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What’s Wrong with Putting On Fronts?

If the young Japanese woman thought about it at all, she might have thought she was doing no more than what an American would do when an American speaks one way to his mother and another way to his drinking buddies.  She’d come into the restaurant with a group of four or five businessmen where I was working as a waiter and cashier.  None of the men spoke English, but her English was flawless.  Better than mine.

This happened some years after I had divorced Tomoko, who was born and raised in Tokyo, but I at once recognized the young woman’s mannerisms.  In every way — from how she spoke somewhat breathlessly to her deferential body language — she was being the proper, quite subservient Japanese lady as she translated the men’s menus for them. And that went on through-out breakfast.  Every time I came to the table, there she was — being submissive to the men.  But after their meal, something extraordinary happened.

As the men left the restaurant, she approached the cash register to pay the bill.  And as she approached, she transformed herself.  We got into a brief conversation, during which I learned she had attended university in the U.S.  For the few minutes of our conversation, I could not have told the difference between her and a born American.  Her American mannerisms were as flawless as her English.

So far as I know, Japanese and Americans do not think of themselves in the same way.  Japanese culture encourages you, for most intents and purposes, to behave as different persons in different circumstances.  A Japanese scholar even pointed out that the Japanese can sometimes be different persons in different rooms of their own homes.   American culture, in contrast, encourages you to ignore the degree to which you actually do behave as different persons in different circumstances.  Consequently, Americans tend to be somewhat more consistent in their behavior — although not nearly perfectly consistent.

I am wondering about all of this tonight because of a comment Ahab left on another blog.  He was speaking about the front his “Evangelical aunt” puts on:

When I used to visit her and her family, I was ill at ease because of the Stepford Wife smiles, the fake friendliness, the way everything in their house was too neat and pretty, and the total absense of spontaneity and genuine warmth. Underneath this fascade is a lot of cattiness and disdain for people who differ from her, which is why I stopped visiting.

Ahab then goes on to ask an intriguing question, “Are these negative emotions a by-product of feeling compelled to put up a false front? Or is this just who she is? I don’t know.”

It’s a question that seems to address an issue with authenticity — or being true to ourselves.  Are we happier when we are being authentic, when we are being true to ourselves? And, when we put on fronts, do we tend to compensate ourselves for them by indulging in such negative behavior as, say, “cattiness and disdain”?

My admittedly limited experience of Japanese people suggests to me that the negative behavior is not a necessary consequence of putting on fronts.  For I know Japanese people who are different persons in different rooms, so to speak, but who apparently do not routinely indulge in such negative behavior.

It seems like a very complicated issue to me, and I am not sure whether I have yet asked the right questions, let alone come up with the right answers.  But I will repeat here my reply to Ahab on the other blog:

Some years ago, Ahab, I was accustomed to put on quite front when I was in business. Always gung-ho, upbeat, positive, cheerful, etc. It was part of the culture of the corporation I worked for. It got so instilled in me that I carried it over — in large measure — to the next company I worked for, a company I happened to own.

After a few years, my company hit some rocks and went out of business. I finally dropped my front. It felt — cliche as this sounds — exactly like a weight had been lifted from me. I was sorely depressed at the time, but it still felt like a weight had been lifted.

Now, here’s the irony: After getting rid of the gung-ho, upbeat, positive, cheerful front, and after the depression ended, I felt so much better that I rebounded into a natural enthusiasm and cheerfulness for life.

So, from my own experience, I think it is possible that we miss out on our own lives by putting on fronts.  But that’s just my experience.  What do you think?

14 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Putting On Fronts?”

  1. I can be quite the chameleon, myself. Mostly I think of it as the Japanese must. It isn’t something I force, it’s just something I am. I’m fairly comfortable in most settings, whether I’m around older people, younger people, church people or atheists. I don’t change my morals or values. I don’t change who I am at my core, but I can take on different personality traits. It’s not so much that I do this to fit in, but to be unoffensive. Take the Japanese woman in your story; as a survival mechanism she was subservient because that is what her culture dictates. I think of it as: When in Rome do as the Romans do.

    I think the degree to which it produces negative behaviors or disdain depend on how much you have to change your core values and how much resentment there is about “having” to put up a front. For instance, I had to put up a huge front for a good portion of my marriage, do things I detested to get along, and it built a lot of resentment eventually leading to an epiphany that my front wasn’t really of my choosing. It was forced.

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    1. Excellent comment, D’Ma! The key — as you point out — seems to be to what extent we must change who we are at heart.

      In connection with that, you might be interested to know that a popular notion of the self in Japan is that the self is like an onion. You peel back one layer after the other. But in the end, there is no real core — just nothingness. It is not the only theory the Japanese have about the self, but it might explain why many Japanese see no problem with being asked to be entirely different persons in different social settings.

      For instance, my ex-wife — who was classically educated — knew about 20 different words for “I”. I hear the average Japanese person today knows about a half dozen. How you use the words largely depends on who you are speaking to and what your relationship to them is. So, you are a different “I” or self depending on the social role you are playing.

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  2. To have a facade is to be fully human. In our most humanly political world it is suicide to be ruthlessly honest.

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  3. Perhaps this is only true for me but happiness is being true to myself. Being true to myself means being honest about who I am and what I believe and standing up for myself when necessary. This doesn’t mean I feel compelled to declare my beliefs in every situation to every person. It does not mean I cannot respect others’ rights to believe whatever they believe; or that I feel compelled to persuade them to my point of view and thereby obtain some kind of validation that I’m right. To the contrary. I don’t feel any need to seek validation for my beliefs (i.e. “I don’t know …”).

    Being true to myself simply means that I won’t lie, by omission or otherwise. I draw firm and clear boundaries that have the effect of alienating some, especially those who are offended/threatened by the person I am, while drawing in others who are like-minded.

    For me, that is the definition of a good life. Putting on a fake front is something I cannot do.

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    1. A very healthy attitude! I recently got into a discussion of morality with someone. At some point, I realized she was trying to change me to her way of thinking. She simply couldn’t tolerate the thought that others might not share her superior morals.

      I much prefer your attitude to hers.

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  4. It’s a matter of how you do it, I guess. To some extent, like D’Ma, I try to do the “when in Rome…” philosophy, which I think is more a matter of showing respect and courtesy than being fake. And I myself have a rather diverse group of friends, such that I act differently according to who I hang out with. It’s not a fake act at all, but rather an exploration, if you will, of a different facet of my own personality. And having been a waiter myself, I know that putting up a front of being happy and welcoming to my customers certainly increased tips. 🙂 It’s become something of what I expect from other waitstaff, although I can definitely understand when they are not all cheery.

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    1. It’s not a fake act at all, but rather an exploration, if you will, of a different facet of my own personality.

      Are you Japanese, WF? That is almost exactly how a couple of my Japanese friends have described it to me.

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  5. I’m with CD on this, perhaps because of our shared experience. When our daughter, Emily, and her German boyfriend, Daniel, were visiting from Berlin, we drove together from CA to UT to see my husband’s parents. The visit went fine at first. We went to Park City and saw the Olympic Village, had lunch, then back to their house for dinner. The next day, Daniel, who had never been to SLC, wanted to see Temple Square. As soon as we stepped on the property, my MIL morphed into this different person, spouting off all this PR for the church (“I can’t believe people say we’re not Christians.” “The Brethren say to ‘just have fun’ with your food storage.”) Also she insisted on introducing Daniel as Emily’s “husband.” — A horrific scenario for poor Daniel whom we kept reassuring by telling him to “go towards the light.”

    Honestly I just find it painful when people feel like they have to put on a front, especially for complete strangers they probably will never see again.

    I know there are situations when it is best to be a bit disingenuous for politeness sake or to protect somebody’s feelings. But when the motive is fear of what others’ think it tends to be toxic.

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    1. …when the motive is fear of what others’ think it tends to be toxic.

      I know you like to portray yourself as a mental midget, Donna, but you have a nasty habit of screwing up when you post on this blog by revealing depths that mental midgets really don’t have. Shame on you! Case in point: When a front or facade is driven by fear, it becomes toxic. Now, that’s just way too insightful for you to be making while also claiming to lack wisdom. You must retract that point at once! Or I shall unmask you!

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    2. “…when the motive is fear of what others’ think it tends to be toxic.”

      When the motive is fear of what others might do to you it is extremely toxic.

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