Sincerity as a Style

Somehow, sincerity has become a style rather than a state of mind.

Of course, sincerity has long been important as an expression in acting and other stage performing, where it is part of the illusion of the stage, but it has also spilled over into the other work of performers where there is a difference between real and fake. Dennis DeYoung wrote about this in the song “Fallen Angel” (on the 1999 Styx album Brave New World): “See, I met a man who told me once, ‘Sincerity’s the key, and once you learn to fake it, son, you’re gonna be home free.’” Expanding from there, faux sincerity has become a part of every corner of the economy.

People seem to mention eye contact first, but sincerity as a style includes much more than this. If I were to coach you on it, I might suggest showing up on time, dressing the part, appearing alert, moving slowly, speaking clearly and evenly, and telling short personal stories that support your point. And of course, people do coach on sincerity as a style, particularly for job interviews and political campaigns.

There is more than a little irony in this stylized sincerity, as it points toward meeting a person’s expectations rather than delivering results of any kind. There is nothing in the style of sincerity that indicates a person’s actual emotions or their intention to follow through. Rather, it is in some ways the opposite of sincerity. A person who is actually sincere is more likely to be nervous, excited, and uneven in tone when something of importance comes up. We know from job interview research studies that these people are passed over in favor the faux-sincere. Hiring managers are hiring actors rather than workers who are qualified and knowledgable. Thus, being honestly sincere doesn’t exempt a person from needing coaching in the style of sincerity. I mention job interviews because this is a topic that is especially well researched, but the same effects seem to turn up everywhere. Even in scientific journals, a forum where you would hope accuracy and relevance would be paramount, style wins out over substance. This is why all journal articles are written in the condensed prose of stylized impatience that is imagined to be the province of a dedicated research scientist. Scientific findings could just as easily be made readable and meaningful, but editors and reviewers see such articles as “not serious” and so they are rejected without any substantial consideration. In business, politics, jurisprudence, and any other area you might think of, sincerity is a style you neglect at your peril.

The problematic result is that the world is run by style hounds rather than by people who actually want to improve things, while those who are already successful have an enormous advantage over those who have skills and energy. When things get better rather than worse, it is mainly by accident, and mainly around the edges.

Of course, this can change, and you gain advantage whenever you have enough knowledge of what a situation requires to choose based on substance rather than style. It is a situation that comes up most often when you pick a store to shop in. It doesn’t have to be the store with the best logo, layout, and advertising. Instead, when you can, you may be better off going to the store that pays the most attention to the merchandise it stocks. You can’t see the extra work they do to put a better selection of merchandise in front of you, but that work ultimately saves some work on your end.

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