrying that if they adopt certain behaviors and use them in performance, they will somehow bury their real, genuine selves under layers of artifice. My response is that no one cares about who they really are. What they care about is getting good information from someone who is not going to bore them to tears.
The less obvious and thornier issue arises around interpersonal communication. People claim they want and need to be themselves, warts and alland that it is dishonest to do anything less. But when I point out that we all have many selves and the one we employ at work is significantly different from the one we employ at home which also differs from the one we employ with friends, clients nod knowingly. In all relationships, there are times when we hide our true feelings and hold our tongues to ensure harmony. Think of all the little white lies we tell, viewed by most as necessary mechanisms to keep the lines of communication open and flowing smoothly. Being completely honest and authentic can amount to a recipe for disaster.
Behaving harmoniously also helps to build trust and thus, relationships. And there is a further benefit. The better a relationship, the more likely it is that the holder of prejudices and biases will question such beliefs, which often leads to a change of heart.
So does that mean we should always be faking it? Is there never a time when we can let our real, authentic selves break through? We have no further to look than some of the recent celebrity communication whoppers for the answer including Mel Gibson’s drunken tirade against Jews and Michael Richards’s anti African-American outburst. I think it would’ve been better for everyone if these “authentic” feelings had been kept buried. Although we may think that we are glad to know the true feelings of such celebrities, because it either confirms what we suspected or so we can make more informed choices when choosing to patronize them and their entertainment products, it is pyrrhic, at best. The overwhelming feelings, the ones that are really front and center in such cases are feelings of hurt and betrayal.
I’m completely comfortable knowing that there is much I don’t know — and don’t want to know — about certain people in my sphere. And there are things about me that I don’t want others to know. By being so disciplined, I hope that my relationships will grow, I will question my own biases and prejudices, and any pre-conceived notions I have will change.