Not All Popular People Are Jerks (And Not All Unpopular People Are Nice And Accepting)

This quick article isn't going to have a life-changing impact on your social life. At most it will tweak your thinking about a small topic and make you look at some other people in a more balanced, realistic way. It's one of a few to argue that you don't have to love or take part in certain aspects of the social world, but it can hurt you if you hold simplistic, bitter beliefs about them.

A common idea in society is that quote-unquote popular people, especially ones in high school, are shallow, status-obsessed, and mean-spirited. A related belief is that so-called less popular people know what it's like to be misunderstood and picked on, and are all nice, accepting, and down to earth. If someone isn't that popular themselves it's easy to see why these messages may appeal to them.

The truth isn't as tidy. Sure, some popular people that fit the stereotype of the douchey, catty, exclusionary bully. Sometimes they even gather in one nasty clique. But plenty of popular types are friendly, good-natured, and open to getting to know many kinds of people. Just because they happen to have some traits or skills that give them status in a certain setting doesn't automatically mean they have awful personalities. Some popular people get where they are, and hold onto their position, through Machiavellian scheming. Some are terrible people, but get a free ride because they're hot or good at some sport half the town is obsessed with. But others are looked up to because they're genuinely likable.

Similarly, you can find your share of jerks in less-popular circles. Just because someone is supposedly lower in social status doesn't mean they're a saint. In some cases they're not well-liked specifically because they toxic qualities. Sadly, some people who have been bullied even become bullies themselves. Their bullying may come in a different flavor than that of the rumor spreading cheerleader or meathead rugby player, and it may not have as much sting in all cases, but it's still harmful.

I know I'm building to a predictable point, but try your best to judge everyone on their own merits. If you come across someone who has a bunch of "popular" qualities, don't instantly assume they're vain and obnoxious, or that they'd never want to talk to you. If you find yourself in a "lower status" group and it seems like they're subtly picking on you, don't feel you have to stick with them because the media says every less-popular person has a heart of gold.

That's the main message of the article. Here are a few more thoughts about the topic:

A popular person isn't necessarily a jerk just because they don't want to be friends with you

There's no excuse for true bullying. However, sometimes more popular people are seen as jerks just because they aren't interested in talking to or being friends with someone. It can hurt to be rejected this way. To cope with those feelings some people try to write off the person who turned them down. As long as they're not rude about it, people have the right not to be interested in a friendship. A popular student may not hold any ill will toward a less-popular classmate, but feel they don't have anything in common and wouldn't get much out of spending time with them.

"So this article is saying everyone should care about being friends with the popular crowd?"

Nah. Like the intro said, its goal is just to help you look at popular people in a more nuanced, less-wary way. While the "popular group" can hold a mystique, for many people there's not a ton of point in trying to hang out with them. If they could befriend them they'd realize they don't share much common ground. Not in a "Aha! They're vacuous after all!" way, just that they'd be a better match with other groups.

"Isn't the concept of popular and unpopular crowds a high school mentality?"

For sure. The idea of popular and unpopular circles is mainly a high school concern. It might partially be due to how people think about their social lives at that age. It's also a side effect of putting a bunch of people in a closed-off environment where everyone more or less knows what everyone else is up to. (And even if social status concerns peak in high school, many students aren't totally mindless about it. They realize it's not a cut-and-dry distinction between Popular and Unpopular. They know most people fall into the middle, or go about their days not worrying about where they are on the totem poll.)

After high school who's in what crowd becomes much less relevant, if you ever cared about it to begin with. Some colleges have high school-like social dynamics, but most have too many students doing too many different things for people to keep track of each other, let alone obsess over what everyone's spot in the pecking order is. Some adult workplaces, social scenes, rec teams, or hobby clubs can be cliquey too, but many are mellow about each member's relative status.

It's more that even if they're done with high school, some people hold on to that black and white, Popular vs. Unpopular, 'Popular people are bad' worldview, and it subtly hampers the way they relate to everyone. Like when they're in their mid-thirties they may still be dismissive of their new coworker because he seems like he was a popular jock when he was younger.