The Psychology of Workplace Dynamics: It’s ok to be a phony, as long as it is authentic

“Societies are being commodified and virtualized, with everyday life becoming saturated with toxic levels of inauthenticity we’re forced to breathe”

–Gilmore & Pine (2007)

Here in New York City, you come across phonies all the time. Go to Chinatown and you can get a fake Louis Vuitton, Gucci or Kate Spade bag. Go up on Fifth Avenue in the upper 50s, you can get all sorts of fake DVDs and the like.  Go up and down any major avenue, and you can get $5 cashmere pashminas.  If you want a real Louis Vuitton you need a course in spotting fake handbags.  Fakes are made from pleather and vinyl; they may feel rough and stiff. A real Louis Vuitton is smooth and feels soft because it is made out of top-quality leather, lambskin and other such unlucky creatures. Most Louis Vuitton fakes are done in a light tan trim or a fake aged trim that will not change with age. Fakeness does not change with age. That is good to know.

Did you know that there are an alarming number of fake olive oils?  This seems bizarre and somewhat unnecessary. Adulterated and even outright fake olive oil is widespread, according to recent research studies by UC Davis and the Australian Oils Research Laboratory.  These researchers concluded that as much as 69% of imported European olive oil (and a far smaller proportion of native Californian) sold as “extra-virgin” in grocery stores, delis, and bodegas weren’t what they claimed to be. Most of these fake olive oils were on the West Coast and we all know how fake Los Angeles and its surrounding areas are, but olive oil, really?  According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN, there has been an increase of 60% in cases of food fraud this past year.  If you cannot trust olive oil, what can you trust?

Walking down the streets and being confronted with all the phoniness and the fakeness, reminds me of my favorite book growing up “The Catcher in the Rye.”  It was such a New York book for such a New York girl that was transplanted to boarding school in Massachusetts, to read. Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye, was judgmental to the extreme, not to mention slightly unbalanced, but we all have our character flaws.  He criticizes people who are boring, people who are insecure, and, above all, people who are “phony.”  Holden applies the term “phony” not to people who are insincere but to those who are too conventional or too typical–for instance, teachers who “act like” teachers by assuming a different demeanor in class than they do in conversation or people who dress and act like the other members of their social class. However, this phony sense of being as described by Holden Caulfield may be referred to as being a “real phony” — the way Holly Golightly was described in Breakfast at Tiffanys.  Which begs one to question, how does one differentiate the inauthentic from the authentic or the real from the fake without having to look at bag trimmings to determine whether they have changed from aging?  And when everyone is looking for the “authentic”, doesn’t that encourage a default level inauthenticity?

Who is a “real phony”?  In terms of Holly Golightly, one of the supporting characters notes “she believes all this crap she believes.”   To be a “real phony” is to possibly lack an authentic self as a point of reference—to lack a self that is independent of the social world. But is there any self-identity that is independent of the social world? Social scientists generally say no.  We are all embedded in a cultural framework –even when we are in the shower. According to Cheever, Holly Golightly “is like a phony in that her beliefs are perfectly in accordance with social norms, but she is real insofar as those beliefs are all she has.”  Everywhere we turn these days we hear about people “keeping it real.”  But which real-self are they keeping true to? This sense of “keeping it real” could in actuality be about projecting that self that is dependent on the social world–An identity that has been constructed just for a public image.  So, in reality one would “be keeping it fake real.”

“The most authentic phony”. That is how a commentator referred to former US President Bill Clinton on the day of President Obama’s inauguration.  The phrase struck me. The commentator didn’t mean it in a pejorative way. It was actually a compliment in light of Obama’s apparent inability to connect with the men and women on the Capitol Hill. What struck me about the phrase was how accurate it can be in the workplace. In particular, the non-profit workplace where “keeping it real” is a phrase that is thrown about every ten seconds, so that people can in essence justify either being rude, dysfunctional or non-compliant. In other words, keeping it real is an excuse to be unprofessional. There is so much about the workplace, besides people’s true selves, that we have to be on the lookout for in terms of authenticity.  Potential employees are providing fake credentials, submitting fake diplomas and claiming fake capacities.  Once they are on board you have to be vigilant as to what is true. But I digress. There is research out there that shows that a workplace’s “climate of authenticity” alleviates burnout from work that is emotionally taxing.  Emotionally taxing work is what you tend to find in non-profit tasks and jobs i.e. hard work for low pay at the social margins. So, there is something about being authentic, whatever that may be, that relieves emotional exhaustion (a key component of job burnout).

Non-profits, more so than corporations, need to be led by charismatic leaders who interact with their staff on a daily basis.  Having interacted with hundreds of non-profit leaders and their staff I have found that the issue of leader authenticity is at the core. With Bill Clinton, people would say that he cared and that he “felt your pain.”   However, he is at the same time, phony.  An “Authentic Phony”, at that. He could feel people’s pain or at least emote that he felt people’s pain. He made people feel that he was feeling. What I have seen since is that charm and extroversion exhibited by leaders is considered authentic. Whether people in general or staff specifically realizes it is a species of “phony authentic” is another matter entirely.  Recently, a colleague mentioned to me that they had no idea that a certain person, who is so charming and personable, was really phony until they got to a higher level of management. Once a person climbs up that workplace ladder they start seeing through the fog of phoniness and have the ability to pull back the curtain and find out that the man behind the curtain is actually the Wizard of Oz. Critical staff and managers want to be led by an authentic leader and if they cannot make that connection burnout can ensue, as it becomes emotionally exhausting to have to deal with authentic phoniness.

However, many out in the crowds don’t care to disentangle the levels of phoniness and are perfectly happy to listen to an authentic phony. Let me give you a concrete example.   First off, did you know that 71% Of President Barack Obama‘s Twitter followers are fake (Forbes, 2012)?  Yet, Kim Kardashian (who many might say is not as authentic as others out on twitterverse) , has the most legitimate followers of the Top 15 Tweeters, with 43% of  her Twitter fans judged by StatusPeople to be real and active (Forbes, 2012).  So, Obama is not an Authentic Phony but one may argue that Kim Kardashian is and as a result she has real people flocking to her.  Take home message: it’s ok to be phony, if you are authentic.

I recently came across a website discussion as to which of the Zodiac signs was the most phony.  In scanning the responses, it seems people were in agreement that Virgos, Geminis, Libras, and Cancers were the most phony.   Interestingly, Kim Kardashian is a Libra and Khloe is a Cancer.  Make of that, what you will, and try to ignore the fact that that’s a full third of the available zodiac symbols that are considered phony.  Just saying.  It’s sort of like predicting that the world will end sometime between now and when the Sun explodes.  Eventually you will be right.

We seem to be living in an age where we are looking for that real person, whether it is in a customer service call line, a work colleague, President or Lennay Kekua (Manti Te’o hoax). But what constitutes authenticity seems to not even be real anymore.  This is what those Continental philosophers like to refer to as the “hyper-real”: (More real than real), exemplified by small American towns calling up Disneyland to ask them how they designed their “Main Street”, meant to symbolize a generic small town American main street, as they want to make sure they design their own “authentic” main street.  Gertrude Stein once said “there is no there there” in reference to Oakland, California a place where I have lived, but can very well refer to our supposed authentic selves. There is just no real self there anymore, but rather we are just as authentic as our social construct.  As the philosopher Alfred Korzybski said in reference to our confusion of the symbol with the reality, “The map is not the territory”.

168 replies »

  1. Yep, I’m going to open a can of worms. Why a photo of Che? I’m officially taking issue with that choice.Not in a holy crap, I’m so offended way – rather as an – I’m honestly interested in your reasoning. Correct me if I’m wrong but my assumption would be that you are American. As a Canadian I travel to Cuba. I suppose my offence is more for the Cuban people than the politics of Che. Politics are rife with phonies, my knee jerk reaction stems from a defence of Cuban people, of which you represent with a photo of Che. I can honestly say that I have never travelled to a place with fewer phonies than Cuba. Beautiful people, full of joy beyond comprehension. I despair when seeing something that taints their resilience.

    • Hi thanks for you comment. I have been waiting for someone to comment on that. yes, I am american. But hispanic as well. I have actually traveled to Cuba which is how I snapped that photo and I love, love Cuba. I put it out there as a challenge of what is an authentic leader. another reader actually liked that selection because he argued che was a phony. its interesting take. I have no opinion on Che actually. It was just a challenge. thank you so much for commenting. By the way, I love Canada as well. I have done many road trips through Canada and the people have been lovely!

      • I feel better knowing you snapped that picture yourself. Still on the fence about your choice to use it though.I realize the pic is not the point of your post, for which I apologize.

    • Nice article; reminds me a bit of Zizek, who quotes the quote about the map and the territory too. I started reading because of Che (I stood on that square in 2008) and don’t understand why people could be offended by it. For one thing, perceived authenticity is morally neutral. Stalin was an authentic asshole, and so on.

      • Thanks for sharing. I love revolutionary square. I stood there for a while just watching and listening and there were definitely very animated conversations about leadership.. I will look up zizek now

  2. Che’s picture – for me – tapped into the idea of phoniness immediately, and not because i think Cubans are fake. I can see why some might have taken offense, but I also saw another dynamic in the choice. Che’s likeness, regardless of how you feel about his politics, has been utilised in so many inane ways that have nothing whatsoever to do with his story. The most superficial associations have turned him into a graphic that one might see on a flyer for a bar, a t-shirt, and many mass marketed products that somehow want to convey cool rebellion. The epitome of phony…

  3. Very insightful and extremely well written. It did, indeed, give something to ponder. My son lives in San Francisco and that city is just rife with phonies who believe they are “the real thing”. Sometimes I worry for his soul.

  4. This reminds me of a delicious moment in ‘Hellszappopin’ where emigres drop to the knees when they realise a butler (in a fancy mansion) is Prince Lazlo. He tells them to get up quickly or he’ll be fired. The lady of the house seeks a cachet for hiring a fake prince as her butler, not a real one.

    In the end, we’re all fakes – even alone in the shower.

  5. “If you want a real Louis Vuitton. . .” Why would anyone want a real Louis Vuitton? After all, it’s just a handbag to keep your stuff in. If people weren’t hung up on brands like Louis Vuitton, there would be no fake ones made. . . If presidents didn’t have to live up to images they wouldn’t have to be fake/ fake authentic/ phony. It’s us, the ordinary people, who perpetuate fakes of every kind by giving brands/images importance. . .

    • thanks for sharing. The branding thing is quite scary these days. Today I attended a children’s party where a parent was talking about the $200 pair of sneakers her son had and yet her son’s wardrobe was still less costly than her daughter’s.

    • I couldn’t agree more! When you sit and think about it, in reality you are buying the name rather than a bag to put stuff in. However I don’t think that the “importance” issue is not limited to just brands/images. I dated a woman who just so happened to be “African-American” (some who was not born in Africa let alone even visited Africa) brought up a good point about race and had this to say, “The way I see race/racism is, if you don’t get so hung up on it and are able to joke about it then race/racism looses it’s power to inflict offence.” Little did she know that I had already been living by that motto, having grown up as a “Hispanic” man (whatever that means). By the way, very well written article. Very interesting read!

    • Maybe it’s because people worry so much about being phoney, and think that owning a ‘genuine’ item will make them a more ‘authentic’ person.

  6. I really enjoyed this post – I hope I’m being authentic when I say that:). I suppose the truth is we’re all quite fluid and adaptive as situations demand. I have a professional and a personal life – lots of common ground -but some aspects are distinctively one or the other. I wonder if to be authentic means that however you’re ‘being’ you’re being it in good faith and for benign reasons. That’s my tuppence worth. very gald to have stumbled on your blog Mimi – thanks to Freshly Pressed.

    • thanks for your comment and sharing your thoughts. I like the idea of “good faith”. I have been using that a lot lately in my workplace dealings in trying to assess whether actions are being made as “good faith” efforts. That is still very hard to discern and I think the subject of my next post:-)

  7. Like most people I do have 2 distinct lives between professional and personal. There is some bleeding along the edges between the 2 worlds. Most noticeably I cycle to work, people know that I take cycling trips/vacations and they know I have a partner. I suppose they could find my personal blog. But my personal blog still doesn’t reveal some major things about self and how passionate I am about certain topics. I just don’t write about them. Why exhaust my energy to a bunch a strangers whom I couldn’t convince anyway and who ultimately don’t care about me?

    There, I’ve given my most authentic position. “Phony” implies something less than benign and also implies considerable energy to maintain a façade that the person is afraid to slip off accidentally.

  8. What if you are forced to be friendlier to a co-worker than you want to be. Recently I was told to be a friend to this coworker or else. Now I find that I have done what I was told to do so well that she wants to be my best friend. Thing is my reasons for not caring for her stem from her lack of work ethic and inability to own her actions and deal with differing opinions. I am not sure what to say to her invitations to hang out. Being this disingenuous is very stressful to start, but I do it to keep my job. I don’t want to bring that element into my personal life. Especially since my fiancé does not care for her. Any thoughts?

    • Wow. Thanks for sharing. I think one can be friendly without being friends. I know many people often come to me in the workplace expecting a sympathetic ear. I listen and they feel good. But i dont hang out with them after work. Set boundaries. Say the truth in that you and your fiance need alone time as the fiance time is always stressful.
      Congrats on your engagement!

  9. I worked for someone who fits the “phony” to the degree of exhaustion. He claim to be “direct,” but I soon found out it was code and an excuse for, “I’m going to be a dick.”

  10. I think anymore, the goal has to be to “keep it real” when you can. I found when I worked in a corporate setting, I presented the aspects of myself that were appropriate in that setting. I was more tactful, less confrontational and I filtered myself. I’m sure if I vocalized my “real” thoughts, I could not expect to work at all. That’s what forced social situations require, even outside of work.

  11. Your last post – and some other recent responses – resolved it somewhat for me: context, roles, benign, in good faith, fluid and adaptive . . . ‘phony’ doesn’t sound like such a terrible thing then!

  12. As I’m starting to say these days- our race is getter better and better at playing by the rules to win that game we think is life, seemingly dictated by our society, but thus we’re beginning to forget that our lives were and still are written with our own hands. However we want them to be.

  13. Great to read. The concept and experience of authenticity draws me. Again and again, to be centred in ourselves without reference to an external centre of gravity is a talent and a necessity.

  14. It was nice to read your take on this. I think about this quite a bit in the art world on which one can write a novel on the subject . I wanted to say thank you, I enjoyed it and shared it. I look forward to more.

  15. There was a great sketch they did on the Chappelle Show called “When keeping it real goes wrong”. My mother always said if I have nothing nice to say smile and that is keeping it real with class.

  16. I didn’t quite read all 150+ comments. Very intriguing thoughts here. I am not quite sure how to response to this. I don’t think the phoniness is limited to workplace. We are often more phony in the social life outside of work. You will very soon find out that the person looking great on the dates doesn’t look at that good all the time and in all the dresses. It is just a facade. Then I found out that beer and wine are acquired flavors. I have seen people tidying up the house for the guests.

    When you get a compliment like looking great in a dress, doesn’t it tell more about the dress than yourself? What does it mean when pretty much everyone in the room is pretending to like a beverage just to be with strangers? Don’t the guests figure out that the house doesn’t look this great all the time?

    Or is the compliment for the decision/choice of the dress and understanding that the dress will look good on you? is it that you are willing to tolerate something awful for the rest of your life to be friends? is it that you want to treat the guests as a king?

    After all, every single thing in either social company or in preparation for it, is a big phoniness. Try to have a stranger like you the way you are on a first date. See how long before the guest starts mouthing your housekeeping skills if it is not tidy on their visit!

    So, does the authencity lie in the type of phoniness one wears?

    Here ends my random babbling … I just had to comment as the thoughts in this post made me think. Thanks for that!

    • Thanks for your thoughts. Random thoughts are always welcomed. I love your comment about cleaning the house: it’s so true. How many people even clean their house before the housekeeper comes by? I don’t have a housekeeper..but I’ve heard those stories..
      Have a good day!

  17. Hi, correct me if I’m wrong, but a good example for me (to wrap my brain around this) is a tourist town. For example, some people want to travel to rustic, log-cabins in the woods to “rough it.” However, they are in no way really living a pioneer/mountaineer lifestyle. However, they receive the perception in themselves which proves to be satisfying.

    I suppose that is why my employers are looking for people who have personality and not just skill (I am in healthcare and I can say that they ask more about your personality in an interview than your experience). For example, I once went to an interview and one of the questions was “When has your integrity been challenged?” It was a hard question because I feel that we don’t challenge other people’s authenticity out loud! We certainly gossip about it, but we never confront people.

    Then again, when it comes to customers (or patients in my case), they want someone who is going to be sweet and compassionate to them. However, I know that nurses who give this perception of caring and loving completely change when they go back to the station. I have seen plenty of coworkers talk crap about patients that they showed “phony” compassion and love towards when in their presence.

    Just some thoughts…

    • Oh completely! Yours are great examples. There are towns that build msin streets in the version of disney to seem authentic. There are cities in other countries that have “authentic” Indian villages but come on….the same is true in job settings.

      • Exactly! That’s not really Cinderella, irregardless of how it may feel to that 6-year old girl who is getting her picture made with her childhood hero! Same with employees; that person may do a good job and bring good things to the table, but inside they may hate their job! Take it or leave it, they are still bringing good things to the table (even Cinderella at Disney World!)

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