For this article to be successful, the first thing we have to do is define real versus fake. I’m sure most people who are reading this understand the basic concept, but setting a baseline is important if we’re going to have a dialogue about a subject that’s filled with gray areas. Being real versus being fake is definitely one of those topics.
The human condition is filled with emotions. We act and we react based upon our interactions with the world and our emotional needs of the moment. These needs must be met. A good description, for me at least, was something that was presented when I was adopting a child. The instructors of the mapp class did this little visual exercise where they poured water in and out of cups with some of the cups having holes in the bottom where the water would leak out. The analogy was that the water was our emotional level, and we have to continually refill it or we will go empty. I guess the adoption process was seen as a really big hole in the bottom of the cup so they were pushing us to get as much emotional support as we possibly could going through that process.
When we are filling that cup, we do it with friends and family. We do it with people who are around us who won’t judge us, or we assume won’t judge us. We have to. As I said there are emotional needs that must be met. This is where I get to the description of what being real is. It’s showing these emotions. If you are mad it’s not hiding that fact. If you’re mad at a specific person and you’re venting about them, you’re letting that emotional energy out. If you’re sad, fearful, excited, or any real emotion and you’re sharing it with others, they are absorbing it, releasing you of the energy. The party with the emotional challenges usually can’t get back to even keel until they have vented, i.e. when they are real. Author’s note, I’m not a big fan of the word energy because it sounds so new agey, Unfortunately I can’t think of a different word that better describes an emotional state. Going back to our topic, this process of being real to others around you can potentially connect you with others, or it can push them away. But we will explore more about that in a moment.
So if being real is expressing your emotions as you feel them to those around you, then being fake is hiding your emotions. If you’re really good at being fake, most people will never know what really makes you tick.
You should never be real at work.
I want to get this out of the way. As much as I hate to admit it, you should never be your real self at work. Work is about getting the job done. Emotions get in the way of that. We can have a vent session with a bestie for 2 hours and it will be productive emotionally. Do that in the workplace with a friend, and the boss and possibly everyone on the team will resent the noise or the lack of productivity. If you’re upset, angry, depressed, or expressing any other emotion at a restaurant it’s not a big deal. If there are people there who don’t want to deal with it they just leave. Unfortunately, due to the nature of our modern world, most can’t just get up and leave work whenever we want to avoid a co-worker who is being real for a bit.
We also can’t forget that for many professionals, there is a ton of interaction with people you don’t see often enough for them to get to really know who you are. Human beings are pre-wired to make judgments about others. If you’re having a bad day and you’re angry, most people who just meet you will want to stay away from you. They won’t want to engage thinking that this new person they met is probably just having a tough day. Over time we all develop a reputation. As that reputation grows, your career opportunities will rise and fall based upon how that reputation meets the needs of the organization.
I know of at least two people who were fired, in large part, for not being professional. They were simply too real. They shared their ups and downs, their emotional challenges, their relationship challenges, and all manner of other things. We knew exactly who they were as human beings and in both cases they worked hard.
It would be nice if we were all divas or eccentrics who could act any way we wanted because our value to the organization far outstripped the issues related to our personality. Unfortunately, that is not the case for 99.9999% of people. The bottom line is that at work, the rule should always be: hide your emotions, hide your more unique behavior tendencies, and adopt the uniform personality facade that is the organizational norm.
But what about being real in our personal lives?
The next question we have to ask ourselves has to do with is it better to be real in our personal lives? Unfortunately, some of the same rules apply. This is especially true with social acquaintances. There are norms in society the same way there are in the workplace.
Some of these norms have a tendency to show themselves more frequently based upon the sex of the individual. I’ll probably get a million hate emails for this, but, In my experience, they’re is definitely more complexity on average with females than males. I even see this behavior pattern with my youngest children. This isn’t to say that we don’t have females who are overly real, or males who are overly fake, it’s just the opposite tends to be the norm.
Enough philosophy. It’s probably a little bit easier to understand what I’m talking about with a case study. I have two very close friends, and they happen to be a married couple. Let’s call them Mr and Mrs Rod. Yes, that’s a fishing related pun but the people are real and they personify the extremes of being real with others.
Mr Rod is extremely real with his friends and family. In fact he has a hard time hiding who he is. He overshares all of the details of whatever is going on in his life.. He, has ups and downs emotionally and always seeks advice from his friends and family and sometimes even new acquaintances on dealing with these issues. What I’ve noticed is that most people, because of the behavioral values of society, shy away from Mr Rod initially. They simply don’t like him. Because of this he has a hard time making friends.
Mr Rod is a pretty good guy at heart. He may say things that make people uncomfortable, but he’s not hiding anything. Regarding his friends, when he makes them they tend to last a while and the relationships tend to be somewhat deeper because of the oversharing. It’s almost like if one person is real, they tend to attract others who are real in their interactions. The unfiltered sharing tends to lead to deeper connections from what I can tell.
Mrs Rod is the exact opposite side of the coin. she never shares her real self with anybody. She’s overly pleasant, and follows societal norms to a fault. Nobody ever knows if she’s upset, angry, or was feeling any other strong emotion. She hides it all! Consequently the initial reaction she gets from others is one of affinity. Everybody likes Mrs Rod when they first meet her and for a long period afterwards. Who wouldn’t like somebody who’s always pleasant?
Unfortunately, what happens over time with her friends is they become less engaged. I’m sure this is because of the natural evolution of friendships. The typical behavior for friendships is that they start off as somewhat superficial, but over time, as comfort level increases, the friends become more real with each other. This is not the case with Mrs Rod. Even over the years she still doesn’t show her real self to her closest friends. Eventually they realize they don’t really understand what makes Mrs Rod tick. They stop feeling close to her, or I guess they don’t get any closer than a casual relationship. In some cases, I’ve seen resentment brew toward Mrs Rod. Her friends, such as they are, feel that they have opened up to her and they see her lack of sharing as communicating that she doesn’t trust them. It’s hard for normal people to wrap their heads around this concept that there could be a human being who never shares anything of any depth or consequence about themselves with anybody. It probably goes without saying that, for the most part, Mrs Rod is loved at her job as she exemplifies the behavior that most organizations desire out of their people.
Mrs Rod does have the same emotional needs as everyone. The challenge for her is her only outlet is her husband, Mr Rod. The person who doesn’t like to share anything with anyone, only is real with the person who shares everything with everyone. I’m sure you can see where there would be an ongoing conflict with this. Their relationship is sort of an emotional feedback loop like you get when a microphone is too close to the speaker. She pours 100% of her real self into her husband and he has to have an outlet that is not her. Consequently he goes to his friends, and when she finds out he shared something with his friends she gets upset with him.
Mr and Mrs Rod are great examples of the extremes but my guess is that most everybody falls more into the middle. The core question is which side is better? Of the three options, share everything, share nothing, or feel it out and share just the right amount at just the right time. That latter one is tricky because the right amount at the right time is different in every single situation. There is never going to be a hard and fast rule to follow other than follow your gut instinct.
As I said earlier, the extreme of sharing nothing, of being completely on during your work day is the right course of action. There may be some kerfuffles with the occasional coworker who is a bit catty, but on the hole it’s a much better situation to be in. Businesses prefer everything to be nice, neat, and predictable. Not sharing anything of yourself, not being real and only engaging with the company norm, day in and day out, is very predictable.
The answer about being real in our personal lives is a bit more complicated. Part of it is because we can’t change who we are at our core. We are hardwired for uncounted reasons to behave in the way we do. With awareness of how much we share and its impact on the world around us, we can try and work to move into a different direction. The question is which direction should we move in?
I tend to think that the best solution is to share nothing of consequence unless it is a reflection of what someone else is sharing. Wait until there’s a real good opportunity to connect with another human being and then go deep. Timing is important here, knowing the right time to connect is very difficult. Somebody who is intensely angry needs to see that you genuinely feel angry too. It is the same with every other complex human emotion. In this way you set up bonding moments. This turns the casual acquaintance into the close friend. Unfortunately it is the chicken or egg scenario. Somebody has to go first.
If you’re on the extremes, the person who’s never real, who is always fake, You have to be real when the moment presents itself. The person who’s always real, who never has any filters, should learn to apply them judiciously at first.
There’s absolutely risk of pain and rejection from other human beings we attempt to open up to, no matter where you are on this bell curve of being real or fake. It would be great if we were all accepting of how open or closed off others are when around us without any judgment. That level of acceptance of others, unfortunately, is not a part of the human condition but it is definitely something I will strive for moving forward in my life. And that is as real as I can get!