Let’s be honest: a lot of people suck. But it’s sometimes tempting to ignore this reality and pretend we like everyone we meet, especially when they’ve already got the ringing endorsement of other people in our lives. Have I personally adored every friend’s romantic partner who thinks listening to music is a personality, every colleague I’ve made small talk with during a work happy hour, every best friend’s other best friend who, like, loves talking about young adult lit? No. Have I pretended otherwise? Often—but let he who hasn’t said, “Oh my GOD, how ARE you?!?!” to a C-tier friend at a party four or five decibels higher than normal cast the first stone!
As socializing resumes to almost-normal levels in the U.S., it’s worth asking: Is it OK to fake a little enthusiasm and affection for an acquaintance we wouldn’t start a fan club for… or maybe even actively dislike?
The answer is that it’s complicated—but generally, it’s best to limit inauthentic social interaction as much as possible. “You’ll often find that being fake is an easy but ultimately problematic solution to dealing with people,” therapist Ryan Howes told VICE. “It’s hard to say ‘I really like myself, but I act like someone completely different most of the time.’ Those just aren’t compatible.”
That’s not to say this behavior is totally deviant—from time to time, we’re all pretending to be a little friendlier or more engaged than we actually feel. “For all of us, there is some sort of gap between our truest, rawest selves, and our public selves,” Andrea Bonoir, a therapist and author of The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up with Your Friends told VICE. “But when the gap grows too large, or when we constantly have to live out our public selves in ways that feel completely inauthentic, or we spend time with someone over and over again that we're not letting ourselves be real with, this doesn't feel right at all.”
So, why do we pretend to like people who make us think, “Wow, I got vaccinated for this social interaction?” There are a few different reasons—and a few different ways to kick the habit of grinning and bearing it.
You’re secretly judging people—and you feel guilty about it.
One good faith explanation for a little less-than-honest socializing? It doesn’t feel good to dislike someone, especially someone who’s cemented in your social circle already. “We don’t want to be judgmental or exclusionary,” Howes said. “We’d rather enjoy and appreciate everyone. Realizing we don’t like someone else becomes a bummer, perhaps something we’re ashamed of, and so we try to mask it by pretending to like them.”
That means we may take a “fake it ‘til you make it” approach to a friend’s dramatic new co-worker or a partner’s omnipresent roommate in the hopes that our feelings evolve—a pattern we might get trapped in if our opinions of the person don’t end up softening over time.
Unfortunately, Howes said, this facade probably isn’t the Oscar-worthy performance you think it is. In fact, if you’re faking it in front of people you’re close to—like best friends, a partner, or family members—they’re even more likely to pick up on (and be upset by) inauthentic behavior because they know the real you.
“One of the best feelings in the world is being able to be completely yourself with a loved one who is also completely themselves—the times when you laugh uncontrollably, cry with each other, share deep fears or grief or insecurities, laugh at our own shortcomings, and can share your true self without fear of judgment or shame,” Howes said. “When someone you know is acting fake, it both alters how we feel about them in the moment and causes us to question ourselves: Should I be fake too? Is there something wrong with me being myself right now? It’s like entering into an altered reality and not knowing why or what to do about it.”
The person you’re pretending to like has something you want.
Another reason you might punch up your feelings for someone you don’t love spending time with is that they have something you want: invites to a rotating cast of yacht parties, deep industry connections, hot friends, the Krabby Patty secret formula, whatever!
“When people feel liked, they generally reciprocate the warm feelings, feel safer to open up, and extend invitations to join parts of their life,” Howes said. “If you’re seeking a positive evaluation—whether that’s from a manager at work, or enduring the gauntlet of worthiness from your new S.O.’s besties—then showing interest in them first gives you a good chance of being liked in return.”
That “something you want” can also be as simple as a little social connection—like being cordial with an acquaintance who isn’t your favorite because you don’t want to have an awkward time at a birthday dinner.
“It often smoothes social interactions when you show warmth, even if you're not feeling it,” Bonior said. “I doubt many of us would prefer a world where no one ever held back in telling us when they thought our stories were boring or that they really didn’t enjoy bumping into us at a party!”
Faking it is often easier than having a frank conversation.
Sometimes being fake isn’t about being transactional—it’s about preserving the feelings of someone you actually do like. Like Howes said above, this approach likely isn’t sustainable, especially not if you’re doing it in front of people who know you well.
Instead, re-evaluate how important your personal feelings are in the situation, and figure out if you can simply minimize contact with people you don’t click with in the first place. “If your friend is dating someone you don’t really like, but they seem happy and the relationship is OK, then try to focus on your friend’s happiness instead of your opinion,” Howes said.
It might also be wise to think about what you’ll say if the person you’re close to does solicit your opinion. Howes suggested preparing something like, “You know, I don’t think my sense of humor meshes well with his, but I see how happy you are and I’m happy about that,’” or “There’s something off in the chemistry between me and your roommate Rian, so I think I’ll sit this one out and maybe you and I can get together next week.”
Eventually, pretending will tire you out.
The thing about putting on a show when you’re spending time with other people is that it takes energy and effort—both of which are finite resources that could be going toward socializing with people you actually like.
“Any relationship [with someone you secretly dislike] will be built on a false premise. Many opinions and conversations will include inaccuracies, and, as any experienced liar will tell you, the hardest part of lying is keeping all the lies straight,” Howes said. Basically, you’ll exhaust yourself trying to present a false version of yourself to this person, when you could simply be spending time with people who actually share your interests.
Another draining scenario: Pretending to tolerate someone who treats other people like shit. Apologizing to servers when your nasty friend goes to the bathroom, ushering them away from someone who clearly wants to be left alone in the club, worrying about your Uber rating every time you take a car together… talk about a bad time, but one that probably sounds familiar to too many of us.
“When we force ourselves to swallow bad behavior on others' part, or even if we just constantly have to fake positivity to someone, that actually is quite draining to us; it does take a toll emotionally and can make us feel stressed and exhausted,” Bonoir said.
If you fake it for too long, you risk losing sight of your real feelings.
Over time, fake behavior piles up—and eventually, it can boil over in a mess of guilt, confusion, and anxiety. “You feel guilty because every time you laugh at a joke that isn’t funny or agree to do something you don’t really want to do,you’re lying to yourself and the other person, and lying doesn’t feel right,” Howes said. “And you feel anxious because it’s only a matter of time before someone realizes that you’re not that great [of] an actor and you really don’t like them as they are.”
According to Bonoir, faking it with friends or acquaintances, especially in pursuit of a “better” social life, can actually backfire and leave us feeling lonelier than ever, or constantly anxious about what people really think of us. “It can lead to feelings of emptiness because we don't really know who we are anymore,” she said. “In the worst case, it can keep us in toxic relationships because we convince ourselves that we don't have a right to speak up or get what we deserve.”
Fortunately, it’s possible to break out of these patterns—and they’re avoidable, even if occasionally being around people we dislike is not. The first step is being honest with yourself about why you’re faking it, then charting the path to expressing our real emotions around people who you really care about.
Decide when and how to be (tactfully) honest.
While fakeness is often a mechanism for avoiding “hard” conversations, good timing and a tactful delivery can keep a “Yeah, I don’t love spending time with _______” or “Actually, I think I’d rather keep our relationship professional” conversation from being awkward or painful.
How to tell a friend you don’t love their friend
If you know you’re going to be expected to hang out with a friend of a friend who you can’t stand sooner rather than later, communicate your real feelings ASAP to avoid flaking and other weirdness down the road. “You have to do the calculation of weighing a little bit of discomfort now, versus getting roped into interactions that will make you frustrated and uncomfortable,” Bonoir said.
A key part of minimizing hurtfulness will be selective honesty. So you might say something like “I usually have more fun when you and I hang out one-on-one,” instead of “If I have to hear your college roommate brag about Post Malone DM-sliding her in 2015 I’ll spontaneously combust.” “There are lots of diplomatic ways of talking about not clicking with someone, and you can always be vague if there's no particularly useful information that needs to be imparted,” Bonoir said.
Another, tougher scenario where dropping the charade is necessary: if you see a loved one falling into destructive habits, like frequent, debilitating substance use with their new buddies or unhealthy, upsetting fights with a romantic partner.
“If you spot a serious red flag, it is well within your role as friend to call this out, with an emphasis on your care for your friend,” Howes said. “Something like, ‘Hey, it seems like you and your new roommate just go out and drink a lot together, and this has me worried about you. Can we talk about this?’ is a difficult but important talk to have.”
How to tell someone directly that you don’t want to get closer
Sure, you could say, “Sounds amazing but I’m really busy right now, maybe next week?” for the rest of your life when someone you’re meh about invites you to hang… but a better, more sustainable solution for everyone involved is building up the confidence and the communication skills to gently let someone know when the two of you don’t exactly gel.
“If you encounter someone who rubs you the wrong way—and there will be many in a lifetime—try to hone your skills for being honest and tactful as you communicate how much and in what capacity you want to be their friend,” Howes said. “Learn to set good boundaries and set limits that are fair and honest and you’ll find more people respect you as well.” Try focusing on why you’re not a good fit for the position of new best friend—maybe you’re focusing on side projects right now, or you’ve had bad experiences with workplace friendships in the past, or you’ve just got less capacity to socialize than you used to. Basically, keep the conversation about yourself and your limits, not the things about this other person that you can’t stand. The conversation itself might be awkward, and you can’t control how the person you’re rejecting will react, but in the long run you’ll both be relieved to know where you stand.
And if you think your relationship with someone is salvageable—like, if they’re simply socially awkward, not racist or abusive—you might even try bringing it up, because odds are decent that if their behavior bugs you, it bothers other people too.
“Some gentle observations or suggestions might go a long way, like ‘You know, I used to complain a lot, too, but I found people were turned off by that, so now I gripe to my therapist,’ or ‘I think she was mad because you didn’t ask her any questions about her day. Give that a try, she might really like it,’” Howes said. Just because you dislike someone doesn’t mean they’re a horrible person—but, above all, setting boundaries with someone you dislike doesn’t make you a monster, either.
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