Is Authenticity Overrated?
Why doing what we feel can lead to narcissism.
Posted September 10, 2019 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
One of the marked changes in North American culture since the 1960s has been the emphasis placed on the idea of being authentic. Traditional patterns of behavior are increasingly viewed as stuffy and out of date.
As a result, for many people, traditional religion—and its specific forms of etiquette—came to be simply rejected. Instead, we were to act from feeling and our “true self.” Cultural practices—from thank you notes to funeral rites—were increasingly replaced by an improvised set of practices. This change was viewed by many as liberation from constraint.
Fast forward fifty years, and it is interesting to look at the impacts of this rejection of traditional practices. However, few would make a connection between some of the dysfunctions of our present moment and this loss of tradition.
One example of an effect can be witnessed in the rise of narcissistic characteristics. A cursory look at advice columns or questions to psychologists reveals that many people are complaining that those around them seem to be utterly self-absorbed or seemingly disinterested in others or the world at large.
Social media may have a great deal to answer for here, a question we have discussed in earlier blogs. However, another important factor is the breakdown in basic etiquette and the larger idea that human relationships need to be cultivated and tended. One of the key ways we do that is through how we communicate with others. As a result, traditional cultures have had many rules around how we interact. These may change over time, but there are certain expectations of behavior in certain circumstances.
For instance, it was typical in the past that interactions between people were structured in certain patterned ways. You were, for instance, expected to ask after the well-being of the other person. It was also common to ask after members of their family. This was considered to be basic politeness. Now, to follow the logic of authenticity, I might not actually be curious about those aspects of the person’s life. I might just want to talk about my latest trip to Bolivia. Nonetheless, I was expected to ask.
It is not difficult to see the wisdom of this pattern of human communication. These formal questions engaged with the reality of the other person. All of us will be well aware of the breakdown of this practice; almost every day, we might experience an interchange where we get the feeling our presence is not actually necessary. If it is on the phone, there may even be a sense you could go make a sandwich and the other person wouldn’t notice.
It seems unlikely that people of this generation were simply born ruder and more self-involved than previous generations. Rather, we simply haven’t been trained in the same way. While sometimes Downtown Abbey level etiquette seems stifling, some would argue that we have gone to the opposite extreme. Etiquette, at its base, is about managing human relationships so that they can run smoothly. If I give a wedding gift and receive a thank you note, not only am I reassured that the gift was received, but the relationship between the one giving and receiving is strengthened and reinforced.
In his popular book The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs, a secular Jew, adopted a series of traditional Jewish practices for a year. Many of these were used to comic effect—but it is interesting that the author found that, for instance, refraining from gossip as a religious act resulted in different sorts of conversations. He told an interviewer:
"It’s astounding. I watched it happen to myself. For instance, I forced myself to stop gossiping, and eventually I started to have fewer petty thoughts to gossip about. I forced myself to help the needy, and found myself becoming less self-absorbed." (Ferriss, 2007)
This is a kind of high level “fake it til you make it.” We can, in fact, train ourselves to converse and interact differently. This, in turn, can impact both our inner landscape and our relationships. This is what is meant by civility—another term that is often considered to be antiquated. But at its root, civility means that we respect the person across from us, regardless of whether or not we share the same political opinions or world view. This breakdown can be seen everywhere in North American culture from the political arena to the internet comments section. The idea that we can simply dump our “authentic“ feelings publicly seems to indicate no regard for other people and how this might impact them.
It is interesting to see that etiquette books and blogs have become increasingly popular in recent years. Millennials are teaching each other what their culture has failed to. This often can be found in classes and blogs on business etiquette where the reader is instructed on basic interaction—such as making eye contact, shaking hands, sending a follow-up email after a job interview, etc. But surely it is just as important to follow these basic practices in our personal lives?
It is part of the wisdom of spiritual traditions that we should always recognize the personhood of whoever is in front of us. That is the case whether we are tired, angry, bored, or frustrated. These may well be our authentic feelings. But here, etiquette and tradition demand that we rise above this and act from our higher selves. The structure of etiquette allows us to do this smoothly and gives us something to fall back on. Interestingly, doing so can often move us out of those mental states as we become focused on the other person rather than our often vacillating inner landscape.
Ferriss, TIm. 2014. "What Happens When An Agnostic Follows the Bible Literally for One Year?" The Blog of Tim Ferriss: Experiments in Lifestyle Design.