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Be Yourself vs. Being Somebody Else

Embellishing your good traits doesn't mean you're being inauthentic.

It is often said to someone who is anxious to make a good impression, “just be yourself.” What that means is, “I think you are fine. You do not have to pretend to be someone else.”

This is often helpful and appropriate advice. Everyone needs encouragement from time to time.

It is not necessary most of the time to be on one’s best behavior. No one is sitting in judgment. Most social situations allow considerable leeway in doing those things that most people are naturally inclined to do—whether it is telling jokes, or pacing around or sitting quietly and listening to others.

A person who worries about behaving in just the right way is not likely to behave better—even assuming there is a clear way of behaving better. This is true most of the time. And trying to behave in any particular way gets in the way of having a good time.

But people don’t start off knowing who they are exactly. During all the stages of growing up, children are told how they should behave in different situations: at school, with siblings, with parents, and so on. They have to see themselves acting in a certain characteristic way towards friends in order to come to understand themselves as a friend. Similarly, they need to see themselves working in order to get a feel for just what sort of worker they are. When they begin to date, they begin to view themselves in a particular way, depending on how exactly they behave, and, indeed, how members of the opposite sex treat them.

In short, the persona someone has—the way that person sees himself/herself—is learned over a period of time and comes from seeing himself/herself acting in different contexts. That persona is built up over a period of time until individuals come to recognize themselves as themselves. Only then can they reliably predict how they will act in certain situations. Only then can someone reasonably choose to “be yourself.”

And there is still more to learn: how to behave properly at weddings, funerals, in formal dining rooms, on a job interview, and when being presented to the Queen. No one says when you meet the Queen, “just be yourself.” You have to bow the right way, at the right distance, and at the right moment. Similarly, when someone goes on a first date, that person has to learn what to say, and when to say it—all of the courtship rituals. Is it okay to kiss someone goodnight on the first date? These rituals have to be learned. They do not come naturally.

As time goes on, as people encounter new situations, they begin to understand themselves more fully by noticing how they feel in that situation, how they behave, and how others react to them. And this self-discovery does not stop upon reaching adulthood.

Unfortunately, that image is not always as we would like it. Suppose we come to see ourselves as clumsy or ridiculous or just plain unappealing?

It is commonplace for people to try to present themselves as if they are more attractive and desirable than they really are. A man may pretend to be urbane, and sophisticated, and poised. A woman puts on makeup carefully to enhance her appearance; and perhaps to obscure cosmetic defects.

Is this a deceit? No one would say so, I think, because these behaviors are so familiar and commonplace.

But when I wrote a blog post about the desirability, when going on a job interview, of setting out to portray oneself as exactly the person the prospective employer is looking for, having exactly the experience being sought, regardless of the truth of the matter, a headhunter wrote to say this was dishonest. Putting aside the obvious question about how much dissembling can be sustained, is this behavior dishonorable? In a sense, I am recommending that such a person not settle for just “being himself.”

Is it ethically proper for a skinny guy who wishes to enter the Air Force to stuff himself with bananas in order to pass the weight test? I certainly think so. If he gets into that service, he will not be injuring anyone. I think that someone pretending to know Excel, or some other business program, in order to get a job is not going to hurt anyone (except in some tortured meaning of that word.) And to me, that seems to be the crux of the ethical issue.

Is it okay for that same individual, who wants to be a pilot in the Air Force, to memorize the eye chart in order to pass an eye exam? No. I do not want someone who has bad eyesight flying an airplane.

So, I think it is not always sensible to settle for being the person we have always considered ourselves to be—but it is not possible, or desirable, to be just anyone. It may be reasonable to pretend on a job interview; but not everywhere else, or generally.

Someone aiming to change his/her image should keep certain considerations in mind:

  1. Certain ways of appearing to others are undesirable. Men should not aim to seem self-confident to the point of being arrogant. They should not present themselves as tough and willing to accept any challenge—from other men or from women. They should not pretend to be a sexual athlete. This is the “macho” style which some men aim for in the mistaken idea that it appeals to women. It does not. Similarly, flaunting a big watch or a fancy car might impress some women, but will turn off a greater number of women who are sensible. It announces a superficial character. Worse is the image of someone “who can hold his liquor,” that is, drink more than anyone else at the table. Similarly, women should not try to present themselves as aloof and disinterested. Unattainable is not an appealing image. Neither men nor women should pretend to know all about various arcane subjects, whether about wine or about stock investments. Lecturing on any subject becomes annoying.
  2. Certain ways of being are very hard to sustain. A pretense that money means nothing to you is hard to maintain in most situations, such as planning a trip. Also, it would be nice, I suppose, to seem very knowledgeable about lots of things—omniscient even; but being competitive about how much you know is destined to lead to failure sooner or later. Just as there is always someone smarter and richer, there is always somebody who knows more than you do about politics, or history, or how to fix the plumbing. Don’t pretend to have special skills, such as gourmet cooking or playing an instrument. You will be found out sooner, rather than later. Don’t pretend to great physical strength or athletic ability. Implicit in these comments is the fact that certain kinds of pretending are very hard to sustain. After a time, they are likely to seem counterfeit.

On the other hand, it is possible to pretend to be interesting, poised, cooperative, and sympathetic. Certainly, it is possible to pretend to be kinder than you feel naturally, or friendlier. It is even possible to learn to be charming, but I think that is too much work.

It is reasonable, if we are deficient in some important way, to strive to be better—and, along the way, pretend for a while that we are better. In these matters, we become the people we pretend to be.

Persons with a secure sense of themselves can pretend—in certain situations, in certain ways—to be someone a little different without feeling untrue to themselves. It is like putting on a costume and playing a role—and then, later on, stepping out of the role when the play is over.

Some pretenses are very hard to do, or are not worth doing in the first place: I think it is reasonable to sell yourself on a job interview. Once you have the job, you can with an effort become proficient at it. I do not think it is reasonable to try to sell yourself to someone you are dating. It is desirable to spend the rest of your life with someone who likes you just the way you are.

(c) Fredric Neuman 2013

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