Authenticity: What does this really mean in ourselves and when we meet someone new?

You buy an expensive piece of jewelry or designer purse, and the expectation is that it’s authentic--whatever the name brand is. No one likes to be ripped off, especially when you pay top dollar. You can check its provenance to make sure it’s the real deal. At least you can research and look it up to be certain your purchase is what the seller says it is. Most who’ve visited New York City have seen the copies sold on the street and buy them knowing they’re fakes.

Many collectors and experts have been duped by art forgeries. Some are incredibly good. Cases have gone to court about such events and bestsellers written. These days all the scientific tools available have helped dig below the surface and date paints to help know.

We also like our experts to be authentic—doctors, lawyers, CPAs, real estate agents, therapists, babysitters and other professionals with whom we interact and rely on. What about politicians? An honest and authentic politician?  Some might snicker that this is an oxymoron. We believe there are some.

How about a spouse? In the “Modern Love” column of the New York Times newspaper (June 30, 2023) by Belle Burden titled, “Was I Married to a Stranger?,” a husband who thought he wanted the life he had revealed at some point that he didn’t. He was living an inauthentic life with his wife and children. His wife was clueless. She said he seemed invested in their life. “It was as if a switch was flipped,” writes the author. He had a routine. “He worked, played tennis and came home and watched more tennis on television. He wasn’t affectionate or adoring, but I felt a current of abiding love. He never flirted with other women in front of me. We didn’t bicker. He seemed content.” But he was living a double life. There was another woman.

When it comes to meeting anyone new whether in person or through social media or one of the many dating apps, it’s up to us to determine if they’re authentic. For us, that’s important. We tend to take what they tell us at face value. They seem to be real, sincere and honest. After meeting them if we’re not sure, we can do our due diligence before we let them into our lives too much or share anything very important. We also may ask others. Or look them up on Facebook. LinkedIn. If a professional, we can find reviews about their work and character. We also say, trust your gut.

We think a person’s authenticity is on a continuum, and it’s a matter of what feels comfortable to you. If you value honesty, and most of us do, is that synonymous with authenticity? Not really. We fake a laugh when someone else thinks they’re being comical even if we don’t think it’s really funny. If your value system is such that you don’t want to knowingly hurt someone’s feelings, being true to this value we feel is what makes you authentic.

Margaret worked with a man who embellished his stories. By doing so, he wasn’t hurting anybody. We all knew he was exaggerating when he talked about his connections to movie and music stars. However, he was really good at his job and great fun to be around. He was also clever and technically proficient, a plus. Margaret never allowed herself to get close to him, but in a group or for a casual lunch, he was a fun work friend. She knew to accept what he said, as the cliché goes, with a grain of salt. And he was a good father and husband. That was authentic. Lying or malicious acts of deception would have crossed a boundary that was unacceptable to her.

No one likes to be tricked. It makes us more comfortable to be around someone who seems to be the real deal, people who mean what they say and present themselves to us as sincere. But like a submarine surfacing, it might take time for them to reveal what lies beneath. And sometimes we are duped.

Barbara was. She briefly dated one person until she put the pieces of the person’s complicated inauthentic personality together. Barbara and the guy lived in different cities, so she didn’t see him in person that much. They talked excessively, emailed, laughed at his uproarious sense of humor. She was having great fun in his private plane and boat. But gradually the fun stopped. She began to suspect something was off. He told stories and when she asked him about something he had said, he often denied saying that. He said she had misheard him. He bragged about his accomplishments, which didn’t make sense; some were easy to check. He bragged about some friends and criticized others harshly.

At the same time, Barbara recalls, he acted so sincere when he talked about important values and ethics and those of others he admired. He seemed to be such a good, honest person. She stayed confused until so many cracks kept appearing that a friend helped her understand he was a narcissist who needed the light always shining bright and directly on him. Despite his humor, charm and the fact he oozed charisma, she decided to step aside for her sanity. Turns out she was more than 100 percent correct. Both she, Margaret and two of her friends who had met him all agreed she had dodged not one bullet but a barrage. And two years later more confirmation came.

Madison, Wis., psychotherapist Jill Davis, an MSSW with a private consulting practice assisting pre-med and medical students, has become an “authentic” expert. We have quoted her in several blogs because we trust her wisdom and smarts. For this blog, she pointed out that we all have so many layers of who we are.

Davis says that our filtered selves have many fronts. “No one brings their full self into all relationships. There is the one we present to the professional world. There is another, more informal one which we present to those with whom we have a friendly, although not intimate, relationship. There is the person we present to our closest, most intimate friends. And then there is probably the most unfiltered self that we present to our families,” she says.  

How we define our own authenticity, Davis adds, is really about self-knowledge. She encourages us to know who we are and not to deceive ourselves into thinking we are simply the filtered person that we show to the world. She says, “This self-knowledge includes being aware of our baser instincts--jealousy, envy, anger, arrogance, bias--etc. The goal then becomes trying to moderate these qualities that we all have to some degree in our interactions with others.” 

Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Talking to Strangers: What we should know about the people we don’t know, examines these interactions, how we relate to people we don't know and why those interactions sometimes go awry. He argues that humans are not very good at decoding deception in others. We often default to trusting people we don't know, he writes. He gives some extreme examples in anecdotal fashion. For example, Neville Chamberlain, prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1937 to 1940, met face to face with Hitler and announced his belief in Hitler's honesty and trustworthiness. And we know how well that worked out. Gladwell wonders why humans have so much trouble knowing when they are lied to by those who claim to live authentic lives.

But all of this begs the question, what is an authentic life? Davis sees it as “living a life with meaning, that is devoted in some way to kindness and compassion, alleviating suffering, helping others, being involved in causes that are bigger than oneself, being mindful and acting with purpose.” 

So, take out your radar the next time you have a new encounter. Maybe, what you consider authenticity is overrated. Read their body language. If they don’t look you in the eye when speaking, that could be a red flag. If they’re too perfect or over the top (my husband and I never fight), another warning. We all have flaws. However, if you can say to them, “You must fight at some time? Are you exaggerating a bit to make the story better?” and they laugh and concede, “Well, maybe a bit,” why not give the friendship a try. Maybe they embellish a bit but have other qualities you admire such as smarts, humor, empathy, a good listener and someone who will keep a confidence. These are rare qualities indeed. And nobody is perfect if authentic, a very authentic friend of Barbara’s reminds her.

We can all work on ourselves to be more so by sticking to our core values and beliefs. But if you’re looking for that perfect “authentic” friend, or hope they morph into that person, consider this: If you like the person, accept them for who they are; they’re not likely to change. We say, qui me amat, amat et canem meum—who loves me, also loves my dog. Translation….with friends we must accept the things we like as well as those that make us uncomfortable. You be the judge.


  • Denton Stewart

    Much to ponder in this well thought out piece and it’s a good road map for social interaction.

    Good work and keep these insightful gems coming!

  • Rena

    Loved this – read it twice, and will share it!
    I don’t understand the sentence: It also involves understanding one’s privilege for those who have privilege.
    What does that mean?
    Thanks, Rena

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