There are a few possible motives for the common tendency of people to try to impress each other. The first is a desire for gain. If you impress an investor, you might get money from him, and if you impress a beautiful woman, you might get a date from her. But this does not explain all attempts to impress others. People try to impress their friends who are already willing to help them, and they even try to impress strangers who they meet in passing and who they will probably never see again.
I take Uber rides fairly regularly, and I sometimes strike up a friendly conversation with my driver. Many of them are interesting people and good conversationalists. When they ask me about my life, I think I am honest. I have a normal life and no great wealth, and I more or less tell them as much, describing my normal job and unremarkable pursuits. When I ask about their lives, however, I often get a description intended to impress, but one that frankly strains credulity. Recently, a driver told me that he only drove Uber for fun, but that really he ran a successful company that just closed a deal worth $28 million, and several other huge deals besides. Another chauffeur told me that he was a producer for successful and nationally acclaimed hip-hop artists. Most of them try to paint their driving as an unimportant “side hustle” that complemented their other highly impressive accomplishments.
I have never tried to verify any of the stories that these drives have told me. It is conceivable that each of the many Uber drivers who have told me about their enormous accomplishments are unfailingly honest, straight-as-an-arrow pinnacles of integrity. But I doubt it. Besides my gut feeling that my drivers were exaggerating greatly or outright lying to me, there is only room in the economy for a certain number of CEO’s of huge multinational corporations. Only one in a thousand people at most could be the CEO of a corporation with a thousand employees, since the other 999 must be his employees. Only a similarly small proportion of people can by producers of hit music, since hit music requires millions of daily listeners, and there are not enough hours in the day for fans to listen to the songs produced by any more than a tiny fraction of the world’s musicians. Which is not even to mention the difficulty of believing that a successful millionaire would take fares on demand for a few dollars an hour. Aren’t there other ways for millionaires to have fun (or earn money)?
After having these experiences during Uber rides, I was pleasantly surprised to find that Samuel Johnson himself had had similar experiences. He wrote incisively about the tall tales he heard in stage coaches – the Ubers of their day. I encourage readers to look up Johson’s full remarks in The Adventurer, No. 84. He said that in these stage coaches, among strangers who could not verify or falsify their stories, “all assume that character of which they are most desirous, and on no occasion is the general ambition of superiority more apparently indulged.”
Johnson describes that at the beginning of the journey, as all the passengers sit facing each other, they were “all employed in collecting importance into our faces, and endeavouring to strike reverence and submission into our companions.” He goes on to describe the stories they told, one man describing his friend, a duke, another describing huge trades he conducted on the stock market, and another implying that he was a friend of important judges. But of course each was exaggerating his importance and social station. The duke’s friend was really the duke’s butler, while the stockbroker and judges’ friend were both lowly clerks at the bottom rung of the social ladder.
The characters that Johnson describes do not seem to lie outright, but rather to make strong implications based on their associations. I would call this “name dropping,” one of the most common ways to try to impress others. I am reminded of a pithy comment by Nassim Taleb, who said “the opposite of success is not failure, it’s name dropping.” As I understand it, Taleb believes that part of true success is being comfortable with one’s self, and at peace with who one is. The need to name-drop indicates a psychological insecurity that indicates one has failed to be at peace.
Johnson gets at the heart of why his stage coach acquaintances were misrepresenting themselves to try to impress. He wrote “Every man deceives himself while he thinks he is deceiving others.” Since we humans are social animals, and since we tend to be unsure of ourselves, we depend on the esteem of others to form our opinion of ourselves. When we feel like a failure, we often try, not to become a success, nor to convince ourselves to like ourselves better for who we are, but to deceive others about our lives and find in their admiring eyes a reason to think that we really are worth admiring. We judge ourselves based on the reflection we see in the gazes of our peers, and if we have to artificially improve that reflection, then we do, in order to judge ourselves more highly.
To me, it is sad that these Uber drivers (and stage coach passengers) feel a need to pretend to be something that they are not. Driving a taxi or an Uber is an honorable way to earn a living, and there is nothing shameful about it that one should try to hide. Each of us should ideally be able to find some way to like and respect ourselves enough that we don’t need to deceive like this. We should be able to look through clear and honest eyes and still like what we see.
Johnson bemoans the foolishness of these deceptions:
“I could not forbear to reflect on the folly of practising a fraud which, as the event showed, had been already practised too often to succeed, and by the success of which no advantage could have been obtained; of assuming a character which was to end with the day; and of claiming upon false pretences honours which must perish with the breath that paid them.”
The striking similarity between Johnson’s experience in a stage coach and my own experience in a series of Uber rides is compelling proof, if any was needed, that human nature does not change over time. Technology changes, the particulars of fashion change, some aspects of our social context change, but the human heart is the same as it was in Johnson’s day or in any previous century: prone to vanity, wont to deceive, but worth loving nevertheless.