Are you being “faked out”? How to tell when someone is faking their emotions

Written by Amy Beecham

Whether we’re downplaying our annoyance or feigning our interest, faking our emotions is a common practice that our wellbeing could be paying the price for.

They say honesty is the best policy, but anyone who has ever bitten their tongue or faked a smile in an awkward social situation will know that there’s often a time and place for more honest dialogue. In truth, it is just easier sometimes to push your emotions down and nod along with the crowd than express your true feelings in a pub or at a work meeting.

Psychologists call the practice “surface acting”. “Surface acting refers to the type of emotional communication that involves covering up your true feelings while you put on a false front,” writes Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D for Psychology Today.

“Typically, in surface acting, you’re trying to cover up such negative emotions as anger or frustration because to express them would get you in trouble. A common scenario involves the smile or friendly voice that someone in a service or sales position uses despite feeling annoyed by the treatment they’re getting from customers.”

But as harmless as it may seem, new research has found that going too deep down the people-pleasing rabbit hole could be impacting our wellbeing.

The study from West Virginia University found that surface acting in particular is associated with such negative personal and occupational outcomes as poorer physical health, lower levels of wellbeing, worse job performance, and less job satisfaction.

So whether it’s something we can recognise within ourselves, our pick up on being done to us, here are five ways to tell if someone is “faking you out”.

The situation doesn’t warrant the emotion the person is showing

Stressful or emotional situations can be hard to react to. If someone you care about is angry or upset, it’s not always easy to align your response with theirs. However, one tell-tale sign of surface acting requires you to look at the reality of the situation you’re in with this person.

“If you can admit that you’re being a tiny bit irritating or overbearing yourself, and yet the other person is still smiling, then maybe they’re merely trying to please you,” shares Krauss Whitbourne.

Because the whole premise of surface acting is that you are masking an appropriate response for a given situation, if the response doesn’t measure up, it’s likely that it’s fake.

You feel that something is “off” about the interaction

“You might get a vibe signaling that something isn’t quite right. It may be the person is overly effusive, using too many exclamation points in their speech to sound excited, or it could be that the person is laughing at something you’ve said that isn’t all that funny,” writes Krauss Whitbourne

This isn’t always a sign of something troublesome, though. In both our personal and work lives, the requirement of small talk often leads to conversations that feel disingenuous, but are harmless. However, this response to a serious or deep conversation could indicate surface acting.

Covering up negative emotions and hiding your true feelings is known by psychologists as “surface acting”

The individual shows small signs of stress, either in face or voice

Even when we feel like we’re doing a good job of masking our true feelings, that’s not always the case. Defensive body language, like crossed arms, or even the inflection of someone’s voice can be a giveaway that they’re surface acting.

“Not only may something be off, but it’s possible that if you pay close attention, you’ll see some tell-tale signs that the person is feeling stressed out. This emotional cost of surface acting means that small “leakages” of nonverbal stress will spill out,” Krauss Whitbourne continues.

There is gain associated with the portrayal of a certain emotion

One of the key reasons that people engage in surface acting is to get something out of a situation. We might want to impress a new friend, get a positive rating from our boss or gain the respect of someone we admire.

And while it’s normal to lay it on thick on a first date or pep yourself up when you meet a partner’s parents for the first time it’s important to toe the line between best behaviour and full-blown falsification.

But high-pressure environments can cause us to doubt ourselves and make changes to how we present in order to “fit in” better. Krauss Whitbourne advises being mindful of positions that could potentially force someone else to show dishonest displays of emotions, and to do whatever you can to put the person’s anxiety to rest.

It’s common to mask or downplay your emotions in tense social situations, such as at work or around new people

You notice that the individual is starting to disengage

There’s a lot of strain involved in putting up a false front. It can be not just physically exhausting to control your body’s response to someone, but emotionally draining too.

And that’s when people begin to retreat back into their own space, according to Krauss Whitbourne. Fidgeting, wandering eyes and reducing their responses to umms and ahhs are all a sign that the other person is mentally checking out of both the conversation and the emotional performance.

“For women, it may be particularly disheartening to have to keep acting in ways that they think conform to a stereotypically gendered female role. If it’s honesty you’re after, consider the possibility that you’ve been placing unfair expectations on the other person,” she adds.

Emotions are complex things. Sometimes they mislead us, and sometimes we just flat out ignore them in place of how we think we should be reacting. And while some may consider surface acting akin to lying, it’s often a harmless response to the social constraints placed on us.

However, if someone you care about forms a continuous pattern of masking their true feelings, an open conversation about the importance of emotional honesty might be the key to beginning a deeper and more meaningful relationship.

Images: Getty

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