"You don't know who someone is until you see them under pressure."
Why do people say that?
There’s this idea of authenticity: you know who someone truly is by seeing them in their unguarded moments, seeing uncensored emotions, that’s when you can have a real interaction with them, that’s when you can see their true self.
This is counterintuitive to me. When I let down my guard and am my completely unfiltered self, people often find me incomprehensible. What’s more, they think I am being less authentic. When I let my social guard down and say things as soon as I think them, people say that they find it hard to relate to me and encourage me to just be myself. When I carefully filter and reframe things, and shape my behavior to get the interaction I want, I hear people say, “I can tell that you’re really being genuine with me.”
But more importantly, even when my immediate reaction to a thing does get read as authentic, it may not use all my knowledge, may not be my endorsed judgment, and may not be the most true thing I know how to say. If I think things through and filter them, I can be more truthful than if I just react without thinking about whether what I’m saying is true.
Interactions seem to be described as authentic when information transmitted has two qualities:
- The information is a direct measurement of the sender's internal state, and has not passed through deliberative social filters first.
- The information is of a kind that the receiver can automatically and unconsciously verify as meeting the first criterion.
Lying, to me, is not just telling an untruth that one consciously knows to be untrue. Integrity is a sacred value to me. It might be my strongest-held ethical value. And that doesn’t just mean not lying on purpose. I feel that I have an affirmative duty to seek the truth, to follow up on nagging doubts and loose ends and bits of my beliefs that don’t quite line up. Telling someone something that, if I thought a bit harder, I could see to be untrue, feels to me like a kind of lying - telling a knowably-untrue thing, even if the knowledge is only potential.
Here’s an example of how I experience the affirmative duty to seek and reveal the whole truth:
My first experience with “authentic relating” practice was being the center of a circling session (a kind of facilitated group conversation) at the 2015 CFAR alumni reunion. At the beginning of the circle, I thought that one of the other participants was trying to catch my attention with a gesture, so I looked at her attentively. Someone asked about this, and when I explained my reasoning, the person I’d been looking at explained that she’d just been fidgeting and not trying to gesture to me. I’d been working on noticing people’s body language more, and I expressed satisfaction at having finally achieved a false positive, since that was a sign of better calibration than my previous unbroken record of false negatives.
Someone then expressed appreciation of my commitment to self-improvement. I was worried that this would cause them to think too highly of me, and assume that I in general had the sort of above-average abilities you’d expect from someone who values self-improvement highly and lives out that value. Integrity compelled me to explain this, and point out that I didn’t perceive this as some sort of generalized commitment to awesomeness, but instead felt like I was behind on some things and needed to catch up.
Then someone expressed appreciation of my commitment to integrity. And of course, integrity compelled me to take issue with that as well. I explained that I don’t reliably live up to my values on integrity - I often miss occasions to clarify things, am often oblivious to people’s misconceptions about me, and am not even honest with myself all the time. What I could claim was that I have an unusually exacting sense of taste around integrity - while I don’t live up to that high standard of seeking and revealing the whole truth (or at least enough not to mislead), I care enough about it that when I notice the opportunity, I take it.
I think that when people think of authenticity as the state of not having a filter, they have an idea of truthfulness that makes sense in an environment with much less trust. They don’t even consider the idea that the person they’re talking with will be able to reliably tell them true things - they may not even bother fully processing the literal content of verbal statements. They’re looking, instead, for verifiability.
If I’m managing someone and want to know what they’re up to, one way to find out is to ask them. That’s unreliable because they may want to deceive me, or may simply not have a good idea what they spend most of their time on. But if instead I just look over their shoulder at their work, I know that what I’m seeing is what they’re currently working with. I may not understand it. I may not interpret it correctly. I may see them checking Facebook because code is compiling in the background and wrongly assume they’re goofing off. I may not get a representative sample. But at least it’s verifiable.
This is only workable in a limited range of contexts. The employee has some control over which things they’re doing while I’m watching. Also, I can only see things that can show up “on the screen”. If they sit and think for an hour, I can’t necessarily tell whether they’re doodling and daydreaming, or working on a critical problem, sometimes even if they’re making notes.
When I have a conversation with someone, and we go in a direction that’s an emotional live wire for me, so that I can’t suppress the expression of my feelings, then that interaction is authentic in the sense that they are getting a direct readout of my emotional responses, at the same time as I am. In addition, my unconscious mind is especially good at interpreting live readouts of things like emotional responses. We evolved to read one another’s emotional states quickly and effortlessly.
Like in the work example, this only works within limited contexts. I have some control over which things I’m doing while they’re watching. Also, they can only see things that can show up “on the screen” - some mental processes such as ones that directly generate emotions lend themselves well to involuntary instant readouts, and others such as explicit verbal reasoning don’t. Also, I can choose whether, when, how, and with whom to put myself in a position to have an “authentic” emotional interaction. So it’s not the same as being able to see my whole soul, or even an unbiased sample. But it’s verifiable - it’s very difficult to fake. In that sense, it’s authentic.
This explains the paradox where I'm read as more authentic when I'm less spontaneous and more intentional in my interactions. By default, I tend to be in a calculative mode, which is less conducive to producing instant readouts. When I deliberately push myself into a less calculative and more emotive state, this doesn't give people an unbiased measurement of what it's like to be me. It doesn't show them where my center of mental gravity is. But it shows them something in a way they can quickly grasp and verify on a gut level.
Authenticity is the quick-read thermometer of social interactions. It doesn't tell you everything, it's not necessarily representative of the entire object being measured, but it tells you something precise about what's happening right now in the spot being measured.