Be Yourself, Wear a Mask!
Authenticity can come from what you hide, not just what you show.
by Tim Leberecht
Without doubt, the object of the year is the mask. Covering many faces and missing from some, the pandemic has made the mask a prominent feature of daily life, becoming both a fashion statement and locus of culture wars, straddling fraught ideological fault lines. Some find it unmanly to wear one, others inconvenient but the responsible thing to do, and there may also be a small group of people for whom it has enhanced their quality of life. “Aside from the virus, the mask makes me feel more protected in social situations,” a friend of mine admitted to me.
Masks have always polarized, hidden and revealed at once. Religions and cults have long understood the mask’s transformative power, and in many cultures they are used in rituals of initiation, reverence, mourning, and inclusion, but also to express shame, guilt, and exclusion, as the totems of secret societies. Masks are the epitome of the literal and the symbolic, of the utilitarian and the transcendent. We wear them for physical protection (think of fencing, oxygen masks, or the anti-pollution masks seen in Japan and China) but also for the purposes of disguise and performance, on and offstage.
Of course any protective measure is also always a performance. The masks we wear communicate far more about what we value than our unadorned faces ever could.
Masks at work
We perform in business. And not just in the sense of delivering on tasks and accomplishing goals set by others or ourselves, but also in the sense of developing our narratives, choreographing our interactions, and playing a role, or many different roles.
These types of performances have become essential to our “performance review” since the knowledge economy has automated many “objective” tasks, leaving us to master mostly fuzzy “subjective” tasks: building and cultivating relationships; managing our reputation and perception; curating and sharing tacit knowledge; earning respect, popularity, authority, and influence. As Matthew B. Crawford claims in his book Shop Class As Soulcraft, we have become “symbolic knowledge workers”:
“A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you.”
If one were to grossly exaggerate, one could say we are no longer what we make or do — we are who others think we are. We are how liked or feared we are.
This has far-reaching implications. When every somewhat mechanical task representing a linear cause-effect correlation is crossed off our to-do’s, all that’s left for us is to be, to live up to the promise of our personal brand, to show up and show off.
That’s highly volatile and vulnerable terrain, and many of us need more than just one persona to navigate it. Thus we are all wearing masks while we are at work — alternate identities that enable us to navigate alternate realities.
The same is true for us as consumers. We try on different identities as we enter showrooms, as we buy and buy into the products, services, cultures, and values of the brands we revere. Masks represent the allure of another life, with all its tantalizing promises and risks.
The hidden perils of radical transparency
We spend most of our professional lives rehearsing for our one big moment of fame — and fail to realize that our rehearsals are indeed the show. “Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless trauma about, the lives we were unable to live,” Adam Phillips writes in Missing Out: In Praise of Our Unlived Lives.
Curiously, we have tended to mostly deny the possibility of “other lives” in business, and stubbornly refuse to accept organizations and business leaders who, in the most extreme form, betray us or lie to us, or, in a milder form, switch between multiple facets of their character, or toggle between different identities. In the name of authenticity and the “Just Be Yourself!” ethos, leaders wearing a mask were met with intense skepticism. Many business thinkers told us that being yourself — or better yet, appearing to be yourself — was the path to true and lasting respect and recognition.
This trend was exacerbated by the paradigm of “radical transparency” in the digital world. “Unmasking” became the cri de coeur, the main order of business in an age that heralded authenticity as the Holy Grail and ultimate means of business success.
But as the discussion around equity and social justice made all too clear: Demands for total transparency tend to favor the powerful, and for those on the margins, or still struggling to make their professional mark, a little disguise, the ability to code-switch, can make strategic sense. To act as somebody else is the first step to becoming somebody else — or to smashing through exclusionary boundaries personal, organizational, and systemic.
Masks as truth serum
Pretending to be some other person is a path to self-transformation.
From the Grimm’s fairy tales to the carnival in Venice, from Halloween to Mardi Gras, from The Mask to the masked ball in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, from Greek drama to Batman, from bank robbers, assassins, to executioners at the guillotine, to the Guy Fawkes mask used by Anonymous, the hacker organization — masks add an otherworldly dimension to our lives, and our very sense of self. Whether noble and good, hedonist and frivolous, or dangerous and even criminal, masks indicate that things may not be what they seem to be. Masks challenge our “auto-pilot,” distorting our perception and judgment, and introducing new parameters that let us deviate from preconceived notions and pre-assigned courses.
Putting on masks can embolden us to speak truth, as the fools did at medieval courts. Masks suggest we look and think twice, because there is always another reality, another life that is possible. This revelation, of one’s relative and tenuous position in the world, is a humbling one. We may ache for our unlived life. But this very humility is more authentic than anything else.
Is it a mask or is it real? is the driving question of all flirtatious interactions, of any hint of romance. This feeling of doubt, this unanswered question, is the doorway to hidden meaning. Likewise, a brand makes manifest the implicit. It serves as a mask for its leaders, employees, and customers. Referring to Georg Simmel’s concepts of secrecy and adornment, Sasha Newell writes in an article based on his field study of the use of global brands in Cote D’Ivoire: “Brands function much like masking practices, concealing even as they reveal, using the visible to hide/signify the invisible.” And further:
“The secrecy of what lies beneath the masked performance provides an unstable ambiguity in which it is always possible that the surface is that which it represents. Brands always contain this instability between appearance and the genuine, for all are ultimately copies whose uncertain authenticity we cover up with public secrecy.”
Masks allow us to be strangers, just for one moment. They let us be (business) romantics.
In a time in which search engines and digital platforms may know more about us than we know ourselves, putting on a mask is one of the last remaining ways to keep ourselves for ourselves. It is a very public act of demarcating our privacy. By masking, by pretending to be somebody else, we protect ourselves from the regime of complete comprehensibility. Let alone the perils of pervasive facial recognition, in light of which possessing more than just one facial identity is quickly becoming a human right.
I am not sure about you, but I don’t want to live in a world of full and permanent recognition, of absolute taxonomies. I don’t want to live in a world of radical transparency. I don’t want to hear only the naked truth. I don’t want to live in a world without masks.
This article first appeared in the Journal of Beautiful Business.
Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash
The Journal of Beautiful Business is the online magazine by the House of Beautiful Business, a global think tank and community for making humans more human and business more beautiful.
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