Don't Be A Low-Grade Jerk
One way to do better in social situations is to not be a jerk. That may seem way too obvious to write a whole article about. You may be thinking, "Of course I'm not blatantly rude and unpleasant to everyone." Odds are you aren't a full-on douchebag. They exist - we've all met them - but they're relatively rare. Most of us know better than to be like that.
What's more common are people who can act like jerks in a more subtle, mild way. Often they aren't fully aware of how they're treating people. That's what the article focus will be on.
What's a low-intensity jerk like? They're friendly enough, but they pepper their interactions with a few more cutting jokes, critical comments, or needling behaviors than average. They don't do anything so rude that you'd want to stop and call them out, but you can come away from hanging out with them with a sour taste in your mouth. You may not feel anything is wrong on the first meeting, but after getting to know them their behavior starts to wear on you.
Maybe you're thinking, "This site is about working past social awkwardness. I thought the stereotype was that socially awkward people were meek, sensitive victims; that everyone was mean to them, not the other way around." Some people do fall into that category, but not everyone with social problems is an angel. There's even another archetype to account it: the snide, abrasive guy who scoffs at your taste in video games.
It's worth considering whether you have some jerkish tendencies that you show without realizing. If you can identify and cut down on them you'll do that much better in social situations. It's not realistic to expect perfection. We're all human and are jerks sometimes. However, if you work at it you can change from someone who's habitually unpleasant, to someone who only slips up occasionally.
It's not that if you're nicer to people everyone will flock to be friends with you. That's not what happens when you only have an absence of a negative trait. If someone wants to hang out with you it will be for other reasons, like whether you share a similar sense of humor and interests. That you're nice is just a bonus.
However, being a slight jerk can cost you. If you unthinkingly make a passive-aggressive comment to someone you just met, they may excuse themselves and write you off as a potential friend. Someone you've been getting along with for a few weeks may start to distance themselves once they notice how faintly hostile you are to everyone. Even jerks can hold on to longer-term friends, but those relationships won't be as good as they could have been. Your friends may begrudgingly tolerate your behavior, but keep you at arm's length. One day they may decide they've had enough and stop inviting you out. Or put it another way, even if you get away with being a douche to everyone, with no personal consequences to speak of, you're still causing other people unnecessary pain. Is that the kind of person you really want to be?
With the main "Don't be a subtle jerk" point made, the next sections of the article will cover common jerkish behaviors, some reasons people act like that in the first place, and how to change your ways if you realize everything I've been talking about describes you.
Common jerkish behaviors
There are dozens of ways to be insulting, undermining, and purposely irritating to people. I can't list them all, but here are some examples:
- Making overly-cutting jokes, under the flimsy pretense of "I'm only kidding around"
- Purposely giving backhanded compliments (e.g., "Wow, you look great when you actually put effort into your appearance!")
- Purposely doing things you know will annoy someone (e.g., putting your feet up on their coffee table, when they've told you not to)
- Showing subtle contempt for someone's opinions, behaviors, or sense of humor (e.g., slightly rolling your eyes whenever they talk about a certain subject)
- Subtly trying to set someone up to be embarrassed (e.g., egging on a friend to ask someone out you know will reject them)
- Being casually critical
- Pointlessly sharing potentially hurtful information ("I eventually changed my mind, but I thought you were really boring when I first met you")
- Discussing someone's flaws with other people in front of them like they're not even there
- "Jokingly" trying to sabotage someone (e.g., trying to embarrass your friend while they're talking to their crush at a party)
- Purposely trying to get someone to talk about a subject that upsets them
- Trying to get your friends to join in on making someone your punching bag
- Playing semi-mean pranks
Telling whether you've gone over the line
Some of those behaviors are clearly rude and disrespectful, if only a little. Others fall into that blurry territory where it's hard to tell if someone did them with mean-spirited intentions or not. Like many friends playfully tease and bug each other, and don't mean anything bad by it, even if they occasionally go too far.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to help figure out if a grey area behavior may be hurtful:
- Honestly, what were your intentions and motivations when you acted that way? Did you make that joke about your friend's bald spot because you like them and wanted to make them laugh, or because you got a little thrill from picking at someone's insecurity?
- How did the other person react? Did they seem amused? Irritated? Did they put on a forced smile to seem like a good sport? Did they literally tell you your comment was mean?
- How would you feel if someone did the same thing to you? Would you appreciate it if every time you talked about your hobby, your friend made a show of looking bored?
- How do you feel about the person you're directing your comment or behavior toward? Do you see them as an equal buddy? Do you respect them? Do you think they're a bit of a joke, and not sure why they're part of the group? Do you have no patience for their worldview?
- Do you only act that way toward a certain person or type of people? Like do you only give backhanded compliments to the weakest person in your social circle, but would never dare say anything like that to the more assertive members?
- Is your goal to cause negative emotions in someone, like irritation, embarrassment, or anxiety? Even if you think you're just messing around or playing a prank, the fact you're trying to create unpleasant feelings is a sign you're in jerk territory
- How would you feel and act if someone told you you were being a jerk and asked you to stop? Would you feel genuinely sheepish and apologize, because you really didn't mean to hurt their feelings? Would you smirk and dismiss them for being too sensitive?
Some motivations behind people's jerkish behavior
Again, there are tons of reasons someone may choose to be subtly insulting, disrespectful, or grating. I'll only list some of them, with a focus on reasons socially awkward people may act this way.
Here are some reasons someone may have good intentions, but accidentally act like a jerk:
- They've got all-around unpolished social skills and accidentally do little things to offend people (e.g., they come across as more mean and arrogant than they realize while disagreeing with someone; they truly never learned most people don't appreciate having their flaws matter-of-factly pointed out)
- They act off-putting when they're feeling socially anxious, as an unconscious way to try to make the interaction end
- They've got a poorly-tuned sense of humor. They honestly don't mean to upset anyone, but just misjudge their jokes sometimes
- They're using a style that may have been appropriate in their old social circle, but doesn't fit the current situation (e.g., Their previous buddies used to tease each other mercilessly, and everyone was okay with it. Their new friends think their jokes are cruel)
- They never shed their younger tendency to be meaner (e.g., they're in their early twenties and haven't realized people don't casually insult each other the way they might have when they were fourteen)
- They're out of touch with how people see them (e.g., a guy thinks he's charmingly abrasive because he "tells it like it is"; most people think he's obnoxious)
- They have a very logical, fact-oriented personality, and have no ill-will when they criticize someone or point out their flaws. In their minds they're simply correcting someone's error or unemotionally drawing attention to a fact.
And here are some less-healthy motivations. These can be conscious or unconscious:
- They're insecure, and try to feel better about themselves by putting others down
- They're insecure and expect to be rejected sooner or later, and act like a jerk to "get them before they get you"
- They see certain people as a threat or competition, and try to undermine them
- They've been bullied in the past, and are trying to reclaim a sense of power by picking on people themselves
- They're generally unhappy, and think they'll feel better if they can make other people miserable too
- They're trying to elevate their position in the group by lowering someone else's
- They're mad at someone, but feel they can't confront them directly, so they make plausibly-deniable passive-aggressive jabs instead
- They've been rejected and excluded in the past, and enjoy being in a position where they can do some rejecting and excluding
- They've got a false sense of superiority, and show it by being belittling, critical, and dismissive
- They've absorbed the idea from society and the media that the way to be popular and high-status is to act douchey
- They believe that if they don't respect or agree with someone they have to attack them. They can't just do their own thing, and let other people do theirs.
- They're a bit more sadistic than average. We've all got a mildly sadistic side, which comes out when we laugh at videos of cats being startled, or play dumb pranks like pushing all the buttons in an elevator. Some of us aren't psychopathic murderers or anything, but get too much of a kick from insulting or messing with people.
- And some people are mean-spirited for no discernible reason. That doesn't mean they can't change though.
What to do if you realize you can be a low-level jerk?
So you've read up to this point and have a sinking feeling you may sometimes be more of a jerk than you realize. The good news is you can act differently. Here are some suggestions:
Commit to behaving differently - A lot of your jerkish behavior may be an unconscious habit. You may be able to change your ways just by being aware of the problem and trying to treat people better.
Monitor your behavior - To be able to stop your jerk tendencies, you first have to know what they are and how they work. For the next few weeks pay closer attention to how you are around people. Note the times you act like a low-key jerk, as well as when you want to, but stop yourself. Once you tune into it you might be shocked at how often you pick at a certain friend, or feel compelled to be critical whenever a particular topic comes up.
Think on whether a certain type of person triggers your jerkish behavior - Is it people you feel threatened by? People you see as easy targets? People whose opinions annoy you? People you're close to, who you assume have to put up with you? People you don't know, who you don't think matter?
Think on whether certain mental states trigger your jerkish behavior - Do you tend to be more obnoxious when you're... Grouchy? Insecure? Cocky? Trying to impress someone? Drunk? Envious? Convinced you're right?
Try to figure out your reasons for being a mild jerk and work on them - For example, do you resent people who you see as having it easier than you, and take it out on them in the form of catty comments? Do you need to work on your overall self-esteem? Is your sense of empathy underdeveloped, which causes you to misjudge how your jokes will land? Do you have a misguided sense that insulting people who have the wrong political beliefs will make the world a better place?
Before you do anything, ask how you'd feel if someone did the same to you - This test doesn't doesn't always work - maybe you'd have no problem being on the receiving end of a cutting joke - but it can stop a lot of jerkish behavior at the gate.
If you want to point out someone's flaw or mistake, ask yourself if it's really necessary - There are times where it's appropriate to bring up people's shortcomings or mistakes, like if you want to help them or they've acted badly and you're standing up for yourself. But most of the time there's no point to it. Like if a friend's wearing a new outfit that's slightly unfashionable in your eyes, do you really need to comment on it? If you do, is it out of a desire to help them look better, or because you'd love a chance to make them feel bad? Even if you do want to help, is making fun of them in front of everyone the best way to give constructive feedback?
Be more thoughtful about how you playfully tease people - I'd never say you should stop poking fun at people entirely. Done right, it's a way to be entertaining and affectionate. There are some tweaks you can make to ensure you don't accidentally hurt anyone's feelings. Try to tease people about their harmless quirks and foibles. Be much more cautious about ribbing them about things they can't change or may be sensitive about. You may even want to consider never teasing people about their appearance, ever, as that's too much of a minefield. Don't tease people constantly. Even if your jokes are funny and good-natured, it can be grating if you overdo it. Don't tease people about the same thing over and over. You may give them a complex. Finally, spread your teasing around. It's more jerkish to zero in on one person.