Did you see Olivia Coleman’s acceptance speech at the Oscars? Watch it. It’s impossible not to love her. Why? Because there, onstage, in front of millions, she let us in. She trusted us with her unapologetic glee, and we, in return, couldn’t help but trust her for it.
In this 24/7 world of filters and followers and fakes, she seemed real, or as some love to say, “authentic.”
Although devious when describing anything other than a Ming vase or a Chicago hotdog, “authenticity” has been a hot word in a social context for several years. As the story goes: more authenticity = better for your brand.
Of course, this is a bowl of ox-ymoronic soup because the very purpose of marketing is to be conveniently inauthentic. You sell someone part of the truth, not the whole truth. Sadly, authenticity’s intent has been lost to the tides of human nature. To stand out, the word has now crawled onto the island of “Unnecessary Emphasis, Yet Weakened Meaning,” re-branding itself “radical authenticity.”
The other island’s inhabitants, “most unique” and “giving 110%” look on in morose indifference, unable to tell their new friend the irony of it all.
What’s really going on with “authenticity”? Why do we use it to describe people? What’s the story we tell ourselves when we do?
It’s Really About Us
Our love of authenticity is more than just an affinity for people who are honest with their feelings in front of us. A hoarder could be honest about her feelings. So could a poacher. White supremacists share their feelings publicly (some even get elected president).
It’s not widespread authenticity we like, it’s the wishful version of ourselves that we see in someone’s expression of themselves.
So, someone else’s authenticity is still about us and our own ego.
Which highlights another problem here.
If someone is “being real” in the forest and no one is around to see it, is it still authentic?
“Authentic” is an opinion we sling at others. You never say, “I’m being so authentic,” because if you did, you'd now be lying.
Authenticity presumes an audience, and there’s always an audience.
Even the statements, “Zero f*cks given” & “Play by your own rules” assumes someone is watching. While you might not care what one group thinks of you, you certainly care what another one does.
But there’s complexity even in your tribe. Every day we bite our tongues, imagining what it would be like to say what was on our minds. Just because someone says, “Tell me how you really feel?” doesn’t mean I have to tell them. I might not tell them because I don’t trust them or because there are repercussions to my honesty.
I can know who I am but only show you what I want to show you.
Honesty is great, except when it isn’t. Dave Chappelle may have said it best with, “When ‘Keeping It Real’ Goes Wrong.”
Therefore, what we call authenticity is just “seemingly less inauthentic.” You’re never getting the real anyone. There is only how many layers of an onion someone is willing to show you. If they showed it all, they wouldn’t have an onion left.
So, we like authenticity when we see it in a person we wish we could emulate, not in those we don’t. And we like authenticity when it bucks societal trends a bit, but still operates under some umbrella of decorum.
“Authenticity” seems to be a battle between:
“Be your true self” - Don’t hold back
“Be your best self” - You might have to hold back
My “true self” feels like a private experience. My “best self” feels like there’s an audience.
I’ve struggled with that in my own brand building. Is what I’m saying what I believe, or is it what I have to sell? When you are your own brand, it’s hard to tell the difference between you and the avatar you’ve created.
“Authenticity” is the electric eel of the self-promotion world, i.e shockingly slippery. I’ve tried to rid myself of using the word as catch-all advice because it’s too easily hijacked and manipulated; but that doesn’t mean we can’t hold the bastard down and squeeze some tenets out of it.
Authenticity is about ownership and accountability. It’s not binary. It’s balancing the realities of fitting into some sort of community while also acting like you have a say in your life.
Authenticity is about alignment. I’ll never know if you’re being authentic to yourself or conveniently inauthentic for me. You, sounding “authentic,” and you, being “authentic,” is no difference to me so long as I like what you’re saying. The question is, can you live with yourself for saying it? And for how long?
How different is the public and the private “you” when it comes to your values? I think narrowing that gap as much as possible brings alignment to who we are as individuals.
Which brings us to perhaps the most important point: Authenticity is knowing whose opinion you care about and why.
Brene Brown, in her infinite wisdom, may have said it best:
“I carry a small sheet of paper in my wallet that has written on it the names of people whose opinions of me matter. To be on that list, you have to love me for my strengths and struggles. You have to know that I’m trying to be Wholehearted, but I still cuss too much, flip people off under the steering wheel, and have both Lawrence Welk and Metallica on my iPod.”
While Olivia Coleman may have felt authentic to us, her reaction wasn’t for us. She was proud of her efforts. She was genuinely humbled. She was human. She was comfortable being vulnerable because she knew whose reactions she cared about.
Authenticity is a judgment of others. Vulnerability is a leap of self.
Know who’s on your small sheet of paper. Aim for vulnerability. Act with general decency. Own the outcome. You’ll thank yourself for it.