Being pretentious can be due to seeking social acceptance, status or admiration. But it hinders authentic spiritual living. Don’t you just smile when you see someone with a ludicrous beard, use unnecessarily long words, speak with a very posh accent or wear very uncomfortable way-out clothes trying to look trendy? Name-dropping is an another example of acting in a pretentious manner. It’s like saying “I’m important: look at the eminent people I know,” when all the name-dropper has done is bump into them somewhere.
But, sometimes, when you spot people putting on a false show, you have to keep your smile to yourself, for they may not agree they are acting in a stuck-up way: may not realise they are behaving as if they deserve more merit than they actually do.
You may remember the story of the Emperor’s invisible clothes. A vain ruler, who cares about nothing except looking good, hires two swindlers who promise him the best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is hopelessly stupid. The Emperor and everyone else pretends that they can see the clothes, not wanting to appear stupid. Then a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretense, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all.
Agreeing about when someone is being pretentious can be difficult without knowing the person. Even then there is usually an alternative reasonable explanation. After all, the whole point of pretending to be something one isn’t, is about misleading others and often this means also misleading oneself.
“To say you want to be a director is to risk sounding obnoxious, pretentious, arrogant, and I think women are more fearful of sounding that way than men are.” (Nicole Holofcener)
Why do we fear sounding pretentious and smile at people who do?
Wanting to get socially accepted by being pretentious
Teenagers are well known to be prone to pretentious behaviour. Perhaps it is their way of getting noticed, finding social acceptance and thus to avoid being ignored? For example a so-called poseur (or poser) is a pejorative term often used by those in the goth, skateboarding, surfing and jazz communities, to describe an individual who copies the clothes, speech, and mannerisms of such a subculture, who is thought not to share or understand its values and attitudes.
Wanting social status by being pretentious
What we can accept about youth, we might feel more critical of in older people who for example try to enhance their own status by adopting the fashion and tastes of a social elite: pretending to be something one is not. We smile when we see snobbish servants of the landed gentry portrayed in television sitcoms as ‘putting on airs’ in this way.
Another way of aping those of high status is thought to be through conspicuous consumption – buying luxury goods such as expensive clothes, jewelry, cars. The comical figure of Mrs Bott in the William Brown stories comes to mind. In the end it is sad that one might feel there is something to prove about oneself to avoid being looked down on.
Wanting to appear better than others by being pretentious
Perhaps we can more easily forgive those who indulge in what we see as pretentious behaviour because they want to be noticed, or socially accepted: or even if they do so because they mistakenly believe their fragile self-esteem can be enhanced through increased social status. After all we all try to manage the social impression we make on others – like at a first date, party or job interview to mention just a few examples.
However, others try to put on a false show in many situations to gain unmerited admiration. When they get away with it they will be popular and attract a following. They run the risk – if seen through for what they actually are – of coming across as egotistical, big-headed and shallow. Taken to extreme, wanting admiration can amount to seeking glory at the expense of others. Many brutal dictators are said to have lived in a fantasy where they are the heroes. Was glory-seeking not the motivation of Hitler, Mussolini and Napoleon?
Pretentious behaviour and spiritual development
According to many spiritual theories, the way to grow and mature is to learn how to be authentic in what one says and does. This means being more aware of your feelings and desires, strengths and weaknesses. In addition to being more honest with yourself, it also involves being honest about yourself with others. This can be quite a challenge because one can no longer pretend to be something one is not. Being a genuine person one acts in accord with what one truly values and wants rather than merely to impress others for the sake of your own ego.
Emanuel Swedenborg’s visionary experiences of a higher heavenly realm is filled with angelic people who do not think or speak from self-interest yet experience the sublime feelings of content, joy and peace. The way such individuals vary is seen in terms of the quality of their useful functions rather than any sense of social class, stigma, or fame carried over from the world. No concern about status there or worry how others may admire one. Just an interest in allowing the divine life to flow through one’s inner being.
For Swedenborg an angelic attitude is to have an authentic charitable heart.
“People with whom no charity is present ..if they say anything good it is for the sake of themselves or of one with whom they seek to curry favour under an outward show of friendship. But people in whom charity is present think nothing else than good of the neighbour and speak nothing but good, and this not for their own sake or that of him with whom they seek to curry favour, but from the Lord thus at work within charity” (AC 1088)
Copyright 2015 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author Heart, Head & Hands (https://spiritualquestions.org.uk/2012/10/heart-head-hands-ebook/)