Accusations from Rosie O’Donnell’s adopted daughter Chelsea calling out her mom’s alleged phoniness are uncomfortably lurid, but more interesting is Chelsea’s plea that O’Donnell “should be her real self, who she really is.” What, exactly, is your real self? Do any of us achieve it?

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As Jezebel’s Bobby Finger revealed in a recent post, Chelsea, who claims she did not run away as was reported by O’Donnell but instead was kicked out of the house, told the Daily Mail that she finds her mother “not genuine most of the time,” a completely different person in public than in private. And:

“She has this public persona; she will put this big smile on her face and try to be funny. She would always go up to people and want to hold their babies in public. She had this happy, friendly side to her. Whereas when we were home, even if it was on the same day, she would either just be in her room, not engaging with us, or watching documentaries. And if we didn’t want to do what she wanted to do, it would cause a big issue.”

Of course, O’Donnell is an extreme example. Calling anyone in Hollywood phony is about as shocking as calling H&M cheap. And who isn’t a phony on some level? In a world that requires we cultivate, prune, and present ourselves beyond our natural tendencies, we’re really all fakers. The real question is: to what degree can we tolerate each others’ inauthenticity?

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A quick Internet search produces scores of inquiries into the nature of fake personhood. In “10 Signs Someone is Fake,” from Thought Catalog, we learn that the following indicators of phoniness:

  • Suggesting drinks/brunch you don’t intend to get
  • People who will party with you but won’t help you with real life shit
  • Anyone who disappears when you need them
  • When you tell someone how you feel but they don’t respond
  • People who claim to never get mad
  • Anyone ignoring you
  • Two-faced people
  • People who are hot and cold
  • People who never ask you to hang out
  • People pleasers

Urban Dictionary takes the latter as the defining characteristic of a fake person, indicating that a fake person is someone who “is not genuine and will do whatever it takes to make themself [sic] look good. They will take credit for other’s work or down play the good of others to illuminate oneself.” They also argue that fakers are users who will bail on something if it doesn’t serve them, and who change themselves to fit whatever the group is.

This list of differences from Elite Daily between nice and fake doesn’t help clear anything up, either:

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Nice is warmly answering the door; fake is kissing both cheeks.

Nice is checking in on a friend; fake is sending a check.

Nice is being a good person; fake is trying to be a friend.

Nice is being there when you have a call; fake is chewing your ear off.

Nice is just being there; fake is always wanting to be there.

If kissing both cheeks is fake, many Europeans are shit out of luck.

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The problem with sweeping distinctions about fake versus real is that we are all a whole lot of both depending on the situation. I would argue we are all fake with certain people, in certain situations. Part of the social contract dictates that we are full of shit sometimes—we pretend to care or focus on something other than ourselves when in the company of other humans, when we make small talk, when we go to work while secretly navigating troubling personal issues, while a friend drones on and on about boy problems, when a spouse talks about a particularly dull aspect of their job, when a coworker endlessly waxes about their fucking cocker spaniel.

This is a cornerstone of the major argument against the overuse of smartphones—they take all the pretending out of what used to be a fairly well-established system of acting like you give a shit about other people.

Of course, sometimes it’s not pretending at all—you are deeply engaged with the person in front of you, genuinely curious, truly invested. But often we are not, simply because we can’t be. That said, fake people do exist, depending on how you define a person’s usefulness in your life. This list of signs you have a fake friend gets a little closer to the truth: the compliments they give seem too forced, they try too hard to look good all the time, and they simply aren’t reliable or there for you.

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But I wonder if the people I perceive as fake are simply that way in relation to me; if they might be totally engaged and present with others. Inside every fake person, I bet there is a devoted friend—just to someone else. Perhaps it’s easier in the search for authenticity, then, to look at what researchers consider to be genuine in our handling of networking, friendships, and business dealings. Being genuine, author Steve Tobak explains, is basically being the same on the outside as you are on the inside. Tobak writes:

Unfortunately, it’s a tough quality to discern. The problem is that all human interactions are relative. They’re all a function of how we perceive each other through our own subjective lenses.

Being genuine is also a rare quality. In a world full of phony fads, media hype, virtual personas, positive thinkers, and personal brands – where everyone wants what they don’t have, nobody’s content to be who they are, and, more importantly, nobody’s willing to admit to any of that – it’s becoming more and more rare all the time.

This is why political campaigns and celebrity worship are so fascinating—we value authenticity in our society to a fault, and the result is that we demand performances from people in positions of power or celebrity, insisting they represent authenticity, consistency, and realness in a way no normal soul ever could, all but guaranteeing we will be sold a load of shit. Consider Hillary Clinton announcing plans to be more spontaneous, or reality television stars accusing each other of acting different on-camera.

These are not places to look for the genuine artifact. Tobak lists the qualities of the “real” person, which is more about what you aren’t than what you are: not attention seeking, not people pleasing, not gullible, not insecure, not insincere, not thin-skinned, not super modest—but not super boastful either—and ultimately, consistent.

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“All those seemingly different behaviors have the same thing at their core: self-awareness that’s consistent with reality,” he writes. “ There’s not a lot of processing, manipulating or controlling going on between what’s in their head and what people see and hear.” OK, but define “a lot.” Who among us doesn’t often feel that we must alter ourselves in lots of situations? The introvert contorts their demeanor to seem outgoing at a party—is that fake? The extrovert learns how to shut up to seem more low-key around others—also fake?

I think it’s worth remembering that behind every instance of so-called fakery—the person who said they loved you but didn’t, the person who talked shit about you behind your back, the person whose opinion you couldn’t pin down because they are too nice to really get to know—there is likely a deeply rooted insecurity, a real vulnerability, an honest fear of rejection, a smallness that necessitates playing a part to get by. That’s fake, but it’s also real, and human.

Image via Shutterstock.