Monday, March 3, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: In Defense of Facebook Braggarts and Faking it Until you Make It

Do you have a "friend" (or maybe even a genuine friend) on Facebook whose life looks perfect and makes you feel a little tinge (or a shooting bolt) of jealousy?

They're posting pictures of homemade oatmeal with "I Love You" spelled out in syrup while you're running out the door with a cold Pop Tart in one hand and your toddler's forgotten show and tell toy in the other, pantyhose ripped and hair a mess. They're talking about long walks in the park on Saturday evening while you're fighting with your kid to finish his homework and trying to figure out if laundry or dishes are the more important chore. They're posting selfies with their hair in perfect, face-framing curls and flawlessly applied mascara while you're wondering how you can manage to have acne on your chin and dry patches flaking on your forehead. They're posting finish line pics from their fifth 10k of the year with a smile pasted across their post-workout-glow-but-not-drenched-in-sweat face while you're mentally trying to justify carrying in the groceries as your workout for the day because you still have to cook dinner, make tomorrow's lesson plans, and answer twelve emails before you can go to sleep.

Breakfast of champions.

It's just not fair.

It's also, as many people have pointed out (most notably this Mamamia post about lying by omission on Facebook), probably not true.

Let's unpack that a little. We're not saying that the person is fabricating these events. We're not saying that there isn't homemade oatmeal, 10k runs, or that they aren't really as beautiful as their selfies suggest. We're just saying that they curated those moments specifically for their perfection and left a bunch of not-so-great moments on the cutting room floor. We didn't get to see their chin acne. No one posts a picture of the 10k they didn't run because they were too busy giving the dog a bath and getting the oil changed in the car. We call this Facebook story a "lie" because it's not the whole truth.

But nothing you ever know about anyone is the whole truth. Ever.

We've started holding up these curated versions of our lives as representatives of our selves and pitting them against one another. Evidence--anecdotal and empirical--is mounting that social media, once a promise for a more connected future, often operates to make us feel more isolated and envious.

The perhaps darker flip side of this is using someone's curated Facebook life as a proxy for which to make ourselves feel better when theirs goes horribly wrong.

Certainly, these concerns about what this online voyeurism does to our individual psyches and our collective cultural understanding of empathy and expectations are worth exploring, but I want to take a moment to defend Facebook braggarts and "liars."

One of the texts I'm reading for my doctoral exams is Castiglione's Book of the Courtier. In this book, Castiglione explores what qualities make one a courtier, or man of the court. In many ways, this is a How to Win Friends and Influence People for the Renaissance era. As upward mobility was becoming more of a reality than it had been in the past, the appearance of respectability was key. 

This appearance is captured by the term sprezzatura which is roughly translated as "nonchalance, effortlessness, and ease." In other words, sprezzatura is the quality of being able to appear to have mastered something that you actually have not mastered. 

"Oh this thing? Totally just bought it this morning."
There is an element of deception to sprezzatura. The ideal courtier conceals his efforts so that all appears effortless, and that--much like our criticism of Facebook curating--is not the whole truth. It certainly is disheartening to those of us who have to struggle to get our hair to lay flat or to make a breakfast or to get to the gym.

But sprezzatura is not just about dishonesty. It can be summed up as "fake it until you make it," but we have to remember the second half of that axiom. There's something to be said about the "make it" part. Without the faking it, we often would never make it there.

That's a key component of body language expert Amy Cuddy's TED Talk about how we can fake qualities through our body language until they actually shape our perceptions.

She explains that "we smile when we feel happy, but also, when we're forced to smile by holding a pen in our teeth . . . it makes us feel happy." Therefore, "it's also possible that when you pretend to be powerful, you are more likely to actually feel powerful." The studies she and her team conducted supported this hypothesis. Pretending to be powerful actually made you act more powerful. 

Like at least some of you reading this right now, some people reacted to this with horror. "I don't want to be an impostor!" To this, Cuddy tells a moving story of how a car accident and subsequent head injury stripped her of her core identity as a smart person, leaving others to tell her that college was no longer a choice for her. She was convinced that she was an impostor in graduate school, someone who didn't belong. When an advisor told her to "fake it," she did. She forced herself to go through the motions of giving talks and sounding smart, and--over time--she wasn't faking it anymore. She became it. 

I empathize with Cuddy's story. There was a time when I was a very pessimistic person. I looked at the worst possible outcome of every single thing, from the mundane to the drastic. I was miserable, and that misery was a self-fulfilling prophesy. The misery seemed like an assurance that I was right to be so pessimistic. Surely, if things were going right, I'd feel happier, so I must be correct in assuming that everything is awful because I certainly feel awful. 

One day, I decided to fake it. I faked a happiness that I wasn't really feeling. I faked looking at the world through a more positive lens. Inside, I was still thinking incredibly negative things, but I didn't give them voice. I didn't share them anymore. Over time, I stopped faking it. I had become it. I know that sounds like some new-agey brainwashing (The Secret, anyone?) but I don't think there's really anything all that mystical about it. 

We shape our perception of the world around it through our interactions with it. If we craft those interactions in an intentional way, we can force a different perception. 

And this is where Facebook braggarts come back into the picture. Another of my PhD exam books is Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition. A large part of this book is dedicated to the way that our realities are dependent upon the witness of other people. Arendt explains "whatever lacks this appearance [to other people] comes and passes away like a dream, intimately and exclusively our own but without reality."

It is the assurance of others' experiences that lets us know the reality of the perception we have. Every "like" on that 10k photo, every "how sweet!" comment on that bowl of oatmeal is an assurance that this moment--this perfect, happy moment--is real. As Arendt puts it, interaction with others "assures the mortal actor that his passing existence and fleeting greatness will never lack the reality that comes from being seen, being heard, and, generally, appearing before an audience of fellow men." 

Perhaps we should stop framing these omissions of the negative in our curated Facebook reality as "lies" and start seeing them as sprezzatura, putting on the effortless appearance of a reality we haven't quite captured but hope to soon. 

Facebook braggarts aren't asking for your envy; they're asking for your help, and maybe the'd be willing to give theirs in return. 

Photo: JeepersMedia, opencontent


  1. I meant to put this link in. Check out this post from Black Girl in Maine about how taking selfies helped her be more confident:

  2. I've been thinking about this stuff a lot lately: social media, jealousy, comparison, etc. Cognitively I *know* that people's lives are not fully represented by their social media and I know that that's not true for me either! We know this and we know that we selectively choose what to publicly broadcast and yet it's still hard to me to not get jealous or resentful of other people. And, interestingly, people always cry for more authenticity online but then we also bash on people who are negative or "too real" online. It's a lot ot think about! Thanks for breaking it all down.

  3. Yes! I especially agree with the part about how we also bash people for being too negative. Sometimes the cynic in me thinks that we just hate being reminded that other people are living their lives, too because it takes away from our ability to exist in a closed bubble, which is simpler for us to process.

  4. Act as if you have faith... That was some of the best advice I ever got.