An article in last Sunday’s New York Times discusses the current trend to tout the importance and value of being “authentic”. As it says, buy “Authenticity seems to be the value of the moment, rolling off the tongues of politicians, celebrities, Web gurus, college admissions advisers, reality television stars.”
The funny thing is, it seems to me that if you have to tell people you’re being authentic, you’re already in a bit of a hole.
The trouble with all this talk about authenticity is that ordinary people might take it seriously when they’re trying to persuade. Keep in mind that the types of people listed in the above quote are trained professionals on a closed course. You should not try this at home. What they are really doing is called “calculated authenticity”, which reminds me of the old joke that sincerity is everything; once you can fake it, you’ve got it made.
If you want to be an effective persuader, you must at least try to master the art of calculated authenticity. The article defined it as stage management, which is choosing how you want the world to perceive you. In other words, you have to care about what others think. The process of caring what others think is what is going to make your messages more powerful and more persuasive. Caring about what others think and adapting your behavior and message accordingly is the underlying skill of persuasion.
I might even go so far as to say that caring what others think and adapting your behavior accordingly is what makes for a healthy civil society.
Ironically, you could not be totally authentic even if you wanted to, because there’s no foolproof way of determining just who the real you is. If being authentic is letting the world see your real self, your first challenge is to figure out which is the real self that you want to present to the world? Are you most real when you roll out of bed in the morning? Are you most real when you’re grouchy because of a fight with your spouse, or when you’re happy and confident because you just received a good job review?
You also have to consider effectiveness: Is it helpful to be authentic when someone has done something completely stupid and you just want to explode? How authentic do you want to be in a job interview when someone asks about your weaknesses? How honest do you want to be when your teenager asks if you ever smoked pot in high school?
I had someone in a communications class who had clear anger management issues ask me what was wrong with expressing her anger—after all, anger is natural, isn’t it? I responded that some bodily functions are also natural, but we don’t perform them in public.
Another problem with authenticity is that it is about you, not about the other person. People do things for their reasons, not yours, and others may respond to different types of evidence.
Since you have many versions of your “authentic” self, my definition of calculated authenticity is to decide what is your best self that you should present for that specific situation. For example, vulnerability is another virtue that people seem to expect nowadays, but is it the message you want to send when you’re in charge during a crisis?
There are two important limits to the practice of calculated authenticity. Most importantly, I am not advocating lying or dishonesty. Secondly, I also think it’s important for your long term credibility that the best self you present to the world should be reasonably consistent.
As persuasion expert Steve Booth-Butterfield says, all bad persuasion is sincere.