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GET REAL?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

THESE DAYS, IT'S fine to fake it.

OK, not if you're the guy Catch Me If You Can was based on -- the con man who pretended to be a physician, pilot for a major airline, attorney and teacher. And not if you're an athlete on steroids or a dean at a university falsifying a resume.

But women happily admit to getting their eyes done and wrinkles removed to look younger than their years, something they might have tried to hide just a few years ago.

Conversely, new furniture is beaten with chains and otherwise distressed to create instant antiques that are as popular as the real thing. No one is shocked to discover that you didn't find that sideboard in Grandma's attic.

Technology has made it easier than ever to fake it. With something as basic as call forwarding, you can answer your work phone from a park bench on a lovely spring afternoon. No one will be the wiser.

Now a new book has taken faking to the next level: Faking It: How to Seem Like a Better Person Without Actually Improving Yourself by Amir Blumenfeld, Neel Shah and Ethan Trex. It's meant to be funny; but while you're laughing out loud, you may find it's uncomfortably close to what people actually do.

"It's one step over the top," Trex says. "But the underlying logic is pretty applicable to most people's lives."

As the authors point out, it's not who you are, it's who other people think you are.

To his surprise, Trex, who is 24, found out that "everyone is very comfortable saying they do these things. It's more common than people realize. In reality, our parents and friends say they do this stuff, too. Especially the older ones in their late 50s."

Let's say, for instance, you know nothing about classical music. If someone asks who you think is the greatest composer of all time, the authors advise, answer either Bach or Mozart.

"Either choice is arguable and will hold you in good stead. You can't be effectively debated, and if someone tries, simply reply: "Mozart! [Or Bach.] There's nothing more to say!" (Another tip is "being dismissive to hide your ignorance.")

Or let's say you want people to think you're a handyman genius, even though you don't know how to use a hammer. Their own-one-tool solution? A cordless drill.

"You can spend less than a hundred bucks on one of these bad boys and you can drill a hole in whatever you want. Plus you can put together prefab bookshelves and tables in mere seconds with a screwdriver bit. This means that everyone will want for you to help with his lame Ikea purchases, and you'll become the 'guy who's good with tools.'"

How about telling your friends you're planning to run the New York Marathon? The training happens when your friends are in bed, the runners are chosen by a lottery system, and most don't get in. Just curse your bad luck when the time rolls around and say you weren't picked -- but you can bask in the glory for months before then.

Trex doesn't actually admit to having used any of the techniques himself, except that he has bought expensive brands of liquor and, when they're empty, refilled them with the cheaper stuff.

"Nobody ever notices," he says.

There are five situations, the book warns, where you shouldn't try to fake it:

1 / 3 Driving stick shift

1 / 3 Installing electrical wiring

1 / 3 Trick shooting

1 / 3 Piloting a commercial airliner

1 / 3 Delivering a baby

Amused but think it's a little farfetched?

Consider an article in the Wall Street Journal about office slackers who can manipulate their computer desktop from a hand-held. They open and close windows on the screen and move things around remotely. The boss passing by and seeing different screens might think they're in the office but away from their desk.

It's second nature Many of us these days resort to some form of benign cheating. You probably don't even think of it as faking it -- from touching up your photo on My Space to making a whole faux existence for yourself through Second Life, the online virtual world built and run by its residents.

And how about re-gifting, so common now it even has a trendy name?

Most of us consider pretending we agonized over the choice of birthday presents at worst just a little white lie. But some recent research suggests that people are "fundamentally motivated to lie," says Ty Tashiro, who teaches courses on interpersonal relationships at the University of Maryland College Park. "People are pretty effortless liars."

What's different today with the Internet, instant messaging and texting is that we don't have the pressure of facing other people. "It's easier to fake it," Tashiro says. For instance, the number of blondes and men with higher-than-average incomes on dating sites just doesn't correlate with society as a whole, as the book Freakonomics points out.

Technology has opened up whole new avenues of faux living. Mobile Faker (mobilefaker.com) is a subscription cell phone service aimed at image-conscious 20-somethings. It promises to provide you "with all the tips and tools you need to slay your social prey with only a cell phone as a weapon." Mobile Faker was launched originally on Sprint, but the company hopes to have a free version available on all carriers soon.

The company has an Instalife feature -- pictures of fake boyfriends, girlfriends, vacations and even pets you can download as wallpaper to impress others. They look as if you shot them yourself.

"I'm allergic to cats," says Jeremy Xavier, Mobile Faker's marketing director, "but I have a cute little photo of a cat on my phone that someone sent in."

The service offers rescue rings you can set up to get you out of sticky social situations. Having trouble ditching an obnoxious guy at a club? Run into the ladies room, text the message "faux call," and follow the instructions to choose the time and type of call. (There's a 99-cent charge.)

"Faking it is part of the zeitgeist," says Xavier.

Keeping up There's a Get Hip Quick feature on Mobile Faker that can answer such awkward questions for you as, "What are you listening to these days?" The service has a team of writers who spend their time reading blogs and watching TV to provide the latest information on subjects like music and sports you can skim before you go partying.

"There's just so much information out there," says Xavier, with the implication that no one could possibly be expected to know all, or even much of it.

It's true that in the Information Age it's hard to keep up. Enter The Week, a newsmagazine that digests hundreds of newspapers and other magazines. Read it and you can pretend you subscribe to several major metropolitan newspapers, are culturally savvy and know who Nicolas Sarkozy is. One section is even called "Talking Points."

Time magazine has a self-styled "Cheat Sheet" to guide you in your downtime. There's simply too much to see, do and read. Instead, peruse its "60 Second Synopsis" of a hot new book -- a sort of Cliff Notes for sophisticated adults.

Sometimes being OK with faking it slides over into something a little more disturbing. Take CollegeHumor.com's recently released survey on cheating, which polled over 30,000 students. Over half (61 percent) admitted to some form of cheating, while only 16.5 percent felt bad about it. Surprisingly, technology, which has made so much of today's finest examples of faking it possible, didn't play a huge part. The most popular form of cheating was looking over someone's shoulder.

elizabeth.large@baltsun.com

To see a rogue's gallery of famous fakers, go to baltimoresun.com / fakingit

Be the Person You Want to Be

Pretend you went to a great university. If you went to a small school no one's ever heard of, just name the state when someone asks, as in "North Carolina." They might think you went to, well, North Carolina.

Pretend you're a good host. Fill top-shelf liquor bottles with off brands when you finish them.

Pretend you're well read. Leave impressive magazines sitting around your apartment like The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The Economist.

Pretend that you're a gourmet cook, not living off Hamburger Helper. Constantly refer to complicated things you cook for yourself, such as Baked Alaska. Say, "If there was a fire in my house, the first thing I would save would be my balloon whisk. The second would be my saffron. The third ... I don't know, old family photos, I suppose."

Pretend you're good son-in-law material. When meeting the parents, don't voice any opinions. If they try directly to engage you, chuckle and say, "Well, that's a pretty complex issue. Now, who wants a brownie?"

Pretend to be cultured. Reading a book may take weeks, but rabbit-earing every forty pages takes minutes. You do the math!

[Adapted from "Faking It: How to Seem Like a Better Person Without Actually Improving Yourself"]

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