Importance? Of? Being?!
January 9, 2020 9:26 PM   Subscribe

My friend and ex, whose opinion I value a ton, has referred to me multiple times as "earnest" as a defining character trait. I feel like I'm not totally getting what she's saying. What does earnestness REALLY signify, in this Year of our Goddex 2020?

You can go ahead and answer without considering snowflakes, but if you'd like them: '

I mean, I understand the dictionary definition of earnestness. I think she's saying this kindly and with fondness. But I'm bothered on another level not quite grasping what about my approach to the world or life or interaction or whatever is noticeably earnest relative to others?

For reference points, I'm definitely somebody who thinks about Big Questions of Life and Meaning a lot (for better or worse, often worse), isn't good at stuff like shitposting or very ironic modes of communication (though I think I'm playful and stuff too!), is dispositionally pretty trusting and hopeful (though also a realist and chronic worrier), etc.

In addition to the kind of self-deprecating feelings this brings up in me, I also am genuinely curious to understand this better, as I sort of suspect it might be helpful in figuring out where I fit in communities and the like. It's something I'd like to own in myself, if I can wrangle it. Thank you!
posted by elephantsvanish to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
"I also am genuinely curious to understand this better, as I sort of suspect it might be helpful in figuring out where I fit in communities and the like."

If it is helpful for the fundamental "what does earnest mean" question in your post, the above is a wonderfully earnest sentence in a wonderfully earnest post. And if it is helpful for the more existential question underpinning your post, earnestness is a goodness that is rare in a time where guile and filters are more in vogue. Hold on to it, pursue it, lean into it.
posted by suncages at 9:48 PM on January 9, 2020 [31 favorites]

I'm going to approach this obliquely by pointing you at a comment made years ago about Fred Rogers, a man who was arguably one the most earnest figures of the 20th century.

It's long, but it gives a lot of context about what our culture expects from people and how being earnest fits into that (or doesn't).

Pastabagel on Fred Rogers
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:02 PM on January 9, 2020 [6 favorites]

Someone earnest is sincere and eager and genuine. I’d say it’s very positive. I suppose it could include a hint of naïveté or youthfulness.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:38 PM on January 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

Caveat, I'm British, so I maybe using these words/understanding these social interactions differently, but... when I say "Earnest" I mean "Exhausting".

Earnest people, to me, are the over-serious or over-keen people who do not know how to create a low-stakes, relaxing interaction.

Usually they come in two types, sometimes combined:
They are people with a genuine passion or concern for changing society or understanding it, which might be focused on a particular topic (e.g environmentalism) or general (e.g. caring about Big Questions). What makes them Earnest/Exhausting is that they just. won't. stop. They don't get social cues that people don't want to talk about their thing right now, or that their questioning and analysis is making other people feel uncomfortable or bored.

The other type - and when I think of this I immediately think about several Americans I know/work with - are the people who are just incredibly serious. As someone used to engaging in the world in a relatively sarcastic or jokey way, I constantly end up having to rejustify or explain myself to these people. E.g. I'll say 'haha perhaps we should just eat the rich' and they'll say 'oh no AFII I do not think that cannibalism is an ethical approach' and I have to say 'no no no it was a joke' and they say 'what's funny about cannibalism' and everyone feels uncomfortable.

I don't think Earnest is something people are so much as something other people feel in their company.
posted by AFII at 12:11 AM on January 10, 2020 [31 favorites]

Two things:

1. Internet strangers will never be able to explain to you what your friend means with the use of that word. You should ask your friend because only your friend can give you the answer you seek.

2. One of my friends got married last year. He has told me that his partner is the most earnest person he has ever met. The phrase “wonderfully earnest” was employed. In the US, at least, there are plenty of people who lean sarcastic, ironic, and/or glib. Personally, I enjoy the sincerity of earnest people, and clearly my friend was entirely smitten by his partner’s earnestness.
posted by Bella Donna at 12:20 AM on January 10, 2020 [19 favorites]

When I hear someone described as earnest or use that description myself, it usually refers to a manner of communication and assumes a like mind set behind it. It's someone who generally says what they mean, are direct about saying what they think in reasonable circumstance, and tends towards a somewhat narrow perspective. Earnestness in that way is something of an antonym for a multivalent personality, where what is expressed and embodied can carry more than one meaning at the same time.

That's what allows earnestness, in its less positive sense, to be considered dry or somewhat dull, but what can also make it pleasing for its steadiness and responsive certainty in what's being said, but it lacks some of the spark of excitement in interaction and personality of multivalence, where one doesn't always know what to expect from the other person and where the communication can have more play or spark between the speaker and listener as the ground isn't set and has more looseness and an openness to it that earnest communication can lack. There's little question about what an earnest person means, which is often good, but isn't necessarily as much fun, intriguing, or sexy as multivalent communication, which is more the language of flirting and much of the arts, among other things.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:52 AM on January 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

I can definitely relate to AFII's description, but I don't think that earnestness is always a negative judgement. I am also a jokey, sarcastic person -- but not all the time. I consider different modes of conversation to be appropriate for different occasions, levels of closeness, etc..

I have found it frustrating to interact both with people I consider overly "earnest", as described, and people who go too far in the opposite direction -- people who are always wearing a mask of ironic detachment, and never drop it to have a straightforward, serious conversation.

I'm sure I get this wrong sometimes in my own behaviour, and it's one of my major sources of (usually retroactive) social anxiety.

So... too much can be a bad thing, but I think just having the quality is part of being a normal and balanced person. I agree that we can't really know what your friend meant.
posted by confluency at 2:22 AM on January 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

Possible antonyms for "earnest" might include "trivial", "ambivalent" and "smartarse".

Here's an earnest answer to your earnest question: there are (imo) three levels at which you can understand your own experience. At level one, you're just instinctively doing your innate thing, without regard to whether it's successful or appropriate - it's pretty much the only thing you know that exists, and it's certainly the only thing you know how to do. At level two, you've become aware that there are different ways to go on, and at least in principle you have a choice amongst them - even if you can't always see a way to choose another. At level three, you have free choice amongst a set of plausible responses, and you elect to present this or that response according to your judgement of how it's going to work out.

Aside from a few irredeemable cases who are stuck forever at level one, I think most adult humans are mostly trying to get from level two to level three. But, level-two me is aware that this is a super-earnest and possibly over-literal or simplistic approach, and maybe some hypothetical future level-three version of me would consider it pretty naive.

Don't know if any of that resonates, but it's roughly how I understand my own earnestness.
posted by rd45 at 2:53 AM on January 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

Completely agree with AFII and Confluency here but I am also UK based and I think that here there is a sense that being too sincere about anything is embarrassing and a bit uncool. When I hear the word 'earnest' it creates a picture of someone humourless, someone who is focused on big questions of right and wrong and with whom it is not really possible to have a relaxed interaction.

BUT PLEASE do not assume from me, an Internet Stranger, that this is what your friend meant. There are a lot of cultural nuances around things like this.
posted by unicorn chaser at 2:56 AM on January 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

Context: I think there‘s a huge cultural difference in the perception of earnestness the US vs the UK/Europe. In the parts of Europe I know (I‘m German and lived in the UK for a while), this personality trait is perceived as a bit odd and/or exhausting. Irony/sarcasm is the standard mode, even among people who don‘t know each other very well. In the US I know (I‘ve lived on the West Coast and in the Midwest), earnestness is more standard and usually welcomed. Personally I experience the two as just a different communication styles, with advantages and drawbacks.

Earnest communication is more welcoming to outsiders (you don‘t need to know the in-jokes/twists of irony) and more efficient. Ironic communication is more layered and manages to convey nuances and contradictions. It is about creating an in-group, which can be a positive, depending on the situation (ie sarcastic colleagues can feel empowered towards shitty management). Of course it can also exclude in a negative way.

To someone used to ironic communication, earnestness can seem cold/detached. My impression is the reverse is true as well (sarcasm perceived as cold by some).

Ultimately, Irony as well as earnestness can be tools to build intimacy in relationships - or perceived as offputting. It really depends on social context (and temperament, of course. But ‘naturally’ sarcastic people will tend to tone it down in environments that value earnestness).

In the US, at least, there are plenty of people who lean sarcastic, ironic, and/or glib.
Not my experience as a European. Biting everyday sarcasm which is standard at every German (or UK) bus stop does not exists in US everyday life. The urban East Coast seems somewhat more open to ironic/sarcastic communication styles, but still has nothing on the UK.
posted by The Toad at 3:59 AM on January 10, 2020 [16 favorites]

I agree very much with The Toad's post. I'm Australian and have lived in the U.K and Germany and travelled extensively in the US. Part of the reason North Americans come accross so friendly is because they aren't using cutting insults as a form of every day conversation including as terms of endearment. It can be brutal. I've stepped in before when one lone person was looking hurt and puzzled because they just didn't know what to make of it and we needed to tone it down.

OP if you are in North America (or your friend is from there) then I think earnest is a lovely adjective to use to describe you.
posted by kitten magic at 4:40 AM on January 10, 2020 [8 favorites]

To my ear: when someone tells you directly that you are earnest it sounds slightly belittling. It's fine if you're listening to a speech someone is giving about you to a group of people who have assembled to honor your contributions to society. But if I heard someone telling my friend [x] that they think of [x] as more earnest than most people, I would think they were labeling [x]'s various character traits as a kind of wide-eyed, slightly (over) ingenuous orientation toward a world they perceive more cynically and--in their view--realistically.

NB: I am practicing writing long complicated sentences.
posted by Morpeth at 5:00 AM on January 10, 2020 [3 favorites]

I'm American (living in the Midwest-ish but predisposed to NJ/NY communication styles from my upbringing, still find the whole Midwest thing kinda bewildering honestly, WHERE'S THE IRONY) and I have a few friends I would potentially describe as earnest if prodded, though it's not the first word that jumps to mind. I would mean it in a complimentary way and I would mean something like - sincere, kind, and forthright.

A few specific qualities I'm thinking of, though they may or may not be what your friend is referring to.
- The people I have in mind tend to take things at face value, assuming that what is said is what is meant, and saying what they mean. They tend to assume the best of people, long past the point where I would have written someone off as a jerk.
- They tend to value kindness extremely highly as an interpersonal value (which has, in turn, taught me to value it more highly myself, for which I am eternally grateful; my earnest friends make me a better person and enrich my life in a way I can only hope I also do for them)
- They are definitely funny and playful, but in a slightly different way than many of my other friends which I think mostly boils down to the irony/snark/sarcasm factor.
- When they offer something they mean it, which sometimes blows my mind; I don't think Earnestness generally actually maps onto good old Ask/Guess culture in a direct way, but to an extent with my specific friends Earnestness and Ask-ness seem to have some overlap. My earnest friends would not, I think, offer something fully expecting me *not* to say yes, and then be startled on having to actually carry through with the thing. They have learned to speak Guess with me for my sake, but it's not their native tongue, and I try to meet them partway with my rough understanding of Ask.
- They tend to have had some bad experiences where they were taken advantage of in some way for these exact qualities, which inspires a strong protectiveness in me that I do my best to squish down because they are grown-ass adults who can handle themselves even if *I* want to kick anyone who would try to take advantage of my friends' trusting nature. But it does mean that once in a while I do find myself nudging them along the lines of, "Hey, [this situation] sounds like [this other thing where someone was a jerk], and if you don't want to put up with that I'd help you brainstorm some ways to stop it" or whatever.
- They are better than many of my other friends at closeness and emotional intimacy, lacking or choosing to do without a layer of protective distance.
- When they love something they let you know it and they are excited to share it; there's very little playing cool about things. Which is a quality I love and started to find my way back to in my late thirties - why SHOULD I play cool about the things I love, why SHOULDN'T we all want to share beloved and interesting things with our loved ones? - but my more earnest friends seem to have never lost it in the first place.

I don't in any way experience my earnest friends as more exhausting or harder to relax with than my other friends. It has, perhaps, taken a little more work in the early stages of a friendship to learn how to be a good friend in return. This is in no way a bad thing except to my friends who had to put up with a bunch of my detached ironic whatever until I figured out that was not what they responded to or needed from me.
posted by Stacey at 5:06 AM on January 10, 2020 [24 favorites]

Oh, one other thing that might be worth thinking about that some of the others have touched on but maybe isn't completely explicit. Earnestness might come to mind as much in how one responds to others as in how one communicates, if you find people often having to tell you, for example, they were just kidding or teasing you, that can work in much the same way as speaking in earnestness in how others may think of you as communication is a shared process. Being thought of as earnest might be that one is seen as generally favoring one wavelength of communication rather than the fuller bandwidth.

This would be the same for someone thought of as frivolous but on the opposite end of the spectrum. If the feeling is that you engage with others in a somewhat set manner, then people might note the consistency itself and feel they need to respond accordingly when they engage with you. Earnestness in that sense can be a relative virtue for its clarity though perhaps not quite as immediately pleasing as finding someone who is able to adapt to the communication patterns of the other party.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:41 AM on January 10, 2020

I get told I'm earnest occasionally. It means sincere, open, direct, passionate/intense, perhaps naive (sometimes the people saying it mean they feel protective of me, which is ridiculous in the sense that although I'm direct and trusting, I can read the room when others are not). Sometimes there's a side order of "can't take a joke."

But I am struck by the implicit insecurity and hurt in your question. Being sincere, open, direct, intense, and assuming the best of people are not negative traits. The reason I behave in this way is not that I am incapable of being indirect, passive-aggressive, ironic, or cool, but because I think the world has enough of those things, and I find them interpersonally annoying and exhausting to interact with myself. A "friend" using an ambiguous term like "earnest" when an insult is meant (naive, stupid, exhausting, uncool) is being a dick.

It sounds to me like your friend is baiting you and trying to exploit your sensitivity over your personality. I'd say, "Yes, well, you're bitter and cynical, so I'll stick with earnest," and move on.
posted by shadygrove at 7:00 AM on January 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

For me, earnestness is an entirely positive trait. I agree with Mr. Rogers as an example of an earnest man.

Decades ago, I read an article saying that the two most influential factors on the late 20th century (and not for the better) were Playboy and Mad Magazine. Playboy taught people that it was ok to put personal sexual pleasure above everything else, and Mad Magazine convinced us that making fun of something, going for cheap laughs, was the highest good and that absolutely nothing should be treated as serious or sacred. Mad Magazine is the opposite of earnest. I know I’m outing myself as an old fogey here, but treasure your earnestness. The world needs that more than it needs yet another person feeling superior because it’s so easy to make fun of what others hold dear. There’s nothing wrong with being like Mr. Rogers.
posted by FencingGal at 7:53 AM on January 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

I'm in the US and I'm usually pretty earnest and this is how I see the trait in positive and negative ways....

- Sincerity - I'm not great with irony and so what I say is usually taken pretty much at face value. This can be tough when I ammaking a joke or trying to be ironic but overall, it's okay
- Appropriateness - I live in a rural area where there are more people with this trait so I think I fit in okay, it's hard to go wrong with an average person here but just being really up front. On the other hand, when I go to a city, I get overwhemed.So much encoded communication! I am not sure I get all the jokes.On the internet I often have some goto people who will explain jokes to me because I often find them bewildering
- Righteous - the topic I am earnest about is LIBRARIES and CIVICS and so it's pretty easy to work that into a conversation without seeming like "Oh hey let's talk about my hobby/interest" since it fits in a lot of ways. If I were earnest on another topic like, say, some narrowband thing like exotic sushi preparation it would not go as well
- Quaint - people sometimes think I am a little dim in terms of human interaction because I am trusting and easily teased. On the other hand, I'm pretty comfy in my own skin and okay with this, so I kinda think it's on themif they want to make fun of my sincerity?
posted by jessamyn at 8:22 AM on January 10, 2020 [8 favorites]

To me, an earnest person is one who is willing to be caught feeling what they're feeling. It's an attractive trait because it invites mutual disarmament. The earnest people in my life are the people with whom it feels safe to be earnest.

When one is frank, one's very presence is a compliment.
posted by aws17576 at 8:33 AM on January 10, 2020 [6 favorites]

To me, it means a combination of: sincerity, a lack of guile, intensity. Kind of a warm seriousness about things. An earnest person is a person who cares. A person who gives many fucks. I find non earnest people exhausting.
posted by millipede at 8:43 AM on January 10, 2020 [5 favorites]

I am a person who had to unlearn being shitty and sarcastic (family of origin) and ironic and detached (gen x) and eventually tipped over to fully-earnest because so much of my human interaction is not face-to-face and the failure mode of clever is asshole, information gets distorted when wrapped in in-group code, and I work with or care about enough people for whom language nuance (for linguistic reasons, or audio processing difficulties, or neuroatypicality that makes parsing the extra layers of intangibles really challenging) can be difficult to interpret.

Some people hate it or devalue it because they hate feelings and prefer a throughline of semi-consensual emotional abuse/trauma bonding because it reduces the risk of rejection or any other feelings and it feels good when everyone is miserable together. Some people get it and understand where you're coming from even if they're mostly code-switching to get along with you.

Like Jessamyn observes, I'm also too trusting that people actually mean what they say - how absurd, right?? - and find teasing really shitty and painful, directed at me or other people, because I don't spend every moment thickly armed for this battle. I will absolutely bat my eyes and say "I don't get it?" to people being mean or racist in order to make them say the quiet part out loud, but my secret (apparently?) is that it's not really because I don't get it. It's mostly because I'm shocked and appalled.

It probably wasn't specifically meant as an insult when said to you by a trusted friend, but it probably came from a perspective that you are the oddball for not participating in the "normal" sport of being kinda awful to everyone and yourself at all times.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:53 AM on January 10, 2020 [12 favorites]

I'm earnest. I value being earnest. To me, it's very much in the realm of what others (generally in the US) have said above. It's about sincerity. It's about questioning orarguing in good faith. It's about not being disingenuous. It's about caring more about being honest than about being clever or funny or cool.

I'm also funny. Occasionally clever. (OK, rarely cool.) But those people who say that earnestness is exhausting admit that they're coming from a place (geographically or emotionally) where, basically, the performative (ooh, sarcastic!) is valued over the genuine. (AFII's thing about people not recognizing that "Eat the Rich" in the Rousseau manner, like someone not getting "eat the babies" being Swiftian satire, seems more like performative cluelessness. Like Lyn Never's example about dealing with racism, the people in AFII's example are finding a more polite way of trying to say, "your joke wasn't funny or situationally appropriate, so we're going to act like we don't get your joke so that you'll get that, in this situation, that's not cool, dude.")

A note about being "exhausting." In college, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, my gang consisted of six guys, and me, the lone woman. I was earnest. One of the guys was like me. Most of the guys were uncool-ish, lightly sarcastic engineers. But one of our guys, definitely the most clever, the most glib, and the most deeply emotionally damaged, turned every single interaction into an opportunity for him to be cruelly funny. HE was exhausting. But he was no doubt the coolest of us, until, eventually, he wasn't.

Eventually, he pushed things over the line a little too often. Women broke up with him for being mean. Friends broke up with him for being mean. And the people in our group stopped making excuses for him when he'd say things that were hurtful, because they got tired of seeing people hurt so that he could make "funny" points. He was bitter, and he couldn't allow for people to behave in a genuine, kind, non-bitter way because it went against everything in his reality. If people like me could be genuine, intense, serious about serious things, and caring, then it blew his notion that the way he was brought up -- and the way he behaved toward others -- wasn't the only way. And he didn't like it. Now he's still bitter in his 50s. His lovely, very earnest wife left him; his teen kids don't feel like they can tell him important things because he'll make jokes out of their lives. HE is still exhausting.

Obviously, my old friend is an extreme case. But my point is that I'd rather be exhausting in my kindness and sincerity and not be all that entertaining than to live every day, every moment, being sarcastic and risking hurting someone.

I don't know your ex; you do. Since you sense it was said lovingly, I'd embrace that. As for the communities you fit, I'd say it's any community where someone's values are, well, valued above their entertainment value.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 11:19 AM on January 10, 2020 [7 favorites]

Being earnest makes you potentially powerful. You might have the strength to convince others, to shine yourself, even to effect change. This is also why earnest people are ridiculed: perhaps they are not capable of achieving these things, or (more often) people reject the change they bring. Cynicism is knowing, comfortable and easy. Earnest is exploratory, challenging and deep.

I think the best people wear cynicism over their earnestness, like a cloak. That's probably a cultural thing (I'm British).
posted by einekleine at 11:47 AM on January 10, 2020 [2 favorites]

I think of earnest as across the color wheel from cynical. And that can feel like not-quite-a-compliment because cynicism is often seen as cool/humorous/edgy/woke/sophisticated.
posted by kochenta at 12:52 PM on January 10, 2020

For me, "sincere" refers to an instance; "earnestness" is the trait of being sincere all the time.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 2:16 PM on January 10, 2020

I always associate earnestness with the phrase "s/he is too pure for this world." It is always a compliment.
posted by mostly vowels at 4:57 PM on January 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

FWIW I use "earnest" to mean kind and sincere, but in a slightly exhausting way. This is on me, not them. For example, I have friends who are genuinely enthused about nearly everything. This is good for them. There is nothing wrong with it. They're happy people. On the other hand, I'm pretty subdued and don't get excited easily. Most things are just okay, and that's fine. Not everything is the best all the time. But when faced with someone who thinks everything is amazing, I feel bad that all I can manage is a polite smile.
posted by airmail at 6:43 PM on January 10, 2020 [1 favorite]

I define it as being serious and honest in a helpful way. If I was going to describe those qualities as being annoying I would say someone is over-earnest or just annoyingly earnest. I'm from the US.
posted by Melsky at 2:11 AM on January 11, 2020 [1 favorite]

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