Love & Culture

If We’re All Just Faking Cultural Literacy, Can We All Just Stop?

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I am lying. I am lying constantly. And when I am not lying, I am feeling terrible for my honesty. No, I didn’t watch Mad Men on Sunday and what is wrong with me? No, I have not seen all of Breaking Bad because I am an idiot. I have not read the new Lydia Davis collection, which isn’t even new anymore — it was new in 2009, which is five years ago now, and I am still lying about it, because what kind of literate human has not read the no-longer-new Lydia Davis collection, the one that came out in 2009.

But the good news is that I am not alone. That is also the bad news: I am not alone, and we’re all lying all the time about everything, says Karl Taro Greenfeld, writing in the New York Times this weekend. “What we all feel now is the constant pressure to know enough, at all times, lest we be revealed as culturally illiterate.” And so we read our recaps and we refresh our Twitter feeds and our Facebook feeds and scan headlines and develop something like opinions  — not actual opinions, but things to say when it is our turn to speak in conversations. “It’s not lying, exactly,” Greenfeld argues, “when we nod knowingly at a cocktail party or over drinks when a colleague mentions a movie or book that we have not actually seen or read, nor even read a review of.” After all, “there is a very good chance that our conversational partner may herself be simply repeating the mordant observations of someone in her timeline or feed.” It is the blind leading the blind. We all saw that New Yorker article, we agree, but did any of us read that New Yorker article? “I’ve seen the cover of that” is a thing I have said, straight-faced. Like, the book jacket. I have nodded seriously and agreed that I, too, have witnessed a book jacket.

And while Greenfeld doesn’t mention dating specifically, it’s hard to think of a situation where this is more true: lying is almost reflexive, when you want someone to like you. A first date is the ultimate water cooler. If there is ever a time when it is easy to agree that Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 was brilliant even though you have not actually read 2666, it is nervously over pasta. And though I am loathe to make any assertions here — again, I am the person who bragged about having seen a physical copy of a book — I feel pretty strongly that the world (or at least, our conversations) would be better if we figured out a way to collectively stop. Or at least, cut way back. Baby steps.

The problem with lying — or “not lying, exactly” — is that we’re shutting ourselves off from having actual exchanges of actual opinions and actual information. It is absolutely possible, even advisable (fun?), to talk to people about things they know about and you do not know about. You ask questions. You listen. You bring in related topics, related topics that you do know more about. But when you lie, the conversation stops: you’re stuck with vague statements and emphatic nodding. There’s nothing to do but agree and wait for a new topic, because how can you argue? You didn’t actually read that Geoff Dyer essay. You don’t know what you’re talking about, and now you can’t ask any possibly-interesting questions, because what if you reveal you don’t know what you’re talking about? (That’s not to mention what happens when you pull it off successfully and have to fake it about Geoff Dyer for the rest of your relationship/life.)

Faking it isn’t going anywhere, probably. But at the very least, it’s worth experimenting with honesty. There is no intimacy, after all, so great as the admission that you have not read that Roxanne Gay novel/seen American Hustle/heard that one This American Life, but you’re curious what the nice person sitting across from you thought of it.