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How People Become Pretentious

Often, we don't discourage pretentiousness — and may even do the opposite.

Key points

  • Pretentiousness grows out of an awareness the social self, or the version of oneself that exists in the eyes of others.
  • Pretentiousness can develop from a genuine belief that one is better than someone else, or a sense of insecurity.
  • Pretentiousness may persist because pretentious people take satisfaction in pulling genuine-minded people into their pattern.
Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock
Source: Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock

Some people appear inauthentic. They perform rather than just talking, as though there is always a mirror in front of them and instead of seeing their interlocutor, they see primarily their own reflection. They are, as we say, pretentious.

There is something puzzling about pretentiousness. On the one hand, the pretentious are obviously concerned — perhaps too much so — with the way they will be perceived. On the other hand, we all profess to prefer simplicity and authenticity. But if that’s right, then the pretentious are doing just the opposite of what they should be doing if they wish to be favorably viewed by others. Why, then, do they behave as they do?

This puzzle is what interests me here, but I will begin with the questions of what exactly pretentiousness is and what motivates it.

The nature of pretentiousness

The first thing to note is that almost all human communication has a performative aspect. Some time in childhood, we realize that what we say and do has an effect on the way others see us, and we begin to care about that. We develop, as psychologist William James put it, a social self: a likeness of us that exists in the eyes of others.

We are understandably concerned with our social selves. We don’t like to make a bad impression, and we take pains to avoid embarrassment. (As Shakespeare put it in As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage. And all the men and women merely players.”)

This is to be expected and within limits, it is probably a good thing. Indeed, if someone never gave a damn about what the rest of us thought, we wouldn’t like that either. We might appreciate the person’s lack of artifice, but we'd think they are taking it all too far. Does the opinion of the rest of us matter so little that it makes no difference to them?

Another point to note is that the perception of pretentiousness in others may be based on a misunderstanding on our part. Ron may think, for instance, that Mariella’s love of high-end coffee is pretentious because he cannot tell the difference between two coffee brands. He concludes from here that there is no difference and that anyone who claims otherwise is a snob feigning a refined taste.

But Ron may be mistaken. The brands Mariella prefers may be exquisite though it may take a coffee aficionado to appreciate this.

Finally, there are different kinds of pretentiousness. There is a boastful, pompous kind, characterized by name-dropping and ostentatious displays of the trappings of success, sometimes of successes that one pretends to have, but doesn’t. The Ancient philosopher Theophrastus described this profile. In his Characters, he talks about “the boastful man.” He has this to say about the boastful:

The Boastful Man is one who will stand in the bazaar talking to foreigners of the great sums which he has at sea; he will discourse of the vastness of his money-lending business, and the extent of his personal gains and losses…He loves, also, to impose upon his companion by the road with a story of how he served with Alexander, and on what terms he was with him, and what a number of gemmed cups he brought home; contending, too, that the Asiatic artists are superior to those of Europe; and all this when he has never been out of Attica.

There is, however, a more subtle variety of pretentiousness. While boastful poseurs need an audience, subdued poseurs may be quietly formal or show patronizing friendliness toward others.

What motivates pretentiousness?

There is more than one reason. Some pretentious people really do believe they are better than others and want that widely known.

At other times, the sort of condescension that characterizes the pretentious masks hidden insecurities, impostor syndrome, or the fear one would be perceived as too plain and ordinary.

Pretentiousness can also be learned and become more reflexive than voluntary. A person may acquire certain mannerisms and habits of affectation as it were, by osmosis, from one’s social and cultural environment, for instance, by socializing with others who have those dispositions.

This talk about motives brings us back to the puzzle I began with: If authenticity is universally preferred, and if the aim of the pretentious is to make a good impression, then shouldn’t they do just the opposite of what they are doing and stop putting on airs?

How pretentiousness may win against authenticity

Pretentiousness may be based on an error. We are all at times, and perhaps frequently, mistaken about the effect we have on others. Pretentious people may falsely believe that others see them as authentic and genuinely refined.

Or it could be that they know what impression they make on others, but they would rather be seen as affected and uppity than as plain and ordinary, and they don't know how to pull off authentic and sophisticated.

There is, however, something else. Snobs may exert a sort of power over people with a better, more authentic, temperament and get others to play along or play on the snob's home turf, that is, put on airs.

Why would a snobbish person have this kind of effect on someone more authentic and genuine?

Sometimes, the explanation may have to do with extraneous factors. For instance, the affected may be more successful, and the artless, for all their other virtues, may not be indifferent to that.

But at other times, this is not the case. Indeed, the artless and more truly authentic person may be the more successful one and yet, follow the snob's lead and begin to perform.

This, then, may explain why pretentiousness persists. While we profess not to like it, and perhaps, we really don’t, we do not discourage it and may do the opposite: We too may begin to strut and show off in the presence of a boastful, supercilious poseur.

A character in a novel the name of which I no longer recall says that making a person much smarter than you fall in love with you and come to share your own inferior interests is a great conquest. Perhaps, a pretentious person feels similarly that exerting power over a more genuine and authentic person, getting the other to pretend, is a conquest. If you cannot pull off authentic and sophisticated, perhaps, you can persuade others that they cannot either, that no one can.

More importantly, however, the rest of us, like accomplices, let that happen. We say we prefer authenticity but often, we do not behave as though we do. We do not send the right signals. While people may, behind a snob’s back, talk about how snooty the person is, in the snob's face, we become respectful and even snobbish.

I mentioned at the beginning that there is sometimes disagreement about what pretentiousness is or who has it. Perhaps, we ourselves do, even though we don’t think so.

Perhaps. What I think is true more often is that we all recognize pretentiousness in both ourselves and others but instead of discouraging it, we encourage it. We claim to value what is genuine, but we let pretentiousness win against authenticity.

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Facebook image: Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock

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