Trust, Honesty and Authenticity

A few years ago, Deborah Nixon posted an interesting question on LinkedIn. She asked: “Is there a difference between authenticity and honesty?”

She got about 35 answers. Here’s what I sent in:

Deborah, I’m sure you would agree the two terms cover a lot of territory in common. The trick with these definitional things is not to discover some underlying reality, because there is none; these are conceptual models that help us explain the world. They are good or bad insofar as they help us; so I’d suggest starting there. What’s the most useful way to distinguish the two?

One way might be to say that authenticity is largely passive, and honesty is largely active. When we say someone’s honest, we usually mean they tell the truth, and go out of their way to do it.

Sometimes we also mean that they don’t tell a lie – but that’s far from all the time. You often hear someone way ‘well, he was honest – he didn’t actually tell a lie.’ In such a case, ‘honesty’ just means I didn’t utter an untruth; it’s perfectly consistent with covering up all other kinds of truth. So the casual use of ‘honest’ may rule out sins of commission, but not sins of omission.

That’s why the legal language “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” is required in court; to prevent the ‘honest’ witness from conveniently leaving something out, or snow-jobbing the court with irrelevancies.

Authenticity, on the other hand, I think usually implies a lack of attempt to control another’s perception. It means letting others see us as we are, warts and all. I think it also goes one more step: it means letting everyone see us in a way that’s no different from how anyone else see us: that is, we don’t play favorites in terms of constructing alternative fictions to respective people.

At a corporate level, a company might support a claim of honesty by pointing to the truthfulness of its statements, or the lack of court cases against it. Again, ‘honesty’ conveys a sense of ‘never knowingly told an untruth.’ Whether it includes consciously allowing other people to make incorrect inferences by not telling them something – well, that’s not entirely clear.

Authenticity is a whole ‘nother level. It means not hiding out, opening the door in things that are not excluded through standard rules of privacy, letting the chips fall where they may. Further, I think it usually entails a commitment to be authentic, not just a convenient lifestyle.

Seems that of the two, we might say that authenticity is broader (i.e. it encompasses being honest, but goes beyond that to proscribe sins of omission).

On a practical level, people who strive to be honest often talk of it as a struggle: to resist temptation, to not gossip, to say things that can be embarrassing if they are true.

People who choose to be authentic have, in a way, an easier time of it.  For someone who is authentic, the daily default way of life doesn’t involve decisions or will power: the default is openness, there is no issue of control vs. transparency.

Things are what they are, and there is no threat about them.

What’s trust got to do with it?  To trust a person or a company, honesty is table stakes.  If you suspect they’re lying, trust is stopped dead in its tracks.  But even if they’re honest, that’s nothing compared to authentic.

5 replies
  1. Frank Piuck
    Frank Piuck says:

    Charlie

    Everything you say in this post makes sense, but I don’t agree. I don’t think authenticity requires honesty. I think that Donald Trump is authentic in his dishonesty. He is oblivious to it. Authenticity, in the sense you are using it, would be inauthentic to his character.

    Reply
  2. Mark Williams
    Mark Williams says:

    One does not have to look far to help discern the mystery of authenticity, the authentic road of life, than St. Augustin and his Confessions. All of us strive to seek, embrace the inward, interior meaning of it all, as it were. Honesty is part of the package, no doubt, but the real question is not… what is the difference between honesty and authenticity?… rather, how does one – anyone – truly live an authentic life and this is all encompassing and what we mean, I believe, when one says, “he or she is a genuine character, or more simply, they’re genuine. In my life, when I come across “genuine” people, they are real, engaging, trusted, loved and loving…and yes…honest to a fault if there is such a thing and without question there lies a desire to understand more than our weak human nature. Perhaps the authentic person is a person of faith, a faith that constantly questions and serves others… I suppose humility does come to mind!

    Reply
  3. john gies
    john gies says:

    I would say that you do NOT need to tell the truth to be authentic. You can authentically be a compulsive liar. Authenticity as you said is showing up warts and all. The shiny side and the shadow side.

    Cheers

    Reply
    • Charlie
      Charlie says:

      On the other hand–isn’t lying ipso facto evidence of inauthenticity? Isn’t an “authentic liar” an oxymoron?
      Except perhaps in Frank’s case of an unconscious liar. But even then, can you really. be authentic if you don’t know yourself?

      Reply

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