Learn to Recognize Phonies

(Last Updated On: May 11, 2017)


There is something that took me a while to notice and even longer to believe.

There are a lot of people in positions of influence and power who do not know what they are doing. Whether they are in over their heads or are trying to put something over on people, they are faking. In other words, there is a lot of bullshit in this world masquerading as competence and authority.

The better you can distinguish between phonies and competent people, the better you can avoid demoralizing letdowns.

Here are some of the ways I’ve noticed that pretenders and fakers control people.

Some things should be feared. The consequences of harming another person; the consequences of smoking cigarettes. Some fears are legitimate primal warnings against real harm to your body or psyche. But one of the favorite tactics of bullshitters is to stoke needless fear. It diverts attention from their shortcomings.

The chance of you being attacked by a terrorist is truly small. You have a far greater chance of being killed by a heart attack. So if you live in fear of terrorism while you ignore your doctor’s warning to stop eating corn-dogs, you have your fear response backward. You have been manipulated.

Fakers will often play upon intangible fears too. Fear of being ostracized and fear of ‘failure’ are the kinds of intangible fears fakers love to stoke to keep people from acting on their own thoughts and motives. Fear of these kinds of things is hardly ever a good reason for an autonomous person to make a decision about anything.

Someone who graduates from medical school can put M.D. after her name. Someone who tacks an abbreviation on to her name after attending a one-day seminar is an overcompensating bullshitter. Don’t assume a string of letters after someone’s name makes her an authority on anything unless you know it represents real accomplishment.

If your local TV news introduces an “expert” as having a “background in psychology,” you should wonder why she was not described as a psychologist. Is it because her “background in psychology” really only means that she took a psychology class in college and she is no more of an expert than you are? Pay attention. Think.

Superlatives are words that describe something as extreme or unsurpassed. They can describe things that can be measured, like “tallest” or “fastest”, or they can describe subjective intangibles, like “first-rate” and “supreme”. Fakers like to hype things with superlatives because they sound fantastic but usually are void of real meaning.

Greensboro City Council member Justin Outling is fond of saying that the city’s now-defunct policy on public access to police body camera video was the “first in the state.” It was a terrible policy of secrecy. It betrayed the promises made by the chief of police that these cameras would be for “transparency and increased public accountability.”

With no benefits to tout, the only way to say something positive about the city’s policy is with an irrelevant superlative: “It was the first.” That sounds impressive—first is good, right?—but it is meaningless in describing the substance of the bad policy itself. It is like bragging about being the first to hit yourself in the head with a hammer.

President Trump is a master at this linguistic trickery. He promises things that will be “beautiful,” “fabulous,” “superb” and so on (believe him). But when it comes to substance, he avoids it. That is because he is faking. What succeeds for the Huckster in Chief is to use inspiring but frivolous hyperbole to avoid the facts, whether or not he even grasps them.

If you are shopping for a truck and all you are interested in is outward appearances, then ambiguous descriptions like “fabulous” and “gorgeous” may influence you. On the other hand, if you are looking for a truck that can get something done, then you need to look under the hood. You want to know about real things like horsepower, torque and payload. You want measurable meaty details. You want meaning, not hype. A salesman who avoids providing meaningful information by telling you instead how his truck is “marvelous,” “top-of-the-line” and “superior” is full of it.

If someone is laying a bunch of hype on you, ask yourself why he is not giving you meaningful information instead—better yet, ask him. This applies if someone is selling you a truck or health care reform. If he will not describe for you the substance of the thing, you are being played for a sucker. Don’t be a sucker. Listen. Look under the hood. Think.

Contrived temperament
Competent and wise people tend to have a certain steady demeanor—a grounding in confidence. Their behavior helps people understand their ideas. Fakers contrive exaggerated behavior in order to provoke a response. It is as if the more bombastic they are, the less people will notice what they are lacking. It is easy to be loud instead of competent. A bullying and boisterous demeanor is a facade used to get a reaction and hide shortcomings.

Some fakers, especially those groomed by a climb through bureaucracies, where rowdy behavior stands out, will go in the opposite direction. They hide incompetence by putting on an air of superiority, exuding extreme calm and coming across like the Dalai Lama on Xanax. Someone who is void of any emotion is as untrustworthy as the maniac. Trust your gut. If someone’s demeanor seems unusual, ask yourself if their behavior is a genuine attempt to help you understand their thinking or if they are trying to evoke some kind of response in you instead. Listen. Think.

Society has its signs, symbols and ceremonies that are shortcuts to convey quick meaning. The handshake: trust. The suit and tie: seriousness. A robe: piety. One of the easiest ways for fakers to fool people is to adopt popular symbols and rituals.

No construction contract has been awarded for the downtown Greensboro Tanger Performing Arts Center. That did not stop backers who went ahead with a “groundbreaking” ceremony a couple of weeks ago anyway. People in power suits and armed with gilded shovels turned over store-bought dirt in a specially constructed sandbox. It was not to commemorate the beginning of construction. It was a photo-op to persuade nervous patrons not to abandon their pledges of financial support. Brian Clarey of Triad City Beat hit the nail on the head when he wrote that the charade “Symbolized nothing so much as the participants’ willingness to commit a farce.”

Symbols and ceremonies, whether they are lapel pins or groundbreakings, carry only the meaning we are willing to read into them. They are not guarantees of the competence of the person deploying them. Don’t put your trust in someone just because he wears the right symbol or observes the right rituals without some other evidence of his capabilities. It is too easy for charlatans to exploit these.

The upshot
You might ask, isn’t this advice a prescription for permanent cynicism? Not at all. Being disillusioned over and over again by misplaced trust is a path to crushed optimism. A healthy skepticism allows one to quickly dispatch time-wasters and avoid the muck and mire of charlatans. It is the best way to keep optimism alive.

None of this is to suggest one should have a blanket mistrust of authorities either. Trusting competent people can be enriching, allowing you to reap the rewards of knowledge and guidance from qualified mentors, teachers, experts and respectable leaders. Just learn to separate them from the bullshit artists.