Of Pretension

In mid 2015 I wrote a book titled “Of Pretension” and published it on Kindle. It was available for a time on Amazon and had a few readers. It was a short read of approximately 23 thousand words.

About two years after publishing the book I re-read it, and, like any aspiring artist of any kind, I felt that it had LOTS of room for improvement in multiple ways.

As a result, I eventually decided to unpublish the book, because while I think the core thesis made sense, I felt I could have done a much better job at explaining my ideas (and be more terse as well!). I unpublished it with the intent to perhaps one day re-write it in a much better way.

Years later I realise, while I am still very interested in the subject of pretension (having thought about it for many years), I will not be re-writing the book due to lack of sufficient time/interest.

Nevertheless, I felt a blog article might suffice and even perhaps do a better job in getting the core concepts across. SO, here we are dear reader, should you be interested in the topic, please see below an abbreviated and condensed version of my book, of pretension, updated with some additional ideas that have come along in the years since. Note that this is written very much in summary style, leaving many smaller discussions and examples out.

1 Introduction to Pretension

Every day of your life since before you can remember, you have been interacting with other human beings. These interactions range across multiple maps. There would be many ways to analyse your interactions; are they long or short? Satisfying or unsatisfactory? Which emotions did they elicit? What are the past and future implications of these interactions? What types of body language were used? etc.

Along those various ways of analysing interactions, some specific ones could come to the surface; What was the sincerity level? What was the truth level? How were narratives spun by the various parties? What was the straightforwardness level? How oblique were comments compared to more the authentic versions of a person’s thoughts? — This is the subject of a book written about pretension.

1.1 Definition of Pretension

The first thing to establish about human behaviour is that all of our interactions are, in some sense, a reaction to external stimuli. 

Consider the following interaction: A child is approached by a stranger on the street, who offers to take him home. The child says no and quickly runs away. How could we trace the details of this interaction to prior events and causes in the child’s life? The following come to mind:

  1. (Basic level): Stranger says to child “I’ll take you home”, his choice to run away is a reaction to this external stimuli.
  2. (Intermediate level): Child remembers that he has been told many times in school and at home to never talk to strangers, his choice to run away is a reaction to these older external stimuli.
  3. (Advanced level): The child can speak English, and thus was able to react to #2 & #1. The fact that he can speak English is a reaction to many external moments of stimulus.

Zooming back in on pretension then, the first thing to establish about pretension is that it is like any other interaction; it’s a reaction to the external stimulus of the situation, where pretension in particular is referring to the layers that sit within that reaction, and how it crosses with the ideas of sincerity, truth, and intention. Pretension comes from the same root as “to pretend”, etymologically meaning to stretch forward (profess, claim, assert).

1.2 The neutrality of Pretension & The primacy of Intention

When I started writing this book I started out with a very negative view of pretension. I was on a quest to condemn the ostentation that I saw in the world. However the book took me on a personal journey and I came out much more neutral. I came to realise that the crux of pretension is not the behaviour itself, but the intention animating the behaviour.

Let me give an example to try to explain that intuition:

Two parents are really struggling in their marriage. They’re getting near divorce. They have a child who is old enough to understand some things, but not emotionally mature enough to face reality in all its scariness.

The child asks the mother: “mom, are you and dad going to get a divorce?”

The mom answers back: “no cupcake, daddy and mommy won’t get a divorce, don’t worry about it now, go to bed”

What she doesn’t tell her child is that they are already close to getting there — it’s not certain, but it’s more than a 50% chance of divorce.

How harshly could you judge that statement from the mom? Is there any truly right answer? What if her statement was more a statement of her intention to resolve things and her conviction that it’ll work out, her comforting her child so that she’ll be able to sleep well, rather than a statement of the precise truth as it happened to be at that moment?

So while the word “pretension” tends to grab us very negatively, my use of the word is more neutral, and I use it for lack of having better words to employ.

When spending a lot of time analysing our interactions with each other and digging deep into the layers, lies, half-truths, narrative spinning, (public relations) etc. one thing really became apparent to me:

Intention is everything

Before you judge anyone’s specific (potentially pretentious) behaviour, try to understand their intentions. If their intentions were noble, I’d suggest extending compassion in your judgements. If their intentions were not, regardless of the level of pretentiousness, you can feel right in condemning and disliking their behaviour — it is so important to attempt to see behind behaviour through to intention. When someone’s intention is unclear, it’s not a bad idea to give them the benefit of the doubt until things become clearer.

Finally, from a personal, introspective viewpoint; it’s not a bad idea to check your intentions at the door. When you walk into any conversation or interaction, think about the nobility of your intentions. One way to define noble intention is a desire for win-win, a solution to an interaction or deal that results in all parties winning fairly.

2 Personas and Masquerades

When we think of the subject of pretension, we’re drawn to conversations about the sincerity of a particular interaction from either party. Were they being sincere? Were they telling the truth? Were they being authentic to their true self?

The problem with specifically the last part of those questions (Were they being authentic to their true self?) is the difficulty of defining what constitutes a fully authentic reaction. Let me explain through an example:

A lawyer named Adam is presenting a case for his client on a Friday afternoon. He stands in front the judge & jury and presents a very sophisticated argument.

Four hours later, he’s drinking tequila with his friends and singing kareoke.

The behavioural difference between the Adam of Friday afternoon and the Adam of Friday night could not be more stark.

Which one is the “real”, the “fully authentic Adam”?

Actually it’s really difficult to answer that question. On the one hand, you might argue that both are authentic manifestations of Adam’s personality & character (the “professional” Adam and the “casual” Adam). On the other hand you might be wrong about that — perhaps Adam feels extremely uncomfortable presenting a legal case defending a child molester and perhaps he’s a very introverted person who is also very uncomfortable singing karaoke. What is the real Adam?

Hence I present the concept of what I call a “Persona” and a “Masquerade”. Broadly speaking, a Persona is an authentic role that we play in our day to day interactions and behaviour, that is often distinct from other roles (E.G karaoke singing vs. speaking in court). Personas are things we feel comfortable doing because we see them as “really us”. On the other hand, a Masquerade is when we put on a facade (perhaps with negative intentions) and act in ways that either make us feel uncomfortable or breach our personal integrity.

Everyday you interact with people in countless ways. Of necessity, regardless of your interaction with person X (and Personas involved), you are never seeing “the entire”, “the full” “the authentic” “the unobstructed” X person. Even if you do manage to get into a deep, sincere conversation with someone, could you in one conversation truly extract all of their deepest fears, hopes, dreams, aspirations, traumas, etc.? There is always a lot more sitting beneath the surface.

Finally, comfort alone cannot be the determining factor in differentiating Personas and Masquarades. Example: how did you feel the first time you did public speaking? If you were uncomfortable, that’s certainly not because you were being pretentious in the classical sense of the word, however, in some sense you were being pretentious, because you were pretending to be a public speaker, where you are not (yet). Also, some interactions may straddle these boundaries — so the concepts of Masquerade and Persona can get blurry.

Finally, it’s also important to recognise we’re not all the same. Where you think someone else is being insufferably pretentious, they may not see it that way, and vice versa!

3 The role of pretension in society

Many of our interactions with people around us are “pretentious” in a lightweight sense. You pass someone on the street and say “G’day” even though you’re having a shitty day and they might be too. You walk up to a cashier at a store and you both participate in the mass pretending game that the coins you give them have some intrinsic value (this is called Inter-subjective reality by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens). You tell your daughter that she’s a “princess”, though she is not of royal blood. On the other hand, many in society call other people “real princesses” as if their blood had any difference to the rest of us. You go meet with your clients and play the game “client & service provider”, easily and elegantly slipping into predefined roles.

What would a world completely devoid of these kinds of lubricating pretension look like? I suggest two extremes:

  1. Apes in a forest, throwing nuts at each other (how unpretentious!)
  2. Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory, calling his boss an idiot (how unpretentious!)

Looked at from this perspective, lightweight pretension lubricates our interactions with one another, protects our feelings from continuous bombardment from each other (inhibition), allows smooth functioning of society (E.G professionalism, decorum), and at its deepest levels protects us against existential chaos through the fictional stories we fabricate and propagate across societies. Much of a functioning society is group pretending; laws and government, ownership and wealth, money, the president, these are all fictional entities.

4 Navigating, using and transcending Pretension

The first advantage of understanding pretension more deeply is to remain aloof from the game — don’t let it affect you too much, don’t take it all too seriously. The second advantage is to use this understanding to further your and others agenda in a healthy way.

4.1 Breaking pretence

“Breaking pretence” refers to quickly and intentionally manoeuvring to reduce the level of pretence in a given situation, for whatever reason. Most of the time this kind of manoeuvring is not really necessary; often “ice”, over time, thaws. When you first meet someone there is a lot of ice between you. The person is a stranger and you have no prior relationship. But as you get to know people naturally the level in which you interact becomes less and less distant in the layers — this is the “thawing” of the ice — however, sometimes it can be useful to intentionally and rapidly reduce the ice.

How do you do that? The core idea is to simply ask questions or provide statements that connect to deeper layers of interaction “prematurely” (before you would naturally do so).

Ridiculous example to illustrate the general idea in an overly exaggerated case:

Two people meet on the train:

Jill: “Hi, what’s your name?”

Johnny: “Johnny, how about you?”

Jill: “I’m Jill. Pleased to meet you”

Johnny: “Likewise” (the two shake hands)

Jill: “So tell me Johnny, when’s the last time someone gave you a blow job?”

(I’d love to be sitting next to the two of them when that happens, merely to observe the reaction!)

The key idea is to straightforwardly “get to the point”, when done skillfully this can be both compassionate, effective and time-saving. Breaking pretence can also be achieved well through good-natured humour — comedians know this well.

4.2 Building pretence

The opposite of breaking pretence (manoeuvring to deeper layers) is building pretence (manoeuvring to shallower or more formal / colder layers). Companies and PR agencies do this well. A customer complains to McDonald’s that they went to hospital with heartburn after eating a burger, and McDonald’s PR department crafts a skillful non-apology: “We’re always working hard to listen to our customers and provide them with the most excellent service” (blablabla).

Building pretence can be necessary (but is often cold and difficult emotionally) for example when an employee needs to be fired or you need to break up with a girlfriend/boyfriend. Suddenly, after years of laughing at each other’s farts, you’re telling the person that you never want to see them again.

4.4 Mirroring pretence

In my personal opinion, perhaps the kindest, most compassionate, most friendly, and most gentle use of pretence is to simply mirror it.

Does the person you’re talking to wish to remain cold and professional? Mirror it. Be formal, professional, measured, and careful.

Does the person you’re talking to wish to get closer, share personal feelings, share secrets? Mirror it. Be a listening ear. Store secrets with utmost confidentiality.

Does the person you’re talking to want to laugh and be silly? Mirror it. Make fun/silly jokes to match their own.

Does the person you’re talking with want you to listen to them more? Then listen.

Does the person you’re talking with want to listen to you more? Then talk more.

These can take a lot of energy and emotional capacity to do, but I think they represent a kind of special intellectual/emotional kindness shown towards that person.

Some people may be concerned that mirroring in this fashion is itself a form of pretentious behaviour. I would disagree. I am merely suggesting that you match the level of pretence (herein defined as “depth of connection” or “number or layers between your words and your heart”) that is being set by the other person — in essence, in an attempt to have them be comfortable and happy. Much of the time, we do this automatically, although sometimes we might build/break pretence unawares and actually hurt (or annoy) people in the process.

4.5 Understanding the constellation of responses

If you zoom back, way way back, when someone is talking to you, you may observe that your mind works the following way:

When they say something to you, a constellation of possible responses emerge in your mind — like a starmap of various ways to react to that statement or situation. It’s as if a committee of people are sitting in your head and they’re each shouting out the things they think you should say back in that interaction — with each response having the ability to steer the conversation in various ways next.

May we choose well! Sometimes it’s a good idea to spend 2-3 seconds after you’ve been asked a question to think through your response. Perhaps a wise answer can be achieved simply by not saying the first thing that comes to mind, but waiting for the rest of your ideas to surface and be compared before replying.

4.6 Compassion for contradiction

Listen closely enough to what people say, pay enough attention, take enough notes, and you’ll often find we contradict ourselves all the time — often without even noticing.

Some of this is simply due to the nature of conscious experience and the mirage of satisfaction.

Example: It’s a hot day and you go into the shade to get cooler. You feel good. But then it starts to be a little too chilly so you decide to leave. Are your wants contradicting? Sort of — a better way would be to say they are constantly shifting.

Sometimes this is simply due to lack of rigour of thought. We say something and forget, then say something else. We spin a story in a certain way, only to spin it in another direction later on. I’ve particularly noticed this happening in non-rigorous environments E.G sales

In large things and small things, our emotional moods, recent history, state of mind etc. all influence things we say in any given moment, and can lead to contradiction.

While it can sometimes be necessary to challenge people in their contradictions, there are so many cases when you can hear what someone is saying right now and just take that as their current feeling. “I love ice cream, let’s have some” –> one hour later “I hate ice cream”. Just chuckle good-naturedly and move on. Life’s too short to nitpick on every little contradiction (or grammatical mistake!).

4.7 Of Sucking Up or Brown-Nosing

Of particular interest to me personally going into this journey of understanding pretension is the subject of (for lack of better words) Sucking Up or Brown-Nosing. In one working environment I was in many years ago (which incidentally sparked my interest in the subject of pretension) there was A LOT of brown-nosing going on, and I found it particularly interesting (and some people certainly find very annoying).

Brown nosing is when someone acts in such a way as to impress someone in a position of power over them through obsequious displays. We’ve all seen this from high school; you know, the kid who sucks up to the teacher. We’ve probably inherited this behaviour (like pretty much all of them) from our evolutionary history and dominance hierarchies — it is beneficial to be in favour of the person at the top!

Having been a manager myself now for many years, my view on this subject has been refined and nuanced. I have thoughts that appear both supportive of and against the concept, and I generally try to cruise above it as much as possible.

Pro thoughts

If you do great work, your work deserves to be seen by both your peers and your boss/teacher/whoever. Don’t do great work and be scared to promote or market it. Don’t hide your great work under a bushel because your jealous classmates or peers might accuse you of attempting to suck up to the teacher. Shine that light of excellence and be seen for your good work! You can send your boss an email with your great work. You can seek appropriate approval and praise. You can show your good work in a presentation to the team. Don’t worry too much about your appearance to the “anti-sucking up” crowd that might be present. Also, of particular importance: don’t worry too much about what your boss/teacher thinks either! — merely do good work and promote it seems to be the best policy.

Against thoughts

Efforts should not be expended by someone purely for the purpose of impressing someone in a power position above them. You should do great work for great work’s sake, and promote it because you care. The differentiating factor is often revealed through inconsistency. The most pure “sucking-up” situations I’ve observed are quickly revealed because, using a high school example, when the teacher is present, I am a well-behaved, but when the teacher leaves, my behaviour changes drastically — that’s the classic sense of “sucking up” (simply be well-behaved all the time — then you’re consistent and people have no reason to be cynical of your motives).

My personal stance on brown-nosing as a manager: over the years I have, on occasion, had situations where someone I manage in a company tries brown-nosing me (in the pure sense of merely being obsequious & inconsistent). My philosophy is that the 1) Kindest, and 2) Fairest response to this kind of effort should simply be to ignore it. I try not to let it score them positive or negative points (I just care about the work). I don’t usually call people out for it unless it becomes excessive. I don’t usually judge them too harshly either. But in its purest sense, I certainly don’t find it constructive. The best people do great work because that’s who they are, and those people quickly win my favour as a manager simply for doing great work, they also tend to have good relationships with their peers.

4.8 Being authentic

Finally, this should go without saying in a book written about pretence: be yourself? Or at least, try to be most of the time, which leads to the next section…

5 Thoughts on the self

I did not include this section in the original book but it’s worthy of adding when analysing our layers of behaviour.

We seem to think we ourselves are some kind of internally consistent, high fidelity “self”. But we’re more like a fluid committee. (Split brain experiments have proven this to be the biological case).

The Disney movie Inside Out explored this concept very well. It’s almost as though there are distinct mini-selves within each of us, with each member coming up to the dials to influence our direction at various times.

Inside Out explored the “mini-selves” of emotional reactions really well, but there are others that could be described as well. For instance, taking the Big 5 personality traits, each of us has a variously dominant and submissive mini-self for each trait. E.G there’s an introverted you (who comes out sometimes when the extroverted you is taking a break), or, using another model there’s a prospecting you (who likes to explore, is spontaneous, unstructured, unplanned, etc.) and a judging you (who likes to draw conclusions, make decisions, plan, seek closure, etc.) — both being on opposite sides of the coin.

This should be factored in when thinking about pretension and contradiction. Both we and others are fluid, changing, self-processes.

6 Conclusions

Finally, I believe the world is changing. I think with the advent of the internet we may be arriving at a new era of increased emotional intelligence, self-awareness, thoughtfulness, sincerity, “coming out of the closet” etc. In my book I give several examples of how the internet has enabled people to share openly things that they would not have been able to without it. I think we are connecting more (and more deeply), realising more, and waking up. I think we will increasingly see a movement away from the negative aspects of pretentiousness with the combination of free-speech on the internet and media.

It’s an exciting time to be alive.

Shawn 10-08-2019,

If you’ve made it to the end of this article – congratulations! — it seems we may have an interest in common. Feel free to drop a comment below.

6 Replies to “Of Pretension”

  1. Ha ha! I made it to the end of the article – thank you for the congratulations! I found this a solid read… clarifying and ordering some of my thoughts and feelings. Thanks for putting this all down Shawn! I enjoyed “meeting” with you through this article.

    1. Thanks so much aunti Judy, I really appreciate that you’ve always read my articles and commented, that means a lot to me!

  2. I enjoyed this from start to finish! Love the way you structured this, and every anecdote I savoured, it was so well told. I’ve been thinking about the presentation of different “selves” a lot lately, and this added a new dimension to my thinking on it. Excited to speak about this concept more with you!

  3. Read. Resonating. Thinking. Thank you for sharing your work SP. There are many salient observations going on here and the human experiences as we navigate this world! I wonder what examples you would have shared if you had written this for the first time in 2020? I have been practicing “intent” more consciously the past couple of years and I look forward to reading more of your work and supporting the courage it takes me to be an artist of the written word.

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