Years ago, a friend told me about some self-help book she read. It sounded like a load of crap, but I didn’t have the heart to say that. Instead, I acted interested and told her it was great. So she kept talking about it and urging me to read it until I confessed it just wasn’t my thing. “You seemed so interested in it, though,” she said. Yep, that was just me being a complete phoney.
Illustration by Ikon_Grafix (Shutterstock).
Phoney people get a bad rap. I mean, inauthenticity isn’t a good quality, don’t get me wrong. But the general consensus seems to be that phoney people are backstabbing liars. And we’re not — at least not all of us. Some of us just don’t like hurting people’s feelings. Some of us just want to feel accepted, so we’re super nice. Or maybe you’re afraid of conflict, so you’re extra agreeable to avoid it at all costs. The point is, we can all come across as inauthentic sometimes, and it’s usually not for some misanthropic reason.
However, that inauthenticity can backfire on you. People like you less. You become a doormat. You get suckered into reading bad self-help books. Breaking the phoniness habit isn’t that difficult, though. It just takes some practice.
Beware Good Social Habits That Backfire
Charisma comes more naturally for some of us than others, but it’s a learned habit. For example, a friend of mine — we’ll call him Bo — has one of the most magnetic personalities I’ve ever encountered. Everyone instantly loves him when they meet him. Once, I told Bo how lucky he was to be so naturally outgoing and likeable. “Oh it’s not natural,” he told me. “I hate being around people. I just look at each social interaction as a challenge to be likeable, and I guess it works.”
I was floored, but it goes to show that charisma and confidence are habits you can practise and learn. The problem is: like any habit, you can approach them in the wrong way. It’s easy to overcompensate to the point that they backfire.
For example, charismatic people ask questions and take an interest in subjects the other person cares about, and Bo was great at doing this. I tried to do the same thing with my friend’s self-help book. I tried to be interested and ask questions, but really, I didn’t care or agree with any of it. There’s a fine line between practising good social habits and trying too hard. So how do you avoid the phoney side of that line?
Focus Less on “Charisma”, More on Being Authentic
“Focus on yourself” seems, at first, like the opposite of charisma. Charismatic, likeable people make their audience feel important and heard. Keep in mind, though: they don’t sacrifice their own thoughts, behaviours and opinions for the sake of being likeable, which is what phoney people do.
In social interactions, by all means, listen and engage, but don’t lose sight of yourself. You don’t have to agree with someone to listen to them. Here’s what The Art of Charm has to say about this:
Your sub-communications — such as your body language and the way you speak — will eventually sell you out. People will realise that you’re trying to win them over and it will rub them the wrong way. Rather than putting on a show for others simply look to keep yourself entertained. Do this shit that makes you laugh and show yourself a good time. Doing so will it put you in a better mood so being social will become easy and fun.
During social interactions, I try to check in with myself. When someone tells me about something they’re reading, doing or thinking, I’m used to automatically saying, “that’s so wonderful!” so the person feels good about whatever that is. To break the habit, I now ask myself, “what do you think about this, though, Kristin?” This makes for a much more genuine reaction. I don’t have to tell them, “that sounds like the worst thing ever”, but I don’t have to tell them it’s wonderful, either.
Here’s another thing. If you’re worried about being charismatic, keep in mind: people don’t exactly like charisma, they mostly just like people who are authentic. If likeability is your concern, there’s probably nothing more likeable than just being yourself.
Don’t Be Afraid to Disagree
Part of learning to be less phoney is learning to let go of agreeableness. For inauthentic people, our go-to reaction is usually to just agree with whatever we hear. Again, we might do this because we want to be liked, or we just don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, or we don’t want to avoid conflict. But being too agreeable backfires. Here’s what Nisha Balaram says over at Tiny Buddha:
For me, being agreeable had transformed into something ugly and submissive, where at times I did not recognise myself. During arguments, I would attempt to be accommodating; however, when alone, I was caught up in self-pity and resentment…If you don’t think about how you really feel, being agreeable is simply another mask you’ve put on to hide yourself from the world. If you don’t give yourself a chance to express yourself, you can experience fatigue and resentment.
I can 100 per cent relate. It’s kind of sad, but at times, I’m so agreeable that I no longer know who I am or what I want. Later, I become resentful to others because I don’t feel I can be myself around them.
For example, I recently expressed an opinion in front of an acquaintance, and he said, “That’s ridiculous.” Rather than engaging in the discussion, I submitted. “Oh. Well what do you think?” I asked, and then I found a way to agree with him to avoid any conflict. Later, I resented him for not allowing me to speak my mind. But here’s the thing: he wasn’t keeping me from speaking my mind; he was just speaking his.
The point is agreeableness, especially over time, can absolutely wear you down.
To kick the habit, try distinguishing the perspective from the person. Forbes suggests:
Disagreeing with someone’s perspective can activate their defences as they leap to protect their particular view of a situation. It’s therefore important to distinguish the opinion that you are pushing back against from the person who holds it. Doing so will enable you to disagree in a way that others don’t feel is arrogant or righteous, but instead respects how they came to see things as they do, while offering an alternative perspective. What’s important is that people understand that you’re not pushing them back, but rather their position.
If you’re worried about conflict, remember that you’re not conflicting with the person, just their perspective. As Forbes points out, remembering this will help you approach the conversation more diplomatically. More importantly, though, it makes voicing your opinion a little less scary.
You can also ask questions. It wasn’t so bad asking my friend, “Well, what do you think?” I didn’t have to immediately agree with him, though. I could’ve kept asking him questions to get a real feel for his point of view, and then elaborated on my own. Instead of thinking about the conversations in terms of agree or disagree, it helps to just be curious. I also like this point our own Patrick Allan made about curiosity:
If you shift from “defensive mode” into “curiosity mode”, you’ll appear confident with the fact that you don’t know about something. On top of that, being curious maintains that all important presence. You’re not drifting off in your mind trying to come up with answers, you’re visibly involved in the conversation.
Being likeable or polite doesn’t mean mindlessly agreeing with someone when you don’t. If you find yourself disagreeing, asking questions can help you work through the conversation without feeling like a phoney.
Stop Worrying So Much What Others Think, Phoney
Maybe one of the easiest ways to stop being less phoney is to stop caring about how phoney you come across. We’re usually phoney because we’re overly concerned about what others think. It doesn’t make much sense to continue to dwell on that, then. If you’re trying to break your phoniness habit just to please others, you’re sort of adding fuel to the fire.
As a shy person, I often overthink my behaviour and interactions with others. I obsessively mull over everything I say and do, then kick myself for sounding phoney, rude or stupid. One thing that’s helped me curb this habit? Realising that people don’t really care. Whether you’re phoney, genuine or you say silly things, for the most part, people are too busy dealing with their own shit to worry about your communication style.
And if it’s not about other people, but only about coping with your own feelings of inauthenticity, this advice still applies. If you want to feel more true to yourself, letting go of what other people think is a great way to start.