Jean-Paul Sartre, Bad Faith, and “Who am I?”

“Let us consider the waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes towards the customers with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the client… All his behaviour seems to us a game. He applies himself to linking his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe.” (Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, pp. 101)

When we walk into work, you and I play a role, whether we realize it or not. We speak in a mild manner, avoiding any semblance of off-color remarks or topics that could be deemed sensitive — politics, social issues, etc. You generally won’t just strike up a conversation with a customer about Mike Bloomberg’s performance in the last debate, even if that’s what you feel like talking about. Instead, you say: “What can I do for you today? Do you want cream and sugar? Need a receipt?” and you do it with a kind, welcoming tone, as your coworkers do. Any small-talk with the customers normally involves the weather or whatever music is playing over the speakers; whatever inoffensive conversation that can be carried will do.

But what are we really doing here? We walk into work to put in our hours, clock out, and wait for the check. We don’t really care about if the customer wants a receipt, or how the weather’s been acting up for the past week. But we act as if we do. If we’re questioned as to why we act so nonchalantly, making coffee or breakfast burritos in a certain, upright manner, or talk to guests as if we’ve never heard contentious discourse before, we are likely to respond with something along the lines of: “That’s what I’m supposed to do. I’m a barista.” We are going through the motions, turning ourselves into a mechanic archetype of what a barista is and does.

This is an example of what Jean-Paul Sartre considers “bad faith”. This isn’t necessarily just about waiters or baristas. It applies to anybody who falls into bad faith, which is, seemingly, almost everyone. When you ask somebody who they are, they will answer with “I’m an engineer”, or “I’m a writer”, or “I’m a hardcore anarchist”. The problem with this sort of thinking is that these identities we attach to ourselves are not truly who we are, they are labels we give ourselves in a labelless existence. To Sartre, existence precedes essence. This is something that separates us humans from objects we are allowed to label. A knife, for example, had an “essence” before it was created. Somebody needed a sharp object in order for cutting things; thus, it was thought up, mapped out, and invented. A knife’s essence precedes its existence. With human beings, however, we are born with no set presumptions. Sure, our parents may have ideas about who we will be, but nothing is set. We are not born with a label. We are born free — only we choose who we can become. Certain factors come into play, of course — someone born without legs is more physically limited than those born with — but our limitations do not mean we are restricted to a label.

According to Sartre, we have a tendency to gravitate toward these labels because we’re attempting to avoid the reality of our existence. We are not simply a waiter or a barista, meant to do whatever waiters or baristas do — rather, we as human beings put ourselves into the situation we are in. When we think about the true possibilities we were (and are!) capable of, and compare them to our current situation, we can’t stand it. It makes us nauseous. We’d much rather place labels on ourselves and act as if we’re restricted to our roles. It gives us some sort of purpose.

So if we’re not what we say we are… Who are we?

To Sartre, this isn’t an answer that we can come up with. We have ideas about who we are, and the qualities that make up our personality, but the truth is that who we are is different from who we think we are. We can tell ourselves that we are good people, and we may very well believe it to be true, but somebody who knows us well, and observes us bullying others or stealing money from our friends’ wallets, can probably make a fair assumption to say that we are not good people. We don’t have secret access to our “true selves” as much as we’d like to think we do. Our lives are not measured by what we “must have been like” on the inside, rather how we acted, spoke, and behaved in the real world. We are what we do. When we tell ourselves who we are, we are already biased by Sartre’s notion of bad faith. You can tell yourself that you’re the 32nd President of the United States, but buddy, you’re no FDR, at the end of the day. It’s no wonder why we label ourselves so easily! We’d love to ignore the truth about our reality if our decisions and behaviors can be measured rationally by others. Again, we don’t have a set purpose for our lives — we are “condemned to be free”.

Then again, it isn’t always bad to be judged by others. We are generally insecure as to what others think of us and our appearance or behavior. Sartre claims that people may very well be thinking good things about us, admiring us as we do other people. The point is that we shouldn’t obsess over what people may or may not be thinking, because we can’t certainly know. That doesn’t mean Sartre thinks we should just fall by the wayside and just live without a care as to what people think — that, too, is a form of bad faith. There is no simple escape to the reality of our existence and what we make of it.

It’s important to remember that, above all, we must be honest with ourselves, our character, and our actions in order not to fall into bad faith. Sometimes, it can be brutal. We don’t like to accept the fact we can be rude to the Doordash guy when he shows up at the wrong address, or that we are innately jealous of our 6'7" friend who just dropped 26 points in a college basketball game while we worked a long, boring shift at Starbucks at 7 in the morning. It may feel like, at the end of the day, we really know ourselves better than anybody else, because we love to validate ourselves by making things up about why we’re in the situation we’re in. But again, as Sartre points out, we are what we do.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store