On Performance and Sincerity

So, this is basically more or less random musings triggered by this post by John Scalzi about doing readings.

Now, I completely agree with him on the value of being prepared, and knowing that at a reading (or on a panel, or some other sort of public appearance), you’re performing. I have also noticed the overlap between writers whose readings are lively and enjoyable and writers who have even some small amount of performance experience.

My own preparations for readings are a good deal less elaborate than John’s, but then I suspect I write very, very much more slowly than he does and I haven’t practiced my ukulele in quite a while. But basically, I pick a thing to read, trying to make sure it’s not too long (y’all at WorldCon got solid read-aloud, sorry, but then again not too sorry since folks seemed to enjoy it), and then spend any remaining time taking questions. I probably ought to think if there’s something I can add to switch things up for this fall.

Now as it happens, I have a tiny bit of theater experience, along with that music degree, so I’m actually pretty comfortable onstage. But you know what else I think has helped me–years of waiting tables. I am a serious introvert, but working at waiting tables gave me practice interacting with lots of strangers for hours at a time, keeping my demeanor pleasant and mostly cheerful. It’s practice that has stood me in good stead for a lot of my non-writing-related life, actually. In a lot of ways waiting tables can be a really miserable job, but that aspect of it, learning how to be “on” very pleasantly and confidently, has been super valuable to me.

So, a while ago, I think it might have been on Tumblr, I saw someone reblog a post where someone was saying that they wished there was some way to politely tell a waiter that it was all right, the waiter didn’t have to be fake cheery with them, the poster cringed at the idea of a waiter having to do that and it was okay to just drop the act.

This bugged me, but it took me a while to figure out why. Finally I decided that there were two things about it that bothered me.

First, the assumption that a waiter’s cheerfulness was fake and therefore bad. It’s true that the cheerfulness is a performance. No question. But “performance” and “fake” are…I mean, they’re related? I could perform a fake attitude, yeah. But I could also decide that a conscious performance is the best way to convey my actual attitude. And I know that, when I was waiting tables, one of the things I enjoyed was being able to put on the persona of someone who was cheerful and extraverted, comfortable with talking to strangers, and happy to help. Yeah, I enjoyed it less when I was working with a table full of assholes, sure, but there’s value in practicing one’s “I am a person who is unfailingly polite” persona under adverse conditions.

I could go off on a tangent here about the way the culture I grew up in and am surrounded by values “sincerity” over “performance” and defines sincerity in a way that doesn’t just mean “honest” but also unscripted and spontaneous. And confessional–to be sincere is to bare your soul, to show the intimate you. In fact, bets are you associate “honest” with unscripted and spontaneous and confessional.

But a lot of things that we consider to be spontaneous and heartfelt are, in fact, scripted gestures. They kind of have to be, you have to speak in terms another person will understand, if you want to communicate with them. If you look closely you can see the underpinning of social expectation and convention that mostly goes ignored.

The clearest example of what I’m talking about is a religious one. I grew up Catholic, and that meant I spent a good deal of my childhood memorizing prayers. The Mass, its variations throughout the liturgical year notwithstanding, is essentially the same carefully scripted ritual over and over and over again. I could recite much of it in my sleep. Or, I could have before they re-did the approved English translation.

It’s commonly assumed that the recitation of these prayers is nothing but empty ritual. That there’s no way they can be real engagement with the spiritual, no way they can truly express any kind of profound emotion. I am here to tell you that the common assumption is one hundred percent fucking wrong. In fact, the pervasive presence of those prayers lends a depth and eloquence to them that I don’t think I can convey to anyone who hasn’t had that experience.* From the outside it looks like droning meaningless syllables. From the inside it’s very different.

In opposition to the Catholic style prayers we have the supposedly spontaneous prayers of some Protestant churches. A true sincere and unscripted upwelling of praise and prayer! Except not. Listen to enough, and you realize they’re built out of pre-fabricated phrases, strung together at length, with various techniques for vamping until the next thought is organized, the next unit chosen. I assume that the folks who pray this way find it a deeply emotional experience, and consider themselves to be praying very sincerely. I don’t hear spontaneity though, it’s just as formulaic as the supposedly nothing but rote Catholic prayer I grew up with, just handled a different way.

My point isn’t that there’s a right or a wrong way to pray. My point is that both these practices are equally sincere, and calling the second sort spontaneous isn’t actually terribly accurate. It’s really a performance of something that purports to be spontaneity.

My point is that “sincere” and “spontaneous” are not the same thing.

Nor is “sincere” and “intimate.” Which was my next problem with the idea that it would be kind and generous to tell a waiter they could let the act drop, and be honest with the poster who wished to ask for this.

They weren’t, as they appeared to think, offering a chance to relax. No, the poster was, in a sense, wanting to demand an intimacy with the waiter that they just hadn’t earned. A waiter does not owe you any glimpses of their private self. That’s maybe for friends and family, right? We all behave differently with intimates and strangers. Strangers generally get a more formal, more distant face. You don’t tell someone to show you that part of themselves. Well, unless there’s a big enough power differential that you don’t even notice that’s what you’re doing.

It’s not generous. It’s insulting.

Anyway. I think it’s worth taking a second or third thought when we value actions as sincere or insincere based on whether or not we think they’re spontaneous or scripted or conventional. Are they really any of those things? Why does a conventional action that gets called spontaneous but really isn’t, why does that get valued so much more highly than an action that’s just as conventional, but more obviously so? Just something to ponder.

Anyway. That’s my random musings, from reading John’s blog post and connecting it with some stuff I’d been thinking about not long ago.

Like John, my “on” demeanor is me. It’s not fake. But it is a performance, in a lot of ways. It’s a public me. I enjoy the heck out of that performance, partly because it helps me be comfortable meeting lots of awesome people. It’s exhausting, but I’m glad to have the opportunity to do it.

*I occasionally wonder just how Fredo’s death in the second Godfather movie must seem to someone who doesn’t feel the end of the Hail Mary hanging there unsaid, a background echo to the shot. Does the scene have the same emotional weight? I suspect it doesn’t, quite.

**In case anyone worries, or feels I need reassurance, no one to my knowledge has accused me of being fake in public. And I’m not particularly worried that anyone might think that. It’s just that the question of what’s sincere, what’s spontaneous, and how those get valued by the people around me, is one I chew on sometimes, and I figured I’d share some of those thoughts.

5 thoughts on “On Performance and Sincerity

  1. E
    Eloise says:

    While I agree that we all don masks and to some extent many if not all of us are putting on a performance in public, the person that complained about about the fake cheerfulness and wishing there was a way to tell the waiter to drop the act may have been acting on a different axis to your comment.

    I used to work in the theatre, not a huge one that only took big, professional companies, and we would take anyone from big name stars, to new companies to larger, local am dram groups that could afford the fees. The quality of acting varied, if you’ll forgive the pun, dramatically.

    Likewise, here in the UK, we don’t necessarily expect our waiters to be cheerful (although we do expect them to be polite) and we don’t expect them to bring their personal troubles to the table. But, for example, if the waiter had just heard their mother had died and was new at the job they could well be very distressed and yet trying to be cheerful despite the red eyes and so on. It would probably register as fake cheerfulness and be off-putting, whereas on another day the same two people in the same situation might well get on perfectly well.

    Speaking personally, the bonhomie in “Enjoy!” as an imperative after waiters have delivered my food really sets my teeth on edge. But that’s a rant for another day.

    As for your thoughts… we value sincerity, because it appears to be the truth. We probably value (apparently) spontaneous sincerity because it also surprises us and offers insight/intimacy to some extent, as long as it doesn’t discomfort us too much. We don’t actually want the waiter to break down and tell us their mum has just died, even if we’d (well the hypothetical we in the example I created would) be happy for them not to try and force cheerful when they’re obviously really miserable.

    Conventional and rote behaviour can be sincere but it’s harder to tell. If you say “how d’you do?” to everyone, do you actually want to know, or do you want the reply “how d’you do?” (which is the conventional response). How is someone supposed to tell?

  2. R
    RiverVox says:

    Yes. Thanks for digging into this. When you are speaking in public, the point is to communicate and connect with people. You can’t do this while looking at your shoes speaking quietly. That’s not interesting and it doesn’t energize the room. Your sincere/insincere point is really interesting. I hear people scoff at small talk but as an adult, I’ve learned that small talk, seemingly insincere, comes from an honest desire to connect with the other person. It’s a way to find a point of shared experience so you can begin to bond. It’s not fake and it’s not the point of the exercise, it’s how society works.

  3. R
    Robini says:

    Word to all of this! I agree that lots of “honest” things (wishing my husband a good day as he heads off to work, telling my friends I look forward to a game night after we plan it) are actually quite scripted: just because you’re *expected* to say it, doesn’t mean it isn’t true or you don’t feel it at the time. Plus, part of a social interaction is *wanting* the other person to feel appreciated, even if at this exact moment they are not the focus of your concerns. I like a clean house so I pick up my socks even though the act of picking up my socks doesn’t inherently inspire me, and I like a happy and secure husband so I kiss him on his way out even though at the time my primary concern is where I put my keys.

    I do agree with Eloise’s comment that maybe the poster was a perfectly nice person who just felt bad about watching a waiter suffer emotionally. I’m similarly compelled to want to offer comfort to strangers if I can tell they’re really upset. But as an actual recipient of “I want to know the REAL YOU” comments (usually from men at least a decade my senior – I’ve never been a waiter but I am a woman in a male-dominated field), I have a similar recoil.

    In my case, those comments grate not so much because of the presumption of intimacy (I am not a particularly private or closed-off person), but because I often get the impression that the person hasn’t really considered the implications of that request. I mean, are they really ready to hear “I was making that face because you reek of cigarette smoke, next time I’ll try to hide it better” or “WOW you sound dumb when you say that”? The assumption that honesty is a panacea is a dangerous one unless you’ve got a pretty ironclad ego. We all have things we’d rather not hear, and I’m a big fan of working that out with other people organically: trying to fast-forward to the part where you tell each other everything tends to result in oversharing and everyone’s toes getting stepped on. Much better to start out with polite performance (and reliance on social norms) until you learn people’s boundaries.

    Also, I think it’s worth realize that not everyone is compatible with everyone else on a deeply-personal level. For example, if you are rigid in certain beliefs about women and their role in society, deep and abiding friendship with me is a non-starter. Additional honesty is going to exacerbate that situation, not fix it. So, if we’re going to enjoy people who *aren’t* our exact soulmates – like the perfectly-pleasant people who show up to author readings, or greet us in restaurants – we need to agree to some rules of the road. I guess you can call it a “performance” because it involves not saying everything you think, and expressing some emotions even though you don’t feel them at the time. But really, in my mind it’s just exercising self-control in social settings, and making sure you don’t do the social equivalent of inviting people you just met into your sock-strewn living room until you know the mess won’t offend them.

    1. A
      Ann says:

      I do agree with Eloise’s comment that maybe the poster was a perfectly nice person who just felt bad about watching a waiter suffer emotionally.

      I think it’s important to note that one can be a perfectly nice person, and also ignorant of the power imbalances that they are taking advantage of or reinforcing through their assumptions and behaviors. I also think it’s important to point out that the “maybe it was a particular waiter who was suffering horribly under the burden of having to be Cheerful Waiter” was added on as a “well maybe” to justify what is IMO still frankly an intrusion. When you see a particular waiter who is clearly struggling with keeping up the waiter front, for what seem to be personal emotional reasons, there are much less intrusive ways to help them and be kind to them than to say “You can let it all out and be honest with me!”

      Over on Tumblr someone added that it was not just insulting–it was threatening. And actually I agree. And I don’t think that means the poster is a terrible human being. They likely don’t mean to intrude or insult or threaten. They’ve just never spent two seconds thinking about the implications of the power dynamic involved in going out to dinner, and have never examined their assumptions about what “sincerity” really is, let alone how much right they have to ask it of a waiter. I think that means they’re oblivious. The two–“oblivious” and “horrible person”– aren’t the same thing. Although, when told that the behavior is intrusive, insulting, and even threatening, a person who responds with “What’s wrong with you I’m just trying to be nice” has indeed begun to move themselves over from “well meaning but oblivious” to “active indications of being a pretty horrible person.”

  4. n
    nm says:

    Two thoughts: first, what you say about ritual/repetition infusing meaning into what looks from the outside like rote is very true. You can learn this from prayer traditions or (to bring it back to a question of performance) from Shakespeare. Or Lin-Manuel Miranda. Those actors aren’t just up on stage (or screen) saying words that just popped into their heads; they memorized them long and hard, and figured out how to get them across effectively.

    Second, I don’t know what the original post about the supposedly fake-cheerful server actually was about, but my immediate reaction was that the restaurant was one of those places that demands their servers follow a script of faux friendliness, and constantly interrupt conversation at tables to “just get that out of your way,” “refill that for you,” or (shudder) “make sure you need anything.” There is a restaurant chain I will never patronize again because the one time I ate there the server kept walking up from behind and half-screaming “is everything OK?” till I wanted to bash her in the face. At another place, not a chain, a server made a polite comment about the beer I ordered, I made a polite comment back, and this was taken as encouragement to squat down at our table to have a conversation with me about beers! There is, at least in the Midwest and the South of the US, an immense demand by managers that servers try to get chummy with the patrons. And telling the servers to drop it, or giving them the stinkeye so they leave you alone when you’re just trying to have a pleasant night out with your spouse, doesn’t help them, because their manager wants them to act this way.

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