The week before last, I shared with you a post containing a bit of uncharacteristic rambling about fake things I like as well as a few I don’t personally care for. The central premise was that just because something is fake … doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad.
Thing is, as I got toward the end of that post, some deeper thoughts began to tickle the fringe of my sleep-deprived mind. But they would have taken the post in a completely different direction (if I could have even managed to grab hold of them in that state). So I just decided to write a follow-up post.
Well, here we are. And so I shall.
In the comments section after that previous installment, there was quite a bit of interesting discussion about “fake people.” We all know them:
The too-loud laugher, or the guy with the glistening perma-smile that never quite creases the eyes.
The party guest who enters with fanfare, kisses the air beside both cheeks with an ostentatious *muah!* and always seems to be standing in camera-ready poses.
The co-worker who profusely issues compliments and nods heartily in agreement during conversations — and yet somehow always seems to be at the center of office gossip, drama and controversy.
Today, I’d like to offer some thoughts on fake people (and, quite possibly, ourselves). Let me be clear up front that my goal here will primarily be understanding and perspective, not necessarily solutions, though some of the latter may work themselves in.
the makings of fake
I’ve made the claim often on this blog and in the book that virtually everything we do in life is done for a perceived gain. That gain is not always achieved, mind you, but our motivations remain in place.
Some of the nicest, kindest people you’ll ever meet are heroin addicts. They’ve mastered the art of penitent looks and crocodile tears. They give award-winning performances when they tell you that you’re the only person left who cares about them or explain the legitimate-sounding reason they need that loan from you.
Flirtation and insincere or surface compliments might be dished in hopes of scoring a rowdy romp, knowing before the first smile is flashed or eyebrow is lifted that it’s just for tonight.
The slickest apologies are often delivered by those who simply want you to stop talking about their faults, with never the slightest intention of actually changing.
Behaving in an outward manner that appears to be at odds with our inner self can be an effective way of getting what we want from people.
But don’t suck your teeth or point your finger at “those people” quite yet. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all been guilty of me-centered insincerity at some point or other:
We’ve been more solicitous of a famous or influential person than we’d have been to the average Joe, in hopes that it may open doors for us down the line.
We’ve led into a conversation with a friend by telling them how wonderful they are, all the while knowing that it’s funneling down to asking them for a favor.
We’ve feigned sick or claimed to be busy with imaginary tasks, in order to get out of an awkward or tedious situation.
I’m not implying that we remain passive with manipulative people or let them off the hook. I’m simply suggesting that we strive to minimize disdain wherever possible, remembering the times we ourselves have given in to the temptation to use our acting skills for self gain.
I know quite a number of people who, it seems, would shrivel up and cease to exist if they weren’t able to keep a mainline of attention flowing in.
This is the too-loud laugher at the party.
It’s the big spender — with the pile of credit card bills in the secret box at home.
It’s the limelight-stealer who always seems to have coincidentally just done something just a little more amazing than whoever spoke last.
It’s also that co-worker I mentioned earlier, or that one friend in the group, who’s everyone’s confidante — and the first to gossip in corners. Fanning flames and watching the sparks jump and catch in new locations is a fascination. Seeming to run to put them out as well feels heroic. All that’s important is remaining at the center of the action.
I’ve had countless opportunities to get past the surface with “fake” people of this variety. It often takes a long time and lots of patience, because the need for attention is every bit as much an addiction as drugs or alcohol. And withdrawal or detox are just as painful. Normal levels of attention feel the same as being invisible. And feeling invisible … feels like being dead.
Often, if you go back far enough, this brand of “fake” stems from feeling unloved. And along the way, attention in its many forms became the substitute: the close-enough. Ironically, while these people may occasionally get a short-lived fix, their approach usually leads to even more rejection and loneliness.
For some, smiling, nodding in agreement and laughing at every joke feels safe. Social niceties, personal inquiries, stories and winks can come off as feeling rehearsed … because they are.
Unlike attention-fake, the safety-faker is generally well-liked. They’re popular even — just not well-known.
Large groups actually feel safer to these people, because they can blend in and use their safety go-tos often without being discovered. They are the best party hosts — and yet the most insecure people.
These “fakers” don’t have malicious or deceptive intent. In fact, if you take the time to get to know them, you might be surprised to find that they’ll confess they are “terrible with people” or uncomfortable with conversation. Once their rehearsed stand-bys run out, they begin to feel stuck, even panicked, and will often withdraw.
Safety-fake can also be a substitute for love: “I know how to be what I think people want me to be. But I fear people wouldn’t like the me that I really am inside.”
This would also include the people pleasers (my former self included). People like happy, fun, entertaining people. So we learn to be happy and fun and entertaining — even when we’re crumbling inside.
Many people I know were simply raised to smile and laugh warmly, despite how they might be feeling about a person or situation. Think of the classic Southern Belle (though this type of rearing is certainly not limited to any particular region).
And really, the problem isn’t with practiced cordiality itself. In fact, most of us put this into play at some time or other.
You’re at that gathering where you’ve been cornered by someone who’s been talking for the last half hour without pause about the different types of eyes used in puppet fabrication. (Yes, this really happened to me.) You’re starting to sweat and feel a tightness in your throat, panicking that you’ll still be standing there in another hour. Or two. Will anyone rescue you?
But what do you do? You raise your eyebrows, smile and say, “Uh-huh” or “Mmmm…” with much nodding of head — even after the words have turned to the horn sounds the adults made in the Peanuts cartoons.
What’s the alternative if you can’t get a word in edgewise? Run away in the middle and later claim that you had to throw up? Shout over them (at your friend’s party, mind you) and tell them outright that you frankly don’t give a rip about whatever they’ve been talking about?
Sometimes, you just have to grin and bear it, reminding yourself that the present squirmy feeling won’t matter in a year. (Though when I know the corner-trap guest is at a party, I always plan my escape with certain friends who stay on the lookout, ever ready for that rescue.)
Acting in contrast to how we may feel based on etiquette is different from doing so for reasons of safety. The former is based on “good breeding” (whether the instruction itself was balanced or not) and may be employed by confident people as a point of strength, whereas the latter is typically a coping strategy for dealing with insecurity.
A couple of years ago, a change in health plans landed me with a new primary care doctor. Upon my very first visit, I found the usual questions taking a turn down an odd path. Do you smoke? and Any allergies? drifted into questions about family history of depression, spending habits and the like. Keep in mind that this was within five minutes of meeting me for the first time.
I stopped him mid-question and stated directly, “It seems to me that you’re attempting to diagnose me with mental illness, bipolar disorder if I had to guess.”
He stopped writing and bit his lip. Guilty.
“Well, if you want to know, yes. You do seem a bit too … happy.”
There have been times when I’ve invited someone to a gathering with my close circle of friends, and they’ve confided in me afterward, “They all seem great. But it felt … weird. Nobody is really that nice, for that long.”
And we aren’t the only ones. I’ve known many wonderful people across a lifetime who’ve been labeled by some as “fake,” but who I knew to simply and legitimately be that nice.
That happy to see their friends.
That interested in what others had to say.
Even if it’s perhaps not the norm or quite what you may be accustomed to.
Just as with the first post on the topic, let me point out that perhaps what you see as “fake” may be more complex — less black-and-white — than you’ve been seeing it.
I might even go so far as to say that there are no fake people. There are only real people making real choices for specific reasons.
This also seems the perfect opportunity to reiterate one of the central pieces of advice from the book:
Focus on the person, not the problem.
Again, my goal here isn’t to suggest how to “fix” anyone. My hope is that in considering the why over the what, you may find ways to trade judgment for empathy a little more often.
And in the process, you may even gain some insight into your own choices where being fake is concerned, toward making different choices tomorrow.