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Why We Say We're Fine When We Aren't

How a culture of fake smiles leads to phony living.

Key points

  • In the USA there is a cultural expectation to put on a cheerful face and respond positively to others.
  • Sometimes this pressure to present can leave people feeling phony or like they can’t live up to expectations.
  • In relationships people feel obligated to respond affirmatively, but it might be wise to be honest if something is amiss.
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

How often do you ask someone, “How ya doin’?” when you really don’t care? It’s about as honest as the “Great!” response you get in return. In the USA, there is a value of cheer and a can-do attitude that may pressure people to put on a happy face. This can leave depressed people feeling guilty for feeling bad, and non-depressed people feeling bad for having typical ups and downs. Especially when the world is feeling weighed down, it is hard to always present a happy face, and it may be discouraging and tiresome to try. Of all age groups, teenage girls have the highest rates of lying, and this is attributed to the pressure to be perfect and conform to social expectations. After a class discussion about this, I ran into a friend and asked him how he was. “Never better!” he said. Taking him at his word, I responded, “Wow, you are peaking right now! This is the best you have ever been, and I am here to witness it!” He laughed and admitted that things were actually quite average.

Social pressure is also why conversations often end with the fib: “Well, I had better let you go. I am sure you are busy.” This is more acceptable than the honest response: “I want to stop talking to you.” In intimate relationships, a partner says, “I miss you,” and the other responds, “I miss you too,” because it sounds better than, “I am having a great time and haven’t thought about you for one second.” It also sounds better to claim to understand something in a conversation: “Yeah, sure, I got it,” instead of responding honestly: “I have no idea what you want; I was thinking about lunch.”

It is hard to be fully present all the time, and sometimes listeners are caught off guard. Maybe it is unrealistic to expect total transparency in conversations, but there is a subtle cost if misunderstandings occur. If it is important that I hear you, it is better to admit that I was checked out: “Wait, I got distracted, could you repeat that last part?” This has a better result than feigning a connection that doesn’t exist.

Late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel exploits this pressure to lie for appearances. Interviewers ask questions of random people on the street, but the questions are a setup. For instance, they will ask people what they thought of last night’s political debate when there was no debate. People will weigh in on it anyway, with responses such as, “I thought [my candidate] looked calm, had a lot of good points, the other one looked nervous, pandered a lot.” In other editions of Kimmel's “Lie Witness News” people are asked what they thought of nonexistent earthquakes. “Oh yeah, it was a doozy,” or fake bands at the Coachella music festival. “What did you think about Dr. Slo Mo and the GI Clinics, or the Obesity Epidemic?” People happily offer opinions of these bands that, as Kimmel says, are “so obscure they don’t exist.” Here are a couple of these responses: “I just like their whole style, their genre, they are very innovative.” “Regis and the Philbins? Yeah, I had a radio station up in Canada and I used to spin them all the time.”

Social pressure is powerful, and it is likely if an interviewer with a video camera asks someone a question, a truthful answer (“Never heard of ‘em”) won’t get them on TV. Our world reinforces posturing, and people obligingly put their best fake face forward. In life and in relationships, it can temporarily pay to pretend, but there is a cost to inauthenticity. It is better to be thoughtful and honest, which results in more genuine interactions and integrity.

Facebook image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock


Adapted from Love Me True: Overcoming the Surprising Ways We Deceive in Relationships. Cedar Fort.

Robert Feldman, The Liar in Your Life: The Way to Truthful Relationships, Twelve, 2009.

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