Authenticity in relationships, and what we can do without

If there’s ever a time when an introvert is at a disadvantage being alone, it’s when she’s in an unfamiliar place. Every time I’ve moved to a new city and made new friends, it’s been an uphill battle for me, and I’ve always envied my more extroverted friends who are less afraid, less apologetic about occupying space in the way that they do. But each time while I fight to fit in, and as I get older, I learn something new about human relationships.

It seems pretty normal to think critically about people and our relationships with them, whether they’re authentic or not, because “authenticity” tends to be congruous with “meaningful”, which is really what we’re searching for. But I also think that there are too many people who are too concerned with authenticity and this world’s supposed lack of it. I still strongly believe we can find something authentic in everyone and everything if we know how to look for it.

I think it begins with being more open-minded about not only what we perceive to be “fake”, but also how we value that which we perceive to be fake. In fact, dis-ingenuousness to a certain degree is actually essential to our social existence.

For example, certain social norms and everyday acts of common courtesy and politeness, such as small talk, are often criticized as disingenuous and meaningless. They exist solely to serve us in our desire to be “liked” and to get along with one another. In the linguistic subfield of pragmatics, small talk is referred to as “phatic expression”, classified as a type of conversational act that isn’t meant to convey information. Rather, according to the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, it’s meant to preserve sociability.

On this note, I really don’t think that all acts of politeness in a social setting are necessarily inauthentic, and even small talk, though superficial, can reveal some non-obvious truths about people to an astute observer. “How’s your day going?” doesn’t need to indicate an authentic interest in how someone’s day is going; it does, however, indicate the speaker’s intention to be friendly and sociable in that moment, otherwise they wouldn’t have asked the question at all. It’s alright to (gasp!) not actually care about how that person’s day is going, and it’s alright to respond with “It’s going well,” even if it’s not.

My opinion is that those who flout or criticize these norms in the interest of trading in the need to be liked for the desire to be “authentic” are just being unnecessarily cynical. As Heidegger once said,

All genuine understanding, interpreting and communication and new discovery come about in [idle talk] and out of it and against it.”

They say social media is inauthentic. I say there’s nothing wrong with accepting that relationships have evolved. (Admittedly, social media really is a different case because it also magnifies what’s superficial, and it’s so easy for us to lose sight of social media’s true value in the way it enables us to maintain relationships in easier and more creative ways. …Maybe I’ll think more about this in another post.)

Really at the heart of all this is the fact that displaying your true, honest self to the world, whether through discourse or social media, is just exhausting. We are all complicated individuals with off-days and insecurities. We all have deep, hidden truths that we share with only a select few people outside of ourselves. These truths are hidden for a reason: They’re not meant to be seen.

There are parts of us that we keep to ourselves because they make up the core of our existence as individual humans. If we are constantly exposing ourselves to the world, we’d essentially be giving away the most intimate parts of ourselves like candy. Once we do that, what’s left? And for that matter, why do we owe the world our honesty at all?

These are questions I genuinely don’t know the answers to. I do know, however, that as my relationship with myself grows stronger, I become increasingly protective of what’s mine. My true self is mine, and I relish in my ability to choose whom I get to share it with. I mean, I don’t go around lying to people about who I am. But to anyone who may demand that I share, for example, my true feelings about something, my response might very well be: Why do I owe you that?

I think — and I promise this is the last of it — any desperate search for authenticity only breeds unnecessary anxiety. When I look at the friendships in my life, which I have by now spent years cultivating, I realize that I value each and every one of them in different ways, but that doesn’t necessarily make one relationship more valuable than the other. This is an important lesson to carry when going about creating new friendships — especially if, like me, you tend to find making new friends difficult. If we could only build up a stronger sense of ourselves, maybe we can all just let go of demanding some skewed standard of authenticity from the world the same way we wouldn’t want the world to demand it of us. We are less the judges than the safeguards of what’s real.

One thought on “Authenticity in relationships, and what we can do without

  1. Yessssss!

    “My opinion is that those who flout or criticize these norms in the interest of trading in the need to be liked for the desire to be “authentic” are just being unnecessarily cynical.”

    Like

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