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”.

172 replies »

  1. It almost sounds like one of your points is that a person is authentic if we consent to it. We want a leader to be certain things and, if a person can be those, they are authentic in that role even if phonyness (phony-osity?) is one of their tools. I think I buy that.
    If I’m wrong, I blame it on my discovery of being zodiacally phony (which explains a lot).

    • Thanks for the comment. Yes, i really like how you broke it down. Authenticity seems to be decided by tribunal councils these days..just to mix up the pop cultural references.😉. And we have abdicated our authenticity to others to vote on

      • We so are not well.

        Coming out of a 15-year stint in a non-profit myself, I know exactly what you mean. Some of the most dysfunctional people in the world and it has become an extremely dysfunctional agency in recent years. Not long after I left, I realized what an extremely healthy choice I’d made.

        I don’t know if that makes me authentic or fake and I don’t need anyone to vote on it for me.

  2. Enjoyed reading this so hope you don’t mind I have re-pressed it to my blog. I am delighted to say I don’t follow Kim Kardashian on Twitter though… no matter how phony she is🙂

    • Thank you so much for reading it and re-pressing it. Im glad you liked it. I got up at 6am and felt inspired to write by the ulcer pains in my stomach.😉 yeah, i dont really care to follow kardashian although i admit i read in touch magazine. Lol

  3. I’d like to know how you feel about “authentic phoniness” and how it applies to the different hats people wear. My professional demeanor (especially as a woman on a construction site) is not the same as my demeanor around my personal friends, nor would I treat children the same way either. Is it possible to be one’s authentic self with each of these roles, even though people might still consider you phony if they haven’t seen the “whole you?”

    • Hi there and happy monday!
      Thanks for the comment and question. My first answer was “absolutely” we are the sum of our roles. Thats why we have so many self descriptors and context is everything. But i have to say there has to be a common thread through them all. Also, when i read your question i immediately thought of the person upon whom i based this post and i have wondered the same thing about this person. Are they the same authentic phony with their spouse, their kids, their true friends. The phrase “true friend” being key. Is there a person(s) you need not be playing a role with?

      • This is awsome… William Burroughs claimed that the only phony is the person who is always the same. Real people are social creations who function through context. I guess Golemans social intelligence, or Blooms global brain are good starting points for people who hold strong individualistic ideals, without realizing that its just another social construct. Here in Asia people define themselves by their social units.
        In job design and organisational culture they teach an axis between freedom and structure, correlating with creativity and productivity. So the degree your allowed to be yourself is set by the degree of creativity hoped from you, and the degree your expected to put yourself aside is set by needs of pure performance.
        When we enter a new workplace, or other social construct we have a brief orienting moment, if the work culture allows us to take it easy, a mayority will do just that. Work personalities are often healthy compensation. At our unhealthiest we compensate for a lack of real skill and understanding with professional jargon.

      • Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I love the burroughs quote.

        Context really is a big part of who we are. Its interesting that in my field of health, people often forget the contextual parts of our actions and all attributions on the person/individual.

  4. Excellent. I completely concur, just never framed it like this. Very funny and poignant. I dig your writing style and the way you think and must say it’s similar to how I write sometimes.
    Leadership certainly does take a very specific personality, as does fame in general. The adaptations required are far beyond our understanding. “Keeping it real” in the public eye- being vulnerable, being true- eesh. I don’t know how I’d fair. Esp bc I hate wearing sunglasses unless it’s super necessary.
    Congrats on the FP. So exciting! I actually got Freshly Pressed today as well (1st time!!) and so was scoping the others. Go us!
    Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading more of your stuff as you write it. Happy Monday (:

  5. It’s no wonder that so many people take time out to find out ‘who they are’ because nobody knows anymore. Society decrees that we must be something that we are not, and so we are whatever is required. We are just another commodity, just like your Louis Vuitton; eventually to be discovered as a fake when the stitching falls apart.

  6. Does that mean that anti-social recluses and hermits are actually more real than the rest of us, as they are less likely to be influenced by popular opinion? So the only “real, authentic” people are the crazy ones.😉

  7. I appreciate your post, working in social services I too see a lot of phony individuals in direct care to upper management. I think I act authentically empathic and un-phony. Except I’m a Gemini with a whole family of Libras, maybe I wouldn’t recognize authentic anyway…

  8. The stealthy creep of post-modern decadence. I was an executive administrator at a fake non-profit where management worked tirelessly to uphold our (fake) authenticity. It made post-structuralism remarkably easy to understand, when I entered grad school! “Reality” is what you make it, or so we claim. Until your authentic self drops out of the performance and, just as stealthily, leaves your psyche in free-fall…. Funny term, “burn out”. I think “crash” or “system failure” would be more (*ahem*) authentic. Thanks for the interesting post!

  9. Authenticity can not be manufactured. That is why there is so little of it. Everyone in the Western world is trying to be authentic, yet few of us succeed. Why? Because trying always disqualifies.

    Only the soul is authentic. But our egos, our need to “fit in,” overruns our souls. For almost all of us, the ego (what people see) is preferred over our souls) what people cannot see. Thus we are a worldful of sheep, all followers and few originals.

    Unseen and seemingly unimportant, we try and try… and so are lost in the masses of sameness.

    To struggle for authenticity is to self-drown ourselves in the sea of uniformity.

  10. This was wonderful! We are constantly in search of something real only to be let down most of the time and finally to realize that most everything and everyone is fake.
    It’s a hard pill to swallow when we are in search of nothing but authentic experiences.

  11. I’ve been thinking about this lately since I just started a new job in a small office. I think having manners in the workplace and sticking to a role or task at hand could be considered phony to a person who is behaving as “keeping it real” or being “authentic”. A person is not his or her job. A lot of jobs require certain skills and a performance of those skills, not a performance of one being his or her authentic self. Everyone has to work together somehow and unfortunately one has to remember that the world doesn’t revolve around their “authentic” self. Your world does, but it’s a bigger picture out there. I learned this the hard way. The people who really care about you most likely are not your coworkers or your managers. Even a manager’s “authentic” leadership persona is still cultivated to some extent. Also, keeping it real at work means one probably doesn’t want to focus on what they’re doing, meaning the job doesn’t get done as well. And then it might get so “real” that arguments start that don’t have anything do with completing the task at hand. Sadly, that’s not what you’re getting paid to do and the truth hurts. It’s not easy.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience.
      Completely agree that many see the workplace as a place to perform this persona. It can be a barrier to getting ones work done.

      Good luck with your new job!

  12. Man I was walking to work today along a major boutique-and-coffee house-lined street in a very gentrified part of San Francisco and Holden Caulfield’s rants about all the “phonies” came to mind completely unbidden; and then this post pops up! Very enjoyable, I’m a little too caffeinated to leave anything more insightful then my approval🙂

    • Well, yah for caffeine and many thanks for your comment!
      Enjoy the fog and beautiful streets of san fran.
      I love the coffee, the burritos and the streets of san fran that give one a good workout! The gentrification is intense though.

  13. UGH! “keeping it real” Yes! a license to impose one’s patterns onto the world, thus “not” keeping it at all real…the height of phoniness and not at all unlike that which those who are constantly “keeping it real” eschew: political correctness. they are the same coin! but shhh…the phonies don’t know that🙂 love your blog, am glad i found you.

  14. Programming is an easy one. Hey, you can do what I do – I’m not that good: see, here’s the books I’ve read; here’s the code I’ve written. You can do it too. There’s free classes on Coursera, free books in torrents, free engines a Google search away. I’m selling the possible, because I want to believe it too.

  15. Cancel all magazine subscriptions, regift your television, ignore every news broadcast, and hit the Mute button the instant you hear any and all commercials come on the radio and I guarantee that in as little as a few month’s time, you will be so in touch with “real” that you will feel like a Buddha.

    Make your inner voice the loudest one singin’ if you want to understand the song.

  16. Haha, I saw a lot of Catcher in your post! I should say though that your post is not far from what Holden was describing int he book. Kim Kardashian is another kind of phony if you want to know the truth. Being phony is easy, i’d say, I think people don’t do much to try and find out and the ‘phony’ take the opportunity. Think one should just get to know more people and then figuring out phony might not be hard. Phony is evolving lol – it’s phony nonetheless.

  17. Your use of Che Guevara to epitomize phoniness is perfect given he was addicted to the luxuries of capitalism and surrendered to the Bolivians like a coward. He was a true Holden Caulfield phony.

  18. Does it make a qualitative difference if the glass is half phony or half authentic? No. On the other hand when it is full-on frontal authenticity or phoniness there is never a question. Each will always be the other in that case as each would exemplify the paradox in your title. Am I getting it? More to the point do I get Sallinger? If I do then do I not get Kinsella? Fun? Yes!

  19. Interesting thoughts. I like your engaged narration🙂 I believe that we cannot blame ourselves for being phony as our whole existence is based on what other people think about us, and as social animals we need acceptance and approval from others. Society is our mirror whether we want it or not, we cannot escape the fact that through growing up, education process, relationships, and getting jobs we assume certain roles. With time we become the roles and we cannot find anything else behind it. So it is difficult to be absolutely and 100 % yourself. We all have connections, entering any network makes us part of it, we exchange through network but we are also shaped by it.
    Even if you decide to follow your own path, find people who think alike you and start creating something new, you will find corporations coming in and marketing, labelling and reselling your idea, which become less genuine with more people to join…
    I believe that we all need to belong, that’s why we are all phonies, more or less, but we all do this.

    • Hi! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this post. I agree that there is a certain level of phony that we cant blame people for. there are, though, some that have totally gone mega corporate on their phoniness. I wonder if we can develop a phoniness scale?😉

      • Yep, there are some individuals (although word individual is not best here🙂 that entirely lost their mind, but we also can view them as victims of modern, almost violent marketing campaigns, which advertise mass products with absurd encouragement to be different, do things your own way etc…
        In any ways, developing an universal scale is a rather impossible task as everyone has different tolerance levels to phoniness .

  20. Fake seems to come from the inside-out. Take a look at Pamela Anderson, her fakes just keep getting bigger. Some fakes get voted to lead countries. Strange how we’re so intrigued by phonys…

    Thoroughly enjoyed this post!

  21. Good arguments here. I just wanted to ask though why being “real” is immediately equated to deviating from society. And does being “real” mean being angry and non-compliant all the time?

    • Hi there. Thanks for your questions. Its not so much that keeping it real is equated with being angry. Its more that when staff get angry and act insubordinate, i have oftentimes been told they were just keeping it real. Does that answer your question? Thanks for reaching out

      • Oh, then that’s really bad, isn’t it? It becomes a lame excuse not to do one’s job well, even without the desire to please anyone. Yes, it does. Very enlightening, thank you!

  22. My best friend and I agree that when a person has to say that they are something, for example, “I’m really eccentric,” or “I’m really good at XYZ,” chances are the person is not. These statements are things they wish to project. True personality traits and originality does not have to be spoken about or announced. They are just there, and will shine through. Thanks for making me think today with your post. This one’s going to stick with me.

  23. I have to admit I got hooked into reading further after you allusion to “Cather in the Rye” lol–my favorite novel! I think there’s a certain sense of “phoniness” in everyone, even those who claim to keep it real all the time. Nowadays, it’s harder and harder to straddle the line between real and fake, but I guess as long as you’re a “genuinely” good person, then that is all that matters:)

  24. I really enjoyed this and reblogged it. People where I’m from realness is gauged by resistance to change and nonconformity to the way you are expected to do things. It has people feeling that what I feel is progressive change is a bad thing. Your blog explains things.

  25. Heidegger is very informative on this vexing topic of authenticity/inauthenticity, particularly in his work ‘Being and Time’. In brief, he argues that inauthenticity is a fundamental facet of being human in a shared and public world. It cannot be avoided — indeed, ‘must’ not be avoided, for you encounter and interact with the world best when you do so thoughtlessly, fluidly, like ‘everyone else’ does. Doors, pedestrian crossings, pens and pencils, newspapers, food, etc — when absorbed in the everyday world, you interact with these in, strictly speaking, inauthentic ways.

    Authenticity comes from the anxiety-laden awareness of your own finitude. It arises from that feeling of ‘lostness’ that you sometimes get in the everyday world; the feeling of uncanniness, of not having found your path. It comes from the realisation that there is no ultimate authority to appeal to regarding the choices you make in your life. You can choose to be ‘lead’ into these choices by assuming the attitudes and beliefs of the generic ‘man on the street’, or you can try to forge your own means of choosing. However, even your ‘own’ choices are pre-determined by the social and symbolic networks that you are born into.

    And yet, you ‘can’ resolve to approach these existential possibilities for your life authentically. You can do so in the cold awareness that your choices are your own. They may be blanketed in the absurdity of a world in which you can die at any moment, but you can at least choose them with your eyes open, instead of being lead by others.

  26. Thought provoking post.That was my favourite book too,remember the whole phony-hating phase and idolizing Caulfield.Great writing but what’s with the fake zodaic sign?didn’t get it.

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