Authenticity, Congruence, and Small Talk

By Duff McDuffee on December 4th, 2009 1

As a young man, I found myself frustrated with what I perceived to be the inauthenticity of most small-talk social interactions. In particular, when someone asked “how are you?” I felt that my response “good, you?” was a socially-conditioned lie. I wanted to answer more honestly and authentically, so I began experimenting with answering this question as honestly and authentically as I could to whomever asked, based on my feelings in the moment. For instance, I might say “well, it’s been kind of a rough day—I’m worried about X, Y, and Z” etc. to a cashier at the supermarket.

At first this new, more authentic way of communicating was awkward as I found myself searching inside for an answer I felt was really authentic. But after a few days or weeks, it became more comfortable for me.

From this experiment I found that this more authentic way of communicating sometimes appeared to be refreshing to the other person, but at other times annoying or uncomfortable, and often led to the other person giving me unwanted advice! This experiment in authenticity lead me to understand experientially why inauthenticity is useful if not required in some contexts.

After some time, I went back to answering “how are you doing?” inauthentically by again saying “good, you?” like most people do. At first, I did so with some incongruence, for it took effort to repress the desire to spew my guts. But after some time, I was able again to be congruently polite and reserved. In other words, at first I was incongruently inauthentic, but with practice became congruently inauthentic again. In addition, I later found that experimenting like this, I could be more open and honest with people close to me by communicating more about my feelings, while remaining comfortably distant from strangers and acquaintances.

Authentic According to Whom?

If you agree that authenticity is always “according to whom?” then the story is a little bit different. In this case, I am authentic—according to me—to the extent that I feel congruent about my behaviors. Therefore, I was authentic up until I felt that small-talk is inauthentic, when I then felt incongruent and became inauthentic (despite my behavior being the same). Then when I was first learning to be more expressive emotionally, I was also inauthentic, because it didn’t yet feel congruent. Then I was congruent and authentic when being more open felt comfortable, and then I was inauthentic again until I had greater practice in being emotionally reserved, in which case I became authentic again. And finally, I became authentic by holding back with strangers and opening up to friends.

This is an unusual way to think about authenticity—that by repeating a new and uncomfortable behavior enough it can become authentic, that being emotionally reserved can be authentic or inauthentic depending on how it feels (which itself can change), etc., but how else are we to make sense of claims to authenticity? If instead we posit a typical definition of authenticity, which is to express whatever deepest feelings are being experienced in the moment, then we are stuck with the curious problem that sometimes it is best to be inauthentic. Or even worse, one could conclude that aspects of my self (e.g. my shy side) are inauthentic or not-me, thus leading to repression or projection (“other people are shy and reserved, but I’m not like that”).

Or let’s take the position of the other—when was I being authentic according to others? In this case, many would probably report that I appeared most authentic when I was congruently emotionally expressive, despite the fact that I both felt authentic being expressive and being reserved, depending on when you would have asked me.

Being recognized and celebrated for one’s “authenticity” usually occurs when authenticity conforms to certain notions but not others. Many people are acknowledged as being “the real deal” if they are very emotionally expressive to the point of being obnoxious or overbearing, but few are celebrated for their authentic tactfulness, authentic intellect, or authentically reserved emotional expression—at least in the U.S., for it’s different in collectivist cultures like Japan or China (“the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”). For example, shock jock Howard Stern is popular in large part because of his crass “authenticity,” but a subtle and wise spiritual teacher like Jack Kornfield is celebrated more for kindness or balance than authentic expression. We then tend to conform our feelings and behaviors to those that are rewarded by others, turning our quest for authenticity into a quest to be celebrated by others for displaying what is seen as authentic.

Reality Hacking Exercize

This week, try answering the question “how are you?” more openly and “authentically” than usual with both strangers and friends. Notice how you feel and how the other person responds. Continue doing so until it feels comfortable to be so open and expressive. Then try answering in a more reserved manner until it becomes comfortable. During both experiments, try to answer from the depths of your being, but the first time in a more brutally honest way, and the second time in a more reserved way. Post your results in the comments below.



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21 responses to “Authenticity, Congruence, and Small Talk”

  1. Alexander Schiller says:


    An interesting personal experiment to me, especially from a psychological perspective (my poison of choice).

    I'm glad you brought up the point regarding culture– I recall a friend of mine from Germany was perplexed by the brevity of answers given to "How are you" in the United States. To him the question was loaded and was not asked unless you wanted a life story.

    The persuasiveness of an "authentic" person versus a person perceived as less so would be an interesting connection to your particular area of critique (similar to the point about Stern, Kornfield), but don't let me stifle a possible future segue. I bet those that are self-proclaimed -awesomely authentic- could be/are rather persuasive…

    • Thanks for the comment, Alexander.

      If we see all communication as having an element of persuasion, then claiming authenticity (or displaying what is determined culturally to be authentic) is perhaps the most powerful persuasive tool. For "being authentic" couldn't possibly be "being consciously persuasive," for authenticity has the notion of not having an agenda.

  2. LionKimbro says:

    Once, in the dot-com bust period of the early 2000's, I took work at a Chevron gas station for about 7 weeks. (I had to quit, because the work was costing me money — I accidentally put a dent in a woman's hood while checking her car's fluids, and it cost me 2 weeks full pay!)

    One day, an older man asked, "How's your day?" I'd just had a number of problems and was somewhat stressed. I said, "Well, thank you sir for asking, but, in truth, this hasn't been the best day. But thank you. And yourself?" He said, "Oh, I'm fine; Thank you." He bought his chips, or whatever; I can't remember.

    After he left, I felt a bit better, and continued pricing, cleaning, and so on.

    30 minutes later, he came back! He gave me $20, and said, "I told my wife I can't remember how long it's been since I met an honest man. What you said to me restored hope for me. Please accept this $20." I was somewhat stunned, but I actually did need the $20, and I was grateful for it, so I accepted.

    True story!

    Some times it is best to keep things close to the chest; I once said (fairly innocuously, I thought,) that I was having a bad day on Twitter, and was inundated with messages on the "are you all right?" order — response was severely overblown. I later asked: "Why is it that if you're sad, you're not supposed to twitter it?" I think it might be because we don't want to bother/distract the Internet hive mind, (which is fair judgment,) our local culture.

    I agree with evaluations on the order of, "It's all contextual," or "authenticity is inner & outer & moment specific."

  3. Chris Edgar says:

    Hi Duff — in my own experience, feeling like what I am doing/saying is true for me and being "comfortable with it" are two different experiences. For example, I became very comfortable with and competent at practicing law once I had done it again and again — but it didn't resonate with me on the deeper level I think you have in mind when you talk about authenticity. Holding back and being withdrawn can also be "comfortable" for me, but much of the time it does not feel true for me and is more of a defense mechanism against others' disapproval.

    So I think that, when we speak of authenticity and comfort, we are talking about two different types of sensations in the body. Of course, this is just my experience, and others may not see these as two separate flavors.

    • Thanks for the comment, Chris.

      How specifically are the sensations in the body different for you between comfort and authenticity?

      Curiously yours,

    • Another thought–

      In the language I'm using, I'd say that while you were comfortable with the practice of law due to repetition, part of you objected to the practice of law due to a conflict in values. I would call this a kind of incongruence, which you later integrated by leaving the practice of law and doing other things that felt more aligned.

      Interestingly, incongruence can be out of awareness. Does the incongruence exist if I don't or even can't notice it? A therapist or coach will often guide a client towards noticing incongruent parts of themselves that are out of awareness—for instance by calling attention to a bouncing foot or anxious tone of voice. Some attempts to do so are accepted by the client, and others are not, perhaps due to "readiness" to integrate the unconscious information.

      What does it mean to be authentic then if some aspects of my experience are non-experienceable? Perhaps it simply means to be congruent with that which I can notice now, which is an ever-shifting and growing process.

      So perhaps you were authentic working as lawyer, until the pain increased to a point where you weren't!

      • Chris Edgar says:

        Hi Duff — for me, there's a world of difference between the experience of doing something I'm merely comfortable with and doing something that's true for me. I tend to see comfort as simply the absence of anxiety — I know I'm comfortable with something when I'm not tensing up or getting chills when i do it. But when I'm doing something that feels true or authentic for me, my body actually feels light — like the feeling I get after having run a few miles.

        My sense of the next question is that you're basically asking whether it's possible to behave inauthentically if you aren't aware of the values you're out of alignment with. It sounds like a semantic issue about how we define (in)authenticity: if we wanted to put a moralistic gloss on it — to think of behaving inauthentically as bad or fake — then I suppose I couldn't be "blamed" for being out of alignment with values I'm not yet aware that I have. But if we don't treat inauthenticity as a moral issue, then I could say that I'm behaving inauthentically if I'm acting incongruently with an unconscious value.

  4. @mrteacup says:

    Really liking this post, Duff! I've also encountered and thought about the small talk problem quite a bit, and felt like its a fake kind of interaction. I'm comfortable with the mechanical exchanges ("How are you?", "Good", etc.) but what I find interesting is what comes after that. In some contexts, you are then expected to be "more authentic", go beyond the rule-based phrases and share some real aspect of yourself, but most often people become nervous or uncomfortable when I actually do that. As if they want it to seem real without being real.

    Not that I'm sharing anything shocking, the question might be something simple like "What did you think of the movie?" The alternative is to not respond authentically, say something more like a standard cliche about the movie, but this offends people because they know I'm not telling them the truth, and interpret this as me separating myself from them, maybe refusing their friendship.

    One interesting way of understanding this is through Lacan's notion of the Neighbor. This is the unfathomable abyss of Otherness, the opposite of the ordinary experience of otherness in which I imagine that strangers are just other people like me, with their own thoughts and feelings that I can empathize with, etc. Instead, the other person becomes kind of a science fiction monster for me, totally alien, opaque and unknowable, potentially threatening us with their sudden over-proximity.

    The purpose of the polite, mechnical small-talk exchanges is to keep the other at a distance, to avoid this encounter with the Neighbor. But since everyone knows this is artificial and we are supposed to be spontaneous, then we have another exchange which is supposed to be authentic ("Did you watch the game last night?") but secretly enables us to still maintain a distance while appearing to be friendly.

    There is one final twist: when I think about the mechnical aspects of real human interactions, I tend to react with horror. Everyone I encounter seems like a puppet and I can see the strings, which is to say, they appear to me as the Neighbor. So insisting that we drop the artificial social rules and interact as real people is a way to avoid the encounter with the abyss of the Neighbor.

    Incidentally, this Neighbor is part of Badiou's Lacanian ethical injunction, interpreted from the Christian "love your neighbor as yourself", which means we can only be truly ethical by avoiding the temptation to erase this traumatic Otherness, neither with platitudes about how we are all basically the same, nor with tolerant, nonjudgmental respect for (ultimately distance from) difference.

  5. Mike Harris says:

    Someone in one of my psychotherapy groups recently reflected about another group member, "Oh, that's just his way of being authentic" regarding the person being a total ass to her. I found that comment to be highly skillful in the moment.

  6. Evan says:

    Thanks Duff, this is an interesting post. For me part of the problem is seeing ourselves as non-social, I think we are social individuals.

    Authenticity I think also embraces desire – it can be authentic to want to be polite, or not engage in small talk, even if it takes time to learn how I think. The desire to guard ourselves may be authentic (and in some situations very important).

    Fritz Perls (from memory so probably slightly inaccurate): There is a difference between self-actualisation and self-image actualisation. There is an image of authenticity too. "Courtesy" may be a word for authentically reserved.

    I went through a period of wanting to get good at small talk – then when I succeeded decided that most of the time I didn't want to be bothered with small talk anyway.

    • Thanks for the comment, Evan.

      We are indeed social animals, yet one common conception of authenticity is to "throw off social conditioning," which I believe to be impossible by definition.

      Are our desires authentic? Desires are engineered in the populace by marketers and politicians. Much of personal development aims at helping people to change or cultivate their desires–for instance, to visualize a goal with intense emotion daily for 20 minutes. What is meant by authentically (or congruently) acting in accordance with desire if desires are so malleable? Indeed, in my example, at first I desired to be more expressive, and later to be less expressive.

      The Perls quote is great–very poignant. And same here with getting good at small talk and then not wanting to be bothered with it! 🙂

      • Evan says:

        Part of our social nature is learning (the human is born with few instincts). I think authenticity if meaningful needs to embrace learning. I think it is a misconception to see authenticity as hostile to social conditioning in some ways – I think there are more or less healthy environments.

        • Ivy says:


          I don't particularly enjoy small talk. But then again WHO DOES? Who sits around trying to think of a career where they could chat about small meaningless details with near strangers all day? I get tired of hearing people (particularly young people) say "I hate small talk and find people who engage in it tedious, so I'm not going to participate anymore." First, I dislike the assumption that because someone can politely comment on the weather at a social function that they are shallow twits who love nothing more than inauthentic communication. Second, the result of this declaration is either that the person stops talking to people in social situations or that they decide to communicate "authentically" by dumping their private stuff all over hapless victims. Suggesting that they discover what sparks the other person in order to move past the small talk us often shrugged off because of "lack of common interests." The assumption is that if the person isn't like you or interested in the same "deep" things you are that they are somehow less — and their small talk is the evidence.

          As my very favorite article* on personal growth says: "…peacefully dealing with incompatible people is crucial to living in a society. In fact, if you think about it, peacefully dealing with people you can't stand is society."

          And small talk is the social grease (and grace) that makes that possible. Chatting about the weather when you're interest is in thorny political issues, saying "fine and you" when someone inquires — that's how we get along together.

          Authenticity is frequently described as "being yourself" but if someone discovers that "myself" is a selfish, egotistical elitist who snubs his or her nose at people for being less deep and authentic (which happened to me at one juncture in my 20s), perhaps personal authenticity isn't the solution but the problem.

          * Article:

  7. Ian says:

    I think a major part of the problem is that when some people say "how are you?" they mean "how are you?". And when other people say "how are you?" they mean "I want to make polite small talk and acknowledge your presence in my vicinity, but I don't know (and maybe don't want to know) all that much about you. So, how about that weather today, eh?"

    This was pointed out to me by a therapist I used to see, when I raised that same complaint about small talk being boring/meaningless. Understanding it as an attempt at making an at-least-superficial level of connection, rather than seeing it as "something I'm supposed to do", took away a lot of my dislike in replying politely when it seemed more appropriate.

    In such a case, to be authentic would be to do your best to understand what the other person meant by "how are you" and to respond to that according to your own value system. Which I think is what you mean by "I later found that experimenting like this, I could be more open and honest with people close to me by communicating more about my feelings, while remaining comfortably distant from strangers and acquaintances."

    Authenticity isn't about answering the words of the question "how are you", it's about being able to answer what is meant by those words. I think the "inauthenticity" of "fine, and you?" with strangers can actually be pretty authentic, some of the time.

    • @mrteacup says:

      Understanding it as an attempt at making an at-least-superficial level of connection…

      That's a good point, but I'd go even further and add that it most often isn't about even superficial connection. In fact, in lots of cases, its used to create distance. My idea is that the presence of another person, a stranger, presses on you, it's hard to ignore them or distract yourself, you wonder "Are they looking at me? Are they trying to bother me?" It's true that the exchange of small talk is used to open up communication, but with the goal of establishing that we actually have nothing to say, so it's OK to ignore each other.

      • Ian says:

        "It's true that the exchange of small talk is used to open up communication, but with the goal of establishing that we actually have nothing to say, so it's OK to ignore each other."

        Yeah, that's an excellent point. At first that seemed like a a bad thing to me, but maybe it's not so much. There's nothing necessarily wrong with both people being OK that neither has anything to say to the other. Feeling like you're "supposed" to make a connection is pretty much a guarantee that you won't be able too.

        Course, if you want to, its a different thing entirely.

  8. sean says:

    Our culture seems to make it okay to offer unwarranted advice. Were you authentically communicating that you don't want advice? It's an excellent experiment with making smalltalk, finding common ground beyond talking about the weather or sports is tricky.

  9. Eric Normand says:

    Hey Duff!

    I like your post. It got me thinking: when I was in the Peace Corps in West Africa, I had to deal with greetings a lot. People there will greet each other for minutes at a time. And they'll ask the same question over and over again. Just because it's hard to imagine, let me recreate (in English) the way people greet each other.

    A: Hello
    B: Hello
    A: How are you?
    B: Good.
    A: How is your day?
    B: Good.
    A: How is your family?
    B: Good.
    A: How is your home?
    B: Good.
    A: How is your work?
    B: Good.
    A: How are you?
    B: Good.
    A: And your mother?
    B: Good.
    A: How is the place?
    B: The place is good.
    A: How are you?
    B: Good.

    Then it's B's turn to ask the questions. Usually for the same amount of time. I am not exaggerating one bit.

    So, I had to get used to this. At first it was a little funny. The answer is always the same! Sometimes the question is the same! Then, when it's my turn, I have to ask the same questions over and over, because I don't speak that well.

    Ok, so after a while I came to accept it. Then I grew to enjoy it. The best thing about it is that you automatically have several minutes of conversation scripted out for you. You don't have to worry about coming up with something to say to a stranger for a long time. It's very comforting. Sometimes I feel in America that I have to be on the spot with conversations all the time, because people get so impatient with repetition. But in Africa, I was already a hero for making it to the end of the greeting.

    Ok. But there's something else in there that's a little more subtle. The answer is scripted. Much more scripted than our greeting, though there are possible variations. The thing is, the answer is always positive. Someone once told me there are only two times you can say that things aren't good: you're in prison or your mom is dying. Everything else is good.

    Everything else is good! You have to affirm 20 or 30 times a day that everything is good. To different people. No matter what happened, things are good! That is so refreshing.

    Now, of course you don't always feel like things are good. Especially when you first start. But that comes out in you body language, tone, etc. People will notice. Third thing: we are socially retarded compared with them. We spend 8 hours a day in front of a computer or TV. They spend 24 hours a day with other people. It makes sense. Why is it that we need someone to say the words "Things aren't good" to know that they're not good? We value honesty more than we value our social interactions, is what that tells me. We are too focused on the truth value of our words and not on each other.

    It reminds me of this time I was talking to a girl (American). She was saying how she hangs out with Ukrainian people. And the Ukrainian guys said Americans were being dishonest because we smiled so much, even when we weren't happy. She thought about it and said "You're right! We are dishonest!"

    Nothing personal against the girl–I think it's typical of Americans to read such a literal meaning into things. But it's doubly worse because it's her culture! She should know better.

    In America, smiling at someone doesn't mean you're happy. It's a gesture of acknowledgement, like waving. It's not inauthentic. You're not lying because it has another meaning in another circumstance.

    So that's what I think about greetings. It's not lying just because you're not feeling exactly "Good, you?" at the moment. It's a social gesture.

    Keep up the good work.

  10. Thanks for the loooooooooooooooong comment. It was good. 🙂

    Social gestures are interesting, especially cross-culturally, in light of questions of authenticity.

  11. my friends and I are still having the same debate on this issue.

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