Faking it till you make it


Confidence (Photo credit: wherefishsing)

A couple of days ago I had a very odd conversation online with a friend of mine. Out of all my friends he’s the one I’m most intimate with – I’ll open up to him about my fears and problems, and he’ll do the same with me. He is a sensitive soul, though he doesn’t necessarily fit that profile, much like me. And so over the years we’ve become accustomed to sharing the little things that worry and work at us, seeking in the other a sympathetic ear and an understanding nature.

Such was the conversation the other day, abbreviated by the medium and communicated in that shorthand we often use online. And perhaps that’s where some of my confusion stems from – something lost in the translation or else left in the gaps. We were talking about me. This time he had initiated the conversation. He spoke of how one on one I appeared more vulnerable than I had before, and how welcome it was. This I could believe. Then he went on to say that I was different in a group situation, where he said I was ‘too confident’. I didn’t know what that meant, but didn’t follow up.

I’ve been puzzling on it the last couple of days. I admit I’m more confused now than I can ever remember, almost to the point that I’ve lost an idea of who I am.

Too confident. Is that what he meant literally? That I came across as too sure of myself? What is ‘too’ much? Unless I’m overbearing – and I’m not – then I don’t know what the issue is, unless it is that the inside stuff never gets seen. Or does he mean something else? Too slick perhaps – though that doesn’t ring true. Too familiar. I don’t know.

He is one of my best friends now, but I recall a conversation we had years ago when our friendship had become properly established. He explained to me that when he first met me, and even in the early stages of our friendship he had felt occasionally intimidated by me. It was a surprising admission. He explained that my brazen self-assurance and occasional blunt ways would sometimes set him on the back foot. And this was a from a man with a lot going for him and not short of confidence himself.

I think I’ve changed some since then. Much of that was conscious – I did not want to be intimidating my friends (though really, I’m not sure it was that widespread). The rest of it is circumstances, I have matured since then, perhaps mellowed, and of course been subject to one humbling experience after another since then. This he has acknowledged over recent years, I’m much gentler than I was. Still though, I’m ‘too confident’.

Confidence is a funny thing. Once upon a time I’d have put my hand up and said I was full of it – or perhaps I was full of something else. In general terms I have come to accept certain aspects of myself as settled truths, and never pause to doubt them. For example, I know I’m way smart. That’s the way it is. It doesn’t stop me from questioning aspects related to that however, such as my judgement, which is often poor – and which I’ll occasionally pour over in abject detail in these pages. In other words, I’m largely confident of the baseline in me and accept it as something just about empirical, but often dubious to what it all adds up to. One on one I’ll share my doubts with him, but obviously (is it obvious?) in a group situation I’ll keep them to myself. Perhaps that is what he means – the group sees only the confident baseline from which I’ll foray from.

It becomes about behaviour then, even the different personas you possess and roll out. A lot of life is performance I think, and a lot of performance becomes habitual. Forced to consider it all now, I wonder how much is performance, and how much is me? Is this alleged over-confidence just a projection of myself, a role I assumed years ago and which I’ve been performing ever since? These are confusing conjectures.

My general view is that it’s all authentic, just that in certain situations different elements of your personality get emphasised and other parts dimmed. For example, last night I went to a function that had a brief networking session. I walked in the door, got a drink, a sandwich, then sized up the room. Then I walked over to the most likely looking group and with a smile and extended hand introduced myself. Now I’m not much different to everyone else, I don’t don’t find it particularly easy in theory to walk up to strangers and introduce myself. In situations like last night though needs must, so I assume that persona and get it done. And in fact, generally, I’ll be the one in that group that directs that conversation so powerful is the persona, and the mission of that persona.

Now that’s an obvious example because – in my case anyway – you almost consciously assume that personality. And that will be the case in other situations, in going for a job interview maybe, in dealing with bureaucracy, and so on. Other times – 90% of the time – it’s nowhere near as obvious as that. I don’t think when I get in a group situation that I must be this person or that. I don’t consider how I’ll act, or how confident I’ll appear. I believe I go with the flow, but there is always the possibility that the performance has become so sublimated over the years that I’m unaware of it. What am I to think?

As I write my mind keeps returning to an evening a few weeks ago when perhaps my friend was reminded that I was ‘too confident’.

It was a Friday night, we caught up after work for a beer with a couple of his colleagues I had not met before. We’re four males, Australian males, all at the executive level and so there’s a fair bit of testosterone there, let alone bullshit. Still, it was easy, I felt comfortable and got on well with the others. From there my mate and I went out to meet with his girlfriend.

His girlfriend was with friends of hers, about 4 girls and a couple of blokes. For the most part I talked with the girls and we got on fine, sometimes just having fun, but often talking about real things. It was a little different with the men. One was an affable Pom, not particularly handsome and a little portly, and sporting a painful looking case of sunburn – things I note because it was evident that he was keenly aware of and would comment on. I introduced myself early on, and later turned to him and said something I thought amusing. In reply he said something that suggested he had put me in a separate pigeon hole. Ok, fine.

The other guy was a Kiwi, a little loud and obvious, keen I think to get in the good graces of my mate, who has a history of sidekicks. Early on I sensed this guy wanted nothing to do with me, as if I disturbed the equilibrium – who is this stranger who knows my friend better than I do? Still I would turn to him and ask questions politely – I think I’m always polite – and get monosyllabic answers. He refused to engage with me and so I thought, shit happens, and turned back to the girls.

Then something small happened. I’m tallish and I take up a lot of space. I’ve always had relaxed body language. In my early years in the office I’d often be told off for having my feet on the desk. At my ease I’m inclined to lean back, cross my legs, and stretch out my arms. This I did on that night – only to find my mate making faces at me as if to stop.

At the time I thought he was pissed because one of my arms was on the back of his girlfriends chair. I thought it ridiculously precious at the time – I wasn’t touching her, the gesture was in no way meant to be romantic, and it could just as easily been the chair of a bloke. Anyway, I got the message and reluctantly complied.

It’s only now that I wonder if his objection was more sophisticated than that. Did he think my body language inaproppriate? Too relaxed, too confident? Was I too comfortable there amongst strangers, and appearing so – again, what is ‘too’ comfortable? Should I have been more reserved and conservative? Should I have watched and listened rather than engaging with them as I did? Why?

Perhaps there is something to what he says, and in fact it’s something I’ll be looking into. I’ll ask questions of others, and in fact am think, quite radically, of conducting a workshop all about me. I hope to find a lot answers to a lot of pressing questions. Regardless of what he has said, I’m at the stage of my life when I’ve never been more confused, nor been so full of doubt. These are things I need resolve.

The other side though is this I think. My friend, love him like a brother, can be precious and occasionally petulant, and will sometimes take offence at things that nobody even notices. I wonder if that is the case today. Not that I’m too confident, just that I’m too confident for him.

Wht do you think?