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”.

187 replies »

  1. interesting piece. i wonder how one could turn this into a more rigorous study. one challenge would be to define and measure ‘phoniness’ in a way that was quantifiable. it’s precisely the sort of quality that is hard to determine from a standardized psych eval or questionaire because by definion, the ‘phony’ person will respond falsely. also makes me think about gradations of fakeness, particularly with respect to clinton, who in my mind was both sincere and on-message much of the time.


  2. This is often a topic for fodder in my little word. I am a purveyor of lean who loves pulling back the curtain of OZ in the name of transparency to reduce human communication waste.


  3. I am a libra. I have a long list of phony friends and relatives who have/ are triying to manipulate me into things where they can take advantage of my money/ brains/ things etc. They however all fail the test of time…… all of them. 😛


  4. Thank you for stopping by. I enjoyed your blog. Reminds me of reading curriculum for people who are studying to become counselors. There was a course on how to gain trust. Hmmmm, something other than doing what you said you would?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “phony authentic” is another name for sociopath and when something goes terribly wrong they are identified as psychopaths. A sociopath can make a fortune by seeming to be real and learning all the body language signals of compassion without having the chore of actually feeling anything. Many famous serial killers were known to be very charming. But there are sociopaths who go into politics and don’t usually kill anyone unless it becomes necessary.


  6. Those most afflicted by the perceived amount of phoniness in this world are those bereft of values that would provide the basis for a moral compass. And a bag being a genuine Vitton is of no importance to someone who values function over form. Aesthetics is in the eye of the beholder …


  7. You have invented a new scientific discipline. Phoniology.

    I wonder if “real” people are the ones who don’t care what other people think. They are either so rich it doesn’t matter anymore or they are social misfits. Vast amounts of our daily lives are spent perfecting our presentation because our presentation is what will get us the job or the raise or the girl/boy friend. The core person usually has far too many idiosyncrasies, divots, and rough edges to be appealing to another real phony.

    I try to be “real”. It is often difficult to objectively see where “real” ends and “real phony” begins so I am far from perfect at it. I don’t believe that traits like diplomacy, compassion, empathy, and prudence necessarily make you less “real”. Faking them does.

    Or perhaps real is just what begins after the fourth glass of Merlot.


  8. I never thought there is fake olive oil. I hope in my little world here down under in New Zealand we won’t have problems with fake things but yes we live in a different world now with so many “fake people” in their own rights, for example, some in the call centre they invented their names and sound like it as well as copying the accent on that particular city or country, not showing their real personality or where they really come from. It’s their own survival skills to face lots of ranting from people etc.


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