It Will Never Be All Good And That’s OK: Social Authenticity

have_a_nice_day_tshirtClosely aligned with Mindfulness are the notions of honesty, sincerity and authenticity. Mindfulness is partly about – to use the hippy vernacular of the 1960s – getting real, being real and keeping it real.

But many of us start the morning and continue throughout the day telling others and ourselves little untruths. Sometime they’re called “social lies” or “white lies.” Many consider them harmless. But are they? Or do they cause little distortions in our social system that accumulate like little bits of malignant bacteria, resulting in distance and even alienation from others and even from ourselves? Do they make our day-to-day lives less genuine, more fake?

When asked “How are you?” most people will respond along a boisterously positive and narrow continuum that starts with the base position “fine,” escalating to “excellent, “great” and ultimately to “fantastic!” A lot of this is culturally dependent. The inflation in reporting positive mental states is particularly prevalent in the U.S.

Insincere social niceties are often very different elsewhere, with some countries expressing quite a bit more negativity when responding to another’s greeting. In Britain, many people also reply “fine,” but a sizable minority say “not too bad.” That’s a curious response because taken literally, it means things are indeed negative, but they are bearably so. In Germany, people will frequently tell it exactly like it is, occasionally with too much information. Asked “how is it going?” quite a few Germans will say “it’s a bit difficult at the moment” and sometimes continue with a litany of highly specific complaints.

Social authenticity

Back on the relentlessly sunny shores of the United States, an even more insincere – and frankly annoying – reply has emerged in recent years: “It’s all good!” But this state of affairs is very, very rarely literally true. Except maybe for rambunctious twenty-somethings in perfect health and in fulfilling, secure employment who are so self-absorbed that they don’t understand what’s going on in the lives of their less lucky friends, their older relatives and their countrymen inhabiting different social milieus.

For most of us, the vast majority of the time, it’s not *all* good. Comparing your life to others and expecting or hoping that eventually everything will become entirely positive will only lead to frustration and perhaps depression. It will never be *all* good, and that’s OK. A more authentic reply – as much to ourselves as to others – might be: “It’s mostly good.”

But what would be a more honest, mindful response, without overwhelming your social counter-party with too much information? Keep it simple. Something like “OK, thanks” works most of the time. “Pretty good, thanks” is also quite accurate for many of us on a daily basis.

For people you know well and who care about enough that you would to genuinely want to know details about the current state of their lives, their mental and physical well-being, etc., I would suggest talking in numbers. Try a scale, for example between zero and 10, with zero being just about as bad as it could possibly get; 10 being very nearly perfect (i.e. really and truly “all good”). Sometimes there is more truth to be found in numerical data than in polite conversation.

Lastly – and this is a contradiction of all the above – I have an English friend who loves to tell this joke: “They say Americans are superficial and insincere. But I must say I’d rather be told ‘have a nice day’ by an American who doesn’t really mean it than ‘piss off’ by an Englishman who does!”

Focus: Social authenticity