Unpleasant Truths on the Scourge of ‘Pleasanteeism’
#evolve Magazine
July 04, 2022

“Pleasantville” is not just a movie featuring Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon. It’s a place we go when we want to hide. It’s a bland smile, a “top o’ the morning,” a “nice to see you” — knee-jerk expressions that keep our interactions light and breezy, while masking what we’re really feeling or what’s really on our mind.

About three minutes ago, a new word entered my vocabulary: pleasanteeism. Like the term on which I assume it’s based — “presenteeism” — it refers to someone who appears to be all there, but is mentally and emotionally somewhere else. It’s projecting that you’ve got it together when things are falling apart. A new report, “Keeping up Appearances: How ‘Pleasanteeism’ is Eroding Resilience,” indicates that more than half (51%) of UK workers feel they’re under pressure to put on a brave face in front of their colleagues, which compromises their work and results in taking days off. Bear in mind that this is from the land of the stiff upper lip, so it stands to reason that, here across the pond, maintaining an outward appearance of control and composure can cause even greater strain and have more dire consequences.

But isn’t that as it’s always been? You’re going through a rough patch at home, had a bad night’s sleep, you’re tense and nervous and can’t relax … When you get to the office, you suck it up, put on your game face and get your work done. But there clearly is a difference between compartmentalizing — which is a way of characterizing the above — and feeling pressure to suppress deeper feelings of anxiety, stress and/or depression. The former enables you to clear the head space needed to focus; the latter can be immobilizing and can prevent those needing help from seeking it.

These days we talk about the “new work order,” and a changed business landscape, so when you hear a new word, you immediately assume it describes a new phenomenon. But the more I thought about it, I couldn’t shake the sense that pleasanteeism is not so much a new phenomenon as it is a new word describing well-established behaviors.

Could it be that more people in a post-pandemic world are heeding the call to bring their more authentic selves to work, which can be incredibly stressful when their more authentic selves are sad, lonely and unmotivated? After all, it takes a lot of work to fake it, and this can cause a high degree of emotional and mental dissonance. That may be part of it, but surely only a small part.

Finally, it dawned on me that the problem is not about “brave-face culture,” as it’s been called. Over these past two years, most of our business interactions have been conducted virtually. We painstakingly prepare our “Zoom room” like it’s a stage set, we see ourselves talking and gesturing, making us more aware of business meetings as performance. A 30-minute Zoom call can be exhausting, because it takes energy to make your conversation seem natural in the presence of a camera. It’s not so much the need to appear “pleasant” as it is the pressure to stay in character. It’s performance anxiety.

Even as we return to the office and put the webcams behind us — at least part of the time — we can’t quite turn it off: Our “actual” selves have become our performative selves, and we’ve become pretty good at faking it. But if my analysis is correct, the problem isn’t nearly as alarming as all the articles on pleasanteeism make it sound. No matter how well-developed your acting chops, you’re not exactly Daniel Day-Lewis.

You will break character, the mask will come off, you’ll be a lot less pleasant and everyone, yourself included, will be a lot better for it.




“A 30-minute Zoom call can be exhausting, because it takes energy to make your conversation seem natural in the presence of a camera. It’s not so much the need to appear ‘pleasant’ as it is the pressure to stay in character. It’s performance anxiety.“