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Not Quite What We Seem

Do you ever get the uncomfortable suspicion that you are a fraud and an imposter? I've been feeling that way lately because I'm in France, and I have to pretend that I know what is going on. This must be a problem for everyone who tries to navigate a foreign culture. In order not to look like an idiot you must act as if you understand the language, the culture, the strange things for sale in the market, and even the driving.

Nobody is fooled by this pretense, of course, which makes it harmless and even quite amusing. But there's something disturbing about the way we – and I mean human beings in general – are so very ready to pretend to be something that we are not, and to be have talents that we really don't have.

I've been pretending to read a book by a French psychoanalyst, Roland Gori, called The Making of Imposters. The good professor argues that social expectations are so high in this competitive world that people in search of success are almost forced to fake the necessary knowledge and expertise, as well as to profess a character that they don't really possess. They exaggerate their qualifications and suppress their real personalities in order to fit in and get on. The psychologist calls them "Imposters in spite of themselves," and argues that they live in an unhealthy state of constant anxiety and fear of exposure.

This really comes as no surprise. The idea that we play more or less false social roles was old news in Shakespeare's time, and has been intensively studied by sociologists in our own time. When it comes to the human character there are layers beneath layers, and facades beneath facades. Every day it seems we read about another politician, scientist, doctor, attorney, religious leader, or businessman, or woman, being exposed as a fraud. Professor Gori's book suggests that this has become an epidemic, because so few of us can live up to society's high expectations.

Gori highlights something so commonplace and so true that it is almost shocking: people are not what they seem. Who hasn't felt like an imposter at some time in their lives? Unworthy in love, for example, not fully competent to do our job, not really believing the things we are supposed to believe? My own low point was when I was drafted into the army and had to spend two years pretending to be a soldier – possibly the worst performance ever seen in military history. People in the public eye like political leaders and entertainers must be particularly vulnerable to the feeling that they are impersonating an unreal imitation of a counterfeit version of themselves.

The book The Making of Imposters offers some self-help advice. The happiest and healthiest people are those who have no need to pretend. Therefore Gori tells us to face up squarely to our own pretenses and try to overcome them. "To know that you are an imposter," he says, "Is the best antidote to being one."

So I'll start right now, cards on the table. I haven't actually read all three hundred twenty pages of The Making of Imposters, but only a review of it in a French newspaper. There, the truth is out in the open, and I can rejoice in my new authenticity. But don't expect me to keep it up for long.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.