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Why People Are (or Aren’t) Such Jerks Sometimes

States of mind

The other day I was driving through the small city of Montpelier, Vermont when a guy in a parked car didn’t notice me coming up and tried to pull out just as I getting to where he was. I stomped on the brake and hit the horn, which got him to stomp on his break: accident averted. He immediately then waved me by, as though he had been waiting for me to drive around him and I was holding him up.

I thought “What? Don’t wave me by! I’m still making sure you don’t get us in a car wreck: I don’t need traffic direction from you!”

To my credit, I didn’t proceed the next logical step to “What a jerk!” Instead I immediately thought, “Come to think of it, he must be waving me by to cover his embarrassment at his driving goof.” In his place, I probably would have tried to communicate “Sorry!” in some way, but it’s not as though I’ve never make a dumb mistake while driving. He and I really weren’t that different; I just didn’t take to the way he dealt with embarrassment.

Why Not Just Call Them Jerks?
We know that people make mistakes sometimes, and at other times people (not you or me personally, obviously) act badly out of negligence or because they’re in bad moods. In such situations, why not call a jerk a jerk? There seem to be two good reasons not to.

First, if we really want to understand people–and therefore get a better idea of how to deal with them, what they might do next, and what’s really going on around us–it doesn’t help to dismiss their actions as just being due to some inborn quality. After all, what baby is born a jerk? Colicky, sure, but a jerk? And we ourselves always do things for a reason–habit, intention, encouragement, desire … so it seems reasonable to assume other people are coming from the same place. When understanding people in general, we’re likely to get much better results by labeling their behavior than by labeling the person. This is the difference between “He’s acting like a jerk” or “He made a bad decision” and “He is a jerk.”

Second, calling someone a jerk (or worse) is a broken idea (a.k.a., cognitive distortion), and broken ideas generally lead to negative emotions we don’t need and to bad choices.

Reasons Someone Might Be Acting Like a Jerk
Here are some of the main reasons someone might be acting like a jerk:

  • Stuck in a schema: Most of us developed at least some patterns of behavior as children that don’t help us as adults: these are called schemas, and they amount to a habit of having a particular kind of broken idea. For example, someone might feel they can’t trust others, or that they’re entitled to special treatment.
  • Fear: It’s easy to make bad choices when we’re afraid. Fear can be expressed as cowardice, avoidance, anger, and other kinds of negative emotions. There’s a certain school of thought that proposes that all negative emotions can be traced back to fear.
  • Shoulds: If a person gets it in their head that someone else should act a particular way, this is a recipe for trouble, since we don’t really control each other or even necessarily understand all of one another’s needs and conditions.
  • Bad habits: Developing a habit works the same way whether the habit is useful or a problem: a person does something consistently a particular way for a period of time until it becomes ingrained. So for instance, becoming friends with a master procrastinator in college and getting in the habit of blowing off studying with this person can create a procrastination habit even in someone not inclined to procrastination.
  • Tunnel vision: There’s a fine line between prioritizing what matters most and using one priority to block out all other priorities. Even the most important priorities, like protecting a child, can create problems if everything else is disregarded.
  • Bad good intentions: Sometimes people act like jerks out of kindness, honestly believing that what’s needed is a little more discipline, or the unvarnished truth, or good kick in the pants. Sometimes–though definitely not always–they’re even right.
  • Mislabeled jerkistry: Sometimes the jerk-like actions are all in our heads. For instance, if when that near-accident occurred the other day I had waited in the middle of the road an extra long time to maximize the other driver’s embarrassment, and if he had waved me on because of that, it would be me being the jerk, even though I might semi-reasonably have been casting him in that role because of his causing the near-accident. Sometimes we make people into something they’re not at all.

The joys of de-jerkifying
The benefit of thinking about the above list is that it immediately benefits mood to re-interpret a jerk-related incident as an understandable human shortcoming. Anger is a trap, and not always one that’s easy to get out of. If someone almost causes an accident, it doesn’t benefit me to be in a lousy mood about it all the way home, and it benefits me even less to get out of the car and start shouting at the poor guy. The ideal thing is to be able to immediate transmute that negative experience into a tiny bit of deeper understanding about other people. Applied vigorously enough, this approach can translate to some extremely gracious behavior, which benefits everyone involved. The would-be jerk might even go away thinking “Wow, what a nice person.”

Which means that the would-be jerk is labeling you, arbitrarily lumping you in with “nice people,” as though you didn’t have other qualities. Man, what a jerk.

Photo by (nz)dave

Note: This post is mainly about situations where someone else’s behavior is contributing to our own bad moods or poor choices. It’s not meant to address situations where someone is being abused and taken advantage of: in those cases, safety and well-being are much more important than finding a more generous perspective.

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