Today’s one-word prompt on The Daily Post is “smooth”. I have not used these prompts until now, but the word whetted my appetite. Smooth as silk. Smooth as Swiss chocolate. Smooth as a lemon soufflé.

Smooth as all the people I loved to hate. You know the ones I’m talking about. The ones that change like chameleons depending on their surroundings. That always seemed hypocritical to me. And although I fancy myself a tolerant person, I am hypocritically intolerant of hypocrisy.smooth

I just read an article that turned my perspective on its head. Our authenticity, it says, is a function of self-monitoring. High self-monitors adjust to their environment, low self-monitors are guided by their inner selves. I was born a low self-monitor, and for years, I wore it as a badge of pride. The blows of time may have convinced me to moderate my behavior a little (oh, the very least possible), but I can’t help thinking that there is something good, something right, something authentic — about being authentic.

Instead of authenticity, the article says, we should be striving for sincerity. As in, take what we want to present to the world, and turn our inner selves into that. This echoes an idea I read long ago in Little Women. In that book, Jo, who has a temper over which she frequently regrets having no control, asks her mother for advice. Mrs. March says that when she was a girl, her temper was worse than Jo’s. She managed it, she says, by pretending she wasn’t angry until it actually became true. This spoke to my high-tempered self so much that I tried it out. It took a decade or more, but Mrs. March (or Louisa M. Alcott) was proven right.

So, to all the smooth operators out there, for the sake of keeping this world spinning on its axis, we authentic people have something to learn from you — sincerity.

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1 Response to Smooth

  1. swamimalathi says:

    I think that article (the one about sincerity being better than authenticity) is a bit simplistic. It is looking at two alternatives: acting as you are inside, or acting as you would like to present yourself to the outside world.

    But suppose we expand the space of options, and see three options: a social self, reflecting what (we think) would work best in the environment; an aspirational self, reflecting what we would like to be; and a current self, reflecting our current internal state.

    First, we can see that there is a built-in tension between the social self and current self – if we completely act our current self, it wouldn’t work well socially (as that author says e.g. telling people they are boring or ugly or whatever) and could well be damaging to others. We all know people who refuse to conform to social politeness – and typically they are quite hurtful to other people, and get away with it because they have power. My take is that it is better to act as per the social self than the current self where being authentic would result in unnecessary harm to others – and of course there is a judgment call on “unnecessary harm” and debates about whether what is superficially harmful to someone (being told the truth about themselves on some aspect) could in fact turn out beneficial to them in the long run. I also have personal experience that in fact, many situations where we think it will be damaging to be authentic do not end up being so, that often both parties in an interaction are adding veneers of social behaviour when both would be more comfortable being authentic. So there are some tough calls in when to be authentic and when to be social.

    It is a very different thing to behave as the social self instead of current self because doing so will benefit you. It is that which we all despise as hypocrisy. Some amount of it is needed, at least to avoid situations where being authentic will harm you e.g. telling your bosses that you think they are behaving badly. But a large consistent gap in behaviour for convenience and benefit is insincere.

    It is indeed a good thing to behave as our aspirational self rather than our current self, and then to try to close the gap – that is how we evolve as people. The danger is when we find it too challenging to close the gap, as I know from personal experience. The simplest example is perhaps weight loss – we can try to “think thin” and eat as we think we should, but it could build up a pressure within ourselves that can itself be a problem.

    So I think a more nuanced view would suggest that we be authentic as much as possible, but add modifications to be social to avoid harming others, and to pull ourselves towards what we would like to be. This is, of course, the conventional wisdom. And a good short summary of it would indeed be “aim for sincerity rather than authenticity”!


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