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5 Signs that Someone Is Hiding Their True Feelings

Surface acting, and how to see through it.

Key points

  • "Surface acting" involves masking one's true feelings and putting on a false front.
  • Five signs indicate that someone may be faking their emotions. For example, they may stand to gain something by expressing a specific emotion.
  • Research on surface acting in the workplace suggests that there are costs and benefits of lying about one's true feelings.

The honest sharing of emotions as people communicate with each other can set the foundation for healthy dialogue. Emotions perform a unique social function in helping people adapt to each other in ways that can promote mutual understanding because they reveal what people are feeling, not just saying. However, there are many reasons for people to disguise or hide their true emotions, blocking this route of communication. The most common emotional fake-out involves what's called "surface acting."

What Is Surface Acting and What Is Its Cost?

“Surface acting” refers to the type of emotional communication that involves covering up your true feelings while you put on a false front. Typically, in surface acting, you’re trying to cover up such negative emotions as anger or frustration because to express them would get you in trouble. A common scenario involves the smile or friendly voice that someone in a service or sales position uses despite feeling annoyed by the treatment they’re getting from customers. In some situations, surface can turn to “deep” acting if you honestly try to feel the emotion that you’re temporarily disguising, but this is still, technically, faking.

As you might imagine, emotional faking can take its toll on the “actor.” According to a recent study led by West Virginia University’s Xiaoxiao Hu and colleagues (2021), surface acting, in particular, is associated with such negative personal and occupational outcomes as poorer physical health, lower levels of well-being, worse job performance, and less job satisfaction. Moreover, surface acting isn’t restricted to relationships between workers and customers. One previous study estimated its prevalence among employees working in the same companies as reaching no less than two-thirds of all interactions. Hu and her colleagues maintain that despite how common surface acting is in the workplace, it can nevertheless hamper the productivity of individual workers and affect the way their bosses perceive them.

There’s reason to think that surface acting spreads out from work to other interpersonal environments. Think about the last time that you had to deal with a relative whose annoying behavior pushes you to the limits. You can’t directly confront the behavior either because the person holds power over you or because it just wouldn’t be “nice” to say how you feel. What’s it like to have to hold back and not be able to speak your mind?

Surface Acting and Success in the Workplace

Predicting that surface acting would take its toll on work performance, Hu and her collaborators obtained a sample of 414 employees from 103 teams via human resources departments in 22 Chinese companies, along with the 103 leaders of the respective teams. The model tested self-rated surface acting toward leaders as a predictor of the negative outcome of withdrawal by the employee (e.g. taking a longer work break than they were entitled to). Team leaders, in turn, rated how satisfied they were with the employees along with how well the workers were performing in their jobs.

By rating yourself on the surface acting measure, you can get a sense of what it feels like to hide your true feelings, and from there, gain insight into how to detect this same behavior in others. The measure was a very simple one, dividing covered-up emotions into positive and negative, as follows:

Using a 1 (never) to 6 (always) scale, rate yourself on the following:

  • Faking positive emotions: How often do you express feelings of happiness/interest/amusement in interactions with your leader when you really do not feel that way?
  • Hiding negative emotions: How often do you keep feelings of sadness/anger/frustration to yourself in interactions with your leader, when you really feel that way?

On average, participants in the Chinese companies rated themselves as more likely to suppress negative emotions (3.19) than to fake positive ones (2.79). These relatively high averages support the study’s assumptions that surface acting frequently does take place between employees and their leaders. You can compare your own ratings to these averages but also think about whether you’d have higher scores in some non-work settings than others, such as with that annoying relative. Are you surprised at how commonly you fake the good and hide the bad?

The study’s findings also supported their model predicting leader satisfaction and performance ratings as a function of employee surface acting, but only for male employees. Women who engage in surface acting don’t seem to enjoy, according to this finding, the same practical benefits as their emotion-faking male counterparts. In the words of the authors, “from the perspective of organizational justice and equity, this gender difference is problematic because women’s efforts to suppress their negative emotions may go unrewarded by their leaders.” In other words, if you’re going to go through the agony of hiding your emotions, you might as well reap some rewards.

5 Signs of Surface Acting

Knowing now that it’s common for people to either hide or fake their true feelings, you can assume that, particularly under certain circumstances, you’re not getting an honest view of a person’s true emotional state. Looking for these five signs can get you past the faking to ensure that you and the person you’re interacting with aren’t operating under any illusions:

1. The situation doesn’t warrant the emotion the person is showing.

This first sign requires you to look at the reality of the situation you’re in with this person. If you can admit that you're being a tiny bit irritating or overbearing yourself, and yet the other person is still smiling, then maybe they’re merely trying to please you. The whole idea of surface acting is that you are masking an appropriate response for a given situation, so if the response doesn’t measure up, it’s likely that it’s a fake.

2. You feel that something is “off” about the interaction.

Since most everyday actors don’t exactly merit an Academy Award for their ability to put on a false front, you might get a vibe signaling that something isn’t quite right. It may be the person is overly effusive, using too many exclamation points in their speech to sound excited, or it could be that the person is laughing at something you’ve said that isn’t all that funny.

3. The individual shows small signs of stress, either in face or voice.

Not only may something be off, but it’s possible that if you pay close attention, you’ll see some tell-tale signs that the person is feeling stressed out. This emotional cost of surface acting means that small “leakages” of nonverbal stress will spill out.

4. There is gain associated with the portrayal of a certain emotion.

Needless to say, one of the reasons that people engage in surface acting is to get something out of a situation, whether it’s a positive rating by a customer or boss, or just some type of social capital. Whenever you’re in a position that could potentially force someone else to show dishonest displays of emotions, it can be helpful to do whatever you can to put the person’s anxiety to rest.

5. You notice that the individual is starting to disengage.

The strain involved in putting up a false front, as shown in this study, can lead workers to pull away and retreat back into their own space. The other finding from the Hu et al. investigation pertains to gender. For women, it may be particularly disheartening to have to keep acting in ways that they think conform to a stereotypically gendered female role. Again, if it’s honesty you’re after, consider the possibility that you’ve been placing unfair expectations on the other person.

To sum up, emotional honesty in relationships is a quality that you may mistakenly take for granted. Being willing to peer behind that mask of surface acting can help you find the kind of honesty that will benefit your own fulfillment and that of the people around you.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Bricolage/Shutterstock

References

Hu, X., Zhan, Y., Jimenez, W. P., Garden, R., & Li, Y. (2021). Fake it till you make it with your boss? Surface acting in interactions with leaders. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology. doi: 10.1080/1359432X.2021.2017887

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