No Jerks Allowed

5 Most Common Jerks You Are Likely to Encounter at Work

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Office life can have its ups and downs, but having to endure a jerk at work does not make the work day go by any faster.

Office jerks take on many forms. If you are wondering whether you are dealing with a jerk at work, here are five jerk profiles to help you identify whether your pesky coworker achieves jerk status:

The Bully:

This is probably the worst jerk of all, mostly because he/she is a character you thought you left behind in high school and would never have to encounter again. Unfortunately, many high school bullies become grown-up bullies, and you are left confronting them again in the workplace. Although the traits of these bullies remain the same – from badmouthing, to name-calling, snubbing, and being just plain rude – remember that you’re not in high school anymore, and stand up for yourself.

The Idea Stealer:

Don’t you hate when you have an excellent idea, share your brilliance with a friendly colleague, and walk into a meeting to hear your boss is congratulating your so-called “office friend” for the same idea?! Although unfortunate, some people just can’t think for themselves, or stand to see another person get all the glory. One redeeming thing: there is a strong possibility that this jerk can’t distinguish between a good idea and a bad one. So, somewhere along the way, slip in a really bad idea and let the jerk steal that.

The Brownnoser:

You know the type – always kissing up to management, asking for new assignments, inviting your boss out to lunch, and all around making you look bad. They are like the kid in class who would raise their hand as soon as the school bell rang. While listening to this person kiss up is bound to get under your skin, take solace in knowing that if you can see right through them, likely so can everyone else, including your boss.

The Know-it-all:

This person has an answer for everything – and we mean EVERYTHING – whether they actually know anything about the subject or not. Know-it-alls are pretentious, opinionated, bad at listening and believe something is true just because they happen to think it. The best way to deal with a know-it-all? Come to a conversation prepared with proven facts that will back up your opinion. Armed with hard figures, the know-it-all will have a hard time trumping what you have to say.

The Eternal Pessimist:

This Negative Nancy just generally has a bad attitude – about everything. You can often find them shooting down others’ ideas, refusing to see the bright side and feverishly talking about why things can’t be done. While there is usually no light at the end of the tunnel for the pessimist, try to change their view by explaining the ways you believe you can achieve success. Perhaps if they are able to visualize a few simple, actionable steps, they will feel better about the project at hand.

Jerk Story – Unfair Boss

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Reader Submission by Jill.

It was my first PR job and I was very young. I was thrown on a team that was very busy and full of type-A personalities – not unusual for PR. But the manager was a real jerk! Anytime something went wrong I had my hand slapped and if something went right she took all the credit! I’ve since learned how to better manage-up so I don’t have to deal with jerks like this anymore.

The Awful, Horrible Bosses Who Taught Me Everything

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The Awful, Horrible Bosses Who Taught Me Everything
By Edward Emerling
Transitioning – Retiring from Active Duty at U.S. Army

I know, I know… No one is ever supposed to publicly talk about how bad their boss is. After all, why would a potential employer want to hire you if it is at all possible that you might voice a bad opinion about them? Let’s get something straight right before I begin. Everyone has had a bad boss or ten. Everyone has talked to someone about their bad boss, although, maybe in confidence. Talking about bad bosses is a normal, everyday human activity. What I am not going to do here is use names, ranks, dates, or units that I was in. My intent is not to smear my bad bosses from the past. It is also not to cast the Army in a bad light. I’ve loved the Army enough to devote nearly 20 years to it. But let’s face facts – even the Army, an organization that prides itself on the leaders it builds, and has a right to because it builds great leaders, has some bad bosses in the ranks, and there are people that have worked for them. So my intent here is to convey to you, my beloved reader audience, the lessons I learned while being challenged by sub-stellar superiors.

To be fair, my bad bosses were not bad people. If they were just ordinary people, and not my bosses, it would be very easy for me to be their friends. I do believe I could knock back a few cold ones and shoot the breeze with the lot of them. I respect them for the people they are, and I wish them and their families the best in the world. They just weren’t great bosses, and now I am going to tell you why, and, what I learned from them. I’ve probably learned more important lessons from my bad bosses than from my good ones, although I’ve learned more lessons from the good than the bad.

The first bad boss I had was The Yeller. I get that some bosses yell from time to time. In the Army, many of the bosses yell much of the time, but that is a trend that is dying in this day and age. But The Yeller, he yelled ALL the time. I honestly don’t know how he wasn’t hoarse all of the time. I swear that he must have had extra voice boxes, and went through at least three a day. I was never quite sure why he yelled at me all the time, or other Soldiers either. I know it didn’t start until after I told him I didn’t intend on reenlisting a second time, but that may just be coincidence.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no marshmallow. I’ve been on the receiving end of plenty of tirades. Mostly, I see it as the last resort of a boss that doesn’t have a fix for a problem that has been caused, either by himself or someone else. Since The Yeller yelled all the time, I didn’t really know what the problem was. I could probably handle it if it was just yelling, but it was the things he yelled that really got to me.

At the time that I worked for him, I was still pretty young. I knew what I was supposed to know about the Army and my job, but I didn’t know everything. I could really have used a mentor at that time. Instead, I got yelled at for not knowing the things I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I also got yelled at for the things I did know, but didn’t know enough about. I even got yelled at for the things I knew, and the things I did well. There was also no shortage of abusive and profane words in these verbal assaults. He did have his way of letting me know when I did a really good job at something. He said nothing at all. Or, he might say something like, “I’m sure you’ll find a way to (foul) it up.” This was a compliment, and at times made me not unhappy.

The problem with The Yeller is that his leadership of me began to cause my performance to decline. Let’s use a logical flow here: If The Yeller yells when I do something bad, and The Yeller yells when I do something good, why should I put any effort into doing good things for him? I might as well just do whatever I wanted. I knew he wasn’t going to write a good performance review for me anyway. At least, I believed wholeheartedly that he wouldn’t. So I did whatever I wanted.

Let’s remember that this boss was many years ago. My own personal pride, self-esteem, and happiness would not allow me to perform that way again, no matter how much my boss verbally abused me. But I did learn some lessons from him, and here they are:

1. DON’T YELL ALL THE TIME.

If you do, your subordinates will just do whatever they want, since the consequences of all actions are identical. Yelling doesn’t solve anything. Once in a while, it might emphasize a point, but no abusive or profane words should ever be used. Usually, it either escalates into two people yelling, or it results in a team member who is too afraid of their boss to do a good job. The one thing I know for sure is it doesn’t solve the problem that someone is yelling about.

2. PRAISE IN PUBLIC; REBUKE IN PRIVATE.

I was getting yelled at in front of all my coworkers all the time. Even they began to devalue me. No one wanted to help me with my job. Nobody wanted to hang out with me after work. No one in the office wanted to be seen as friendly to me, because they might then become a target for The Yeller. I actually had people tell me, “I’d love to help you, but I don’t want to get on _____’s bad side.” If you dehumanize someone publicly, or in some way make them lose face, you will create an ineffective team member.

On the flip side, praising in public, and praising people every single time they deserve it, does the opposite of all those things. Your team will know that you are a grateful and appreciative leader, and will work harder for you.

3. EVERYONE HAS VALUE AS A PERSON.

This was a tough one to learn. I certainly didn’t feel like I was of equal value to anyone at the time. I had to realize that The Yeller couldn’t take away the people or things I loved and cared about in my life, and he couldn’t make them stop loving or caring for me. I also had to realize that it did me no good to say bad things about him, because he had people in the unit that cared about him. Although I felt he deserved the things I said to people about him, I’m sure when those words got back to him that they hurt him, at least a little. Nobody likes to have bad things said about them, especially by a subordinate. So I learned that even if I didn’t like my boss, I should keep my personal feelings to myself. Looking back, I should have made a professional complaint. But now I know better than to say bad things about anyone, because they are truly never justified.

The second bad boss I had was Mr. Do-it-all. Believe it or not, there are worse things out there than being micromanaged. Mr. Do-it-all was my boss right about in the middle of my career. He’s the guy that doesn’t think that his team can do the job to his standards, so he doesn’t even bother to micromanage. He just does everything himself. After a few months, I learned that it was a waste of my time to try to do anything, because even if I did, he would redo it his own way. Most of the time it was an exact duplicate of what I had done in the first place. The irony of it is that he would always complain to the members of the team that we didn’t do enough to help him. He cried constantly about how he could never take leave, because the team would completely fail in his absence. He never tried to teach anyone anything, because it was “just quicker to do it (him)self.”

Unfortunately for the team, all of our performance reviews suffered for this. We had barely anything to show for all the time spent at work. Of course, Mr. Do-it-all had a good performance review. Why not? He had done everything assigned to the team all by himself. I say that he had a good performance review, and not an amazing, or even great one. This is because the commander realized that none of his subordinates were picked to go to schools, none of them had received any awards during the rating period, none of them had been to a promotion board, and all of the other team leaders had subordinates that did do all these things. My boss’s team was stagnant, and the commander thought that although my boss was an amazing Soldier (and he was), that he was only an average leader (and he was).

Despite the fact that he made no effort to teach me anything while I was his Soldier, I still learned things from him. Here is what I was able to figure out for myself:

1. IF YOU NEED TO BE AT WORK ALL THE TIME TO SUCCEED, YOU HAVE ALREADY FAILED.

A team consists of a leader and a group of followers. We were not a team. We were one amazing Soldier and a group of good but less experienced Soldiers. My boss, the amazing Soldier, had yet to make the transition to amazing leader. I’m sure he got there someday, long after we had parted ways. But, it was too late for this particular group. The damage had been done. We could not function to do our mission without him, because he had made it that way.

2. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS BE TRAINING YOUR REPLACEMENT.

It almost seems counter to one’s own job security, doesn’t it? But in today’s corporate world it isn’t, and I am happy to explain why. When people stayed at a company for 40 years, a subordinate who could do your job better than you was a threat. Management might see fit to have you and your subordinate swap roles. This is no longer the case. If you are learning your boss’s job (as we will talk about in the next section), and you have trained a suitable replacement, then both of you might get to move up. Or maybe not. If the subordinate you have trained is now also very good at what you do, in today’s business world, he may leave for another company. Or, your company might give him a pay raise to entice him to stay and wait for a position to open up where his new skills will be an asset.

There is the added benefit that if you have a team member that can do your job as well as you, you will actually be able to take days off. It will also help your performance review if your team members accomplish great things, and it will help their reviews if they are able to act in your absence.

3. IF YOU’RE NOT TEACHING, YOU’RE NOT LEADING.

Oh, how the fervent workers desire the crumbs of knowledge for nourishment! There are some people who are happy doing the same exact thing day in and day out for 50 years. Some, but not many. True professionals are always looking for a new idea, an edge, something to gain, some new way to do things. They are eager to embed lessons learned into their heads, so they don’t waste time repeating the mistakes of those who have gone before them. For a leader to store up a wealth of organizational knowledge in their head and not share it with subordinate members of the organization is a waste. Once the leader leaves, all the knowledge goes with them. At that point, the organization must spend time, money, and resources teaching those people what they paid the leader who left to teach them.

The third bad boss I had was Mr. No-show. This guy doesn’t last long in the private sector, but they are much harder to be rid of in the Army. Everyone knows the type. He would admonish you if you were 10 minutes late, but he’d never know it because he shows up 20 minutes late himself, if he shows up at all. Many times, he’ll show up for a short time in the morning but always has some personal matter to attend to that requires him to leave. Or he leaves for a meeting that is scheduled for 10 a.m. at 8:50. When all the other people at that meeting come back to their regular work areas, he is somehow 30 minutes behind them. When he is at work, he is so dis-engaged, he doesn’t get any work done anyway. Half of the time, he’s asking his team members what is going on for the day, or the week, or whatever. Oh that thing? You’ll have to handle that because he has to take his daughter to the dentist that day. When you check in with him at 4:30 p.m. to get final instructions for the day or do a daily sync, he isn’t in his office. You look out the window into the parking lot, and you see nothing but rubber tire marks in his parking spot.

But what’s this? It’s 9 a.m. the next day, and he’s calling all the team members together. He is not satisfied with the performance of the team because he heard about some things that didn’t get done because the First Sergeant was telling him all about it in the office this morning. What things didn’t get done? You’ll never know. Mr. No-show had a whole list when he came back from that meeting yesterday, but he forgot to pass it on to the team. Now Mr. No-show is taking plays out of The Yeller’s book for the next 2 hours. And you and the rest of the team better get all those missed tasks done, because he’s taking leave for the next two weeks starting tomorrow, and he doesn’t want to be bothered.

Although I spent more time sitting in his chair than across from his desk, I still learned the following things from him:

1. LEARN HOW TO DO YOUR BOSS’S JOB.

First of all, you never know when you might have to. This one might be obvious to Soldiers in combat, but maybe less obvious to other occupations with fewer fatal hazards. Even if you have a great boss, emergencies and unexpected events occur. Your boss may have little or no time to do a proper continuity or succession brief with you. If you already know how to do his job, you’ll be the hero by picking up where he left off. And if you are filling in for Mr. No-show, it makes it easier for the company to give him the heave-ho, and put you in his place, either as an interim job or even permanently. This ultimately helps your team as well.

2. ALWAYS ASK YOUR BOSS HOW THE MEETING WENT.

Communication is the key to success in any organization. I know, not exactly a watershed moment, right? But the reason you hear it so often is because it is so true and so critical. Bosses like Mr. No-show are often disengaged in the workplace, and either don’t know enough to communicate important information, or just don’t care enough to do it. Even good bosses sometimes get caught up and forget to pass on info. Sometimes they are upset and preoccupied with what happened in the meeting. Other times, they come straight out of the conference room and someone blindsides them with something completely different before they can brief the team. Then, they end up forgetting altogether.

3. LEAD BY EXAMPLE.

This one is also taught by doctrine, and is no doubt in every leadership book ever written since the beginning of time. It never really sunk in until I worked for Mr. No-show. The funny thing is, although I had great team members, they all started turning into mini-Mr. No shows. The later he would come in, the later they would come in. The more apathetic he was to the mission, the more apathetic they were. It was like watching rats fleeing a sinking ship. At this point in my career, I was too advanced to let it happen. I gathered the team together and demanded that all the shenanigans stop. The team reached a mutual agreement to recommit themselves, and drive on despite Mr. No-show.

If you want your team to be 10 minutes early, you have to be 15 minutes early yourself to make sure they are there. You have to be able to complete their tasks in their absence. Since you’ve become the boss, you might have lost a proficiency point or two, but you can still get the job done. You have to be able to keep the team informed, and adhere to company policies. If you make a mistake, hold yourself accountable the same way you would hold your team members accountable. You will gather much respect for yourself as a leader in this way. The leader you are is the leaders you will make.

There are hundreds of lessons I could recount. These are just some of the more memorable ones from some of my most challenging times. Just because you have a bad boss doesn’t mean you can’t overcome the challenge. It doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them. At the very least, you should know how not to become them.

As I said before, my intent here is not to smear anyone, or complain, or cast my organization in a bad light. I have respect for all my bosses as people, and for every example of a bad boss I have cited here, my organization could put up thousands of great examples. My only intent is to show that no matter what your superior-subordinate experience is, you can always take away a positive lesson. In fact, I have one bonus lesson that may help some of you that find yourself challenged right now in one of the same ways I was: NO ONE STAYS WITH THE SAME BOSS FOREVER.

Jerk Story – Rude Driver

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Reader Submission by Sarah.

Pulling into a sushi restaurant for dinner the other night we were waiting for a parking space patiently as someone else pulled out. We were on the far side of the spot with our blinker on and had waited for the spot for more than a few minutes as the person was pulling out. Out of no where, a car pulls into the lot and sits waiting on the opposite side of the spot. As the person in the spot pulled out they floored it and stole the spot knowing we were waiting. So we did what anyone would do — blast the horn, gesture wildly and yell at this arrogant and oblivious person so they knew what a jerk they were. Things got awkward when we both ended up at the bar waiting for our tables to be ready. He eventually came over and apologized for being out of line and offered to buy us a drink (we declined). But really??? Who does that when you are going into the same (small) restaurant?

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Soda Jerk Vs. Just a Jerk

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Jerk Story – Immature Coworkers

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Reader Submission by Amanda.

When I think about Jerks in the workplace, I think about the last job I had where I was surrounded by immature coworkers. The women were constantly fighting with one another and always seemed to treat others without any respect. On many occasions a small group of women would plan a lunch outing and specifically exclude others. Then they would flaunt the fact that they went out together and make others feel left out on purpose.

They would jump at the chance to call out the faults of others and would rather tattle to upper management than attempt to teach a coworker how to do something the right way. There were quite a few situations where a couple women would steal ideas of others and attempt to take credit for it. They would intimidate the others so that nobody would complain or else they would be sorry. It was a real case of mean girls.

You probably think these women were freshly out of college and new in the workforce, but this was not the case! These were women in their 40s & 50s that acted worse than high school girls. I am very happy that I am now surrounded by coworkers who are nice to everyone. It makes such a big difference to like the people you work with.

Jerk Story – Poor Customer Service

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Reader Submission by Scott.

I just dropped my son from our auto insurance policy and our rates went up. When I called the insurance company they had no reasonable explanation for the increase other than “it is what it is.” After reaching a supervisor, the best they could offer was bringing the rate back to our prior level. What Jerks! Time to look for another provider.

The Essence Of Jerkitude

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Source: The Week
The essence of jerkitude
If it seems that everyone around you is an idiot, you may be a jerk
By Eric Schwitzgebel, Aeon Magazine | June 29, 2014

PICTURE THE WORLD through the eyes of the jerk. The line of people in the post office is a mass of unimportant fools; it’s a felt injustice that you must wait while they bumble with their requests. The flight attendant is not a potentially interesting person with her own cares and struggles but instead the most available face of a corporation that stupidly insists you shut your phone. Custodians and secretaries are lazy complainers who rightly get the scut work. The person who disagrees with you at the staff meeting is an idiot to be shot down. Entering a subway is an exercise in nudging past the dumb schmoes.

We need a theory of jerks. We need such a theory because, first, it can help us achieve a calm, clinical understanding when confronting such a creature in the wild. And second — well, I don’t want to say what the second reason is quite yet.

As it happens, I do have such a theory. But before we get into it, I should clarify some terminology. The word “jerk” can refer to two different types of person. The older use designates a kind of chump or an ignorant fool, though not a morally odious one.

The jerk-as-fool usage seems to have begun as a derisive reference to the unsophisticated people of a “jerkwater town,” that is, a town not rating a full-scale train station, requiring the boiler man to pull on a chain to water his engine. The term expresses the traveling troupe’s disdain. Over time, however, “jerk” shifted from being primarily a class-based insult to its second, now dominant, sense as a term of moral condemnation. It is the immoral jerk who concerns me here.

I submit that the unifying core, the essence of jerkitude in the moral sense, is this: The jerk culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers. This failure has both an intellectual dimension and an emotional dimension, and it has these two dimensions on both sides of the relationship. The jerk himself is both intellectually and emotionally defective, and what he defectively fails to appreciate is both the intellectual and emotional perspectives of the people around him. He can’t appreciate how he might be wrong and others right about some matter of fact; and what other people want or value doesn’t register as of interest to him, except derivatively upon his own interests.

SOME RELATED TRAITS are already well-known in psychology and philosophy — the “dark triad” of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy. But my conception of the jerk differs from all of these. The a–hole, the philosopher Aaron James says, is someone who allows himself to enjoy special advantages out of an entrenched sense of entitlement. That is one important dimension of jerkitude, but not the whole story. The callous psychopath, though cousin to the jerk, has an impulsivity and love of risk-taking that need be no part of the jerk’s character. Neither does the jerk have to be as thoroughly self-involved as the narcissist or as self-consciously cynical as the Machiavellian, though narcissism and Machiavellianism are common enough jerkish attributes.

The opposite of the jerk is the sweetheart, who sees others around him, even strangers, as individually distinctive people with valuable perspectives, whose desires and opinions, interests and goals are worthy of attention and respect. The sweetheart yields his place in line to the hurried shopper, calls an acquaintance with an embarrassed apology after having been unintentionally rude. In a debate, the sweetheart sees how he might be wrong and the other person right.

The moral and emotional failure of the jerk is obvious. The intellectual failure is obvious, too: No one is as right about everything as the jerk thinks he is. He would learn by listening. And one of the things he might learn is the true scope of his jerkitude — a fact about which, as I will explain shortly, the all-out jerk is inevitably ignorant. Which brings me to the other great benefit of a theory of jerks: It might help you figure out if you yourself are one.

Some clarifications and caveats. First, no one is a perfect jerk or a perfect sweetheart. Human behavior varies hugely with context. Different situations (sales-team meetings, traveling) might bring out the jerk in some and the sweetie in others.

Second, the jerk is someone who culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him. Young children and people with severe mental disabilities aren’t capable of appreciating others’ perspectives, so they can’t be blamed for their failure and aren’t jerks.

Third, I’ve called the jerk “he,” for reasons you might guess. But then it seems too gendered to call the sweetheart “she,” so I’ve made the sweetheart a “he” too.

All normal jerks distribute their jerkishness mostly down the social hierarchy, and to anonymous strangers. Waitresses, students, clerks, strangers on the road — these are the unfortunates who bear the brunt of it. With a modicum of self-control, the jerk, though he implicitly or explicitly regards himself as more important than most of the people around him, recognizes that the perspectives of those above him in the hierarchy also deserve some consideration.

Often, indeed, he feels sincere respect for his higher-ups. Perhaps respectful feelings are too deeply written in our natures to disappear entirely. Perhaps the jerk retains a vestigial kind of concern specifically for those whom it would benefit him, directly or indirectly, to win over. He is at least concerned enough about their opinion of him to display tactical respect while in their field of view. However it comes about, the classic jerk kisses up and kicks down. The company CEO rarely knows who the jerks are, though it’s no great mystery among the secretaries.

BECAUSE THE JERK tends to disregard the perspectives of those below him in the hierarchy, he often has little idea how he appears to them. This leads to hypocrisies. He might rage against the smallest typo in a student’s or secretary’s document, while producing a torrent of errors himself; it just wouldn’t occur to him to apply the same standards to himself. He might insist on promptness, while always running late.

Embarrassment, too, becomes practically impossible for the jerk, at least in front of his underlings. Embarrassment requires us to imagine being viewed negatively by people whose perspectives we care about. As the circle of people whom the jerk is willing to regard as true peers and superiors shrinks, so does his capacity for shame — and with it a crucial entry point for moral self-knowledge.

As one climbs the social hierarchy it is also easier to become a jerk. Here’s a characteristically jerkish thought: “I’m important, and I’m surrounded by idiots!” Both halves of this proposition serve to conceal the jerk’s jerkitude from himself. Thinking yourself important is a pleasantly self–gratifying excuse for disregarding the interests and desires of others. Thinking that the people around you are idiots seems like a good reason to disregard their intellectual perspectives. As you ascend the hierarchy, you will find it easier to discover evidence of your relative importance (your big salary, your first-class seat) and of the relative idiocy of others (who have failed to ascend as high as you).

The moralistic jerk is an animal worth special remark. I see in myself and all those who are not pure sweethearts a tendency to rationalize my privilege with moralistic sham justifications. Here’s my reason for trying to dishonestly wheedle my daughter into the best school; my reason why the session chair should call on me rather than on the grad student who got her hand up earlier; my reason why it’s fine that I have 400 library books in my office….

The moralizing jerk is apt to go badly wrong in his moral opinions. Partly this is because his morality tends to be self-serving, and partly it’s because his disrespect for others’ perspectives puts him at a general epistemic disadvantage. But there’s more to it than that. In failing to appreciate others’ perspectives, the jerk almost inevitably fails to appreciate the full range of human goods — the value of dancing, say, or of sports, nature, pets, local cultural rituals, and indeed anything that he doesn’t care for himself. Think of the aggressively rumpled scholar who can’t bear the thought that someone would waste her time getting a manicure. Or think of the manicured socialite who can’t see the value of dedicating one’s life to dusty Latin manuscripts. Whatever he’s into, the moralizing jerk exudes a continuous aura of disdain for everything else.

Furthermore, mercy is near the heart of practical, lived morality. Virtually everything that everyone does falls short of perfection: One’s turn of phrase is less than perfect, one arrives a bit late, one’s clothes are tacky, one’s gesture irritable, one’s choice somewhat selfish, one’s coffee less than frugal, one’s melody trite. Practical mercy involves letting these imperfections pass forgiven or, better yet, entirely unnoticed. In contrast, the jerk appreciates neither others’ difficulties in attaining all the perfections that he attributes to himself, nor the possibility that some portion of what he regards as flawed is in fact blameless. Hard moralizing principle therefore comes naturally to him.

HOW CAN YOU know your own moral character? You can try a label on for size: “lazy,” “unreliable” — is that really me? More effective, I suspect, is to shift from first-person reflection (what am I like?) to second-person description (tell me, what am I like?). Instead of introspection, try listening. Ideally, you will have a few people in your life who know you intimately, have integrity, and are concerned about your character. They can frankly and lovingly hold your flaws up to the light and insist that you look at them. Give them the space to do this, and prepare to be disappointed in yourself.

Done well enough, this second-person approach could work fairly well for traits such as laziness and unreliability, especially if their scope is restricted: laziness-about-X, unreliability-about-Y. But as I suggested above, jerkitude is not so tractable, since if one is far enough gone, one can’t listen in the right way. Your critics are fools, at least on this particular topic (their critique of you). They can’t appreciate your perspective, you think — though really it’s that you can’t appreciate theirs.

To discover one’s degree of jerkitude, the best approach might be neither (first-person) direct reflection upon yourself nor (second-person) conversation with intimate critics, but rather something more third-person: looking in general at other people. Everywhere you turn, are you surrounded by fools, by boring nonentities, by faceless masses and foes and suckers and, indeed, jerks? Are you the only competent, reasonable person to be found?

If your self-rationalizing defenses are low enough to feel a little pang of shame at the familiarity of that vision of the world, then you probably aren’t pure diamond-grade jerk. But who is? We’re all somewhere in the middle. That’s what makes the jerk’s vision of the world so instantly recognizable. It’s our own vision. But, thankfully, only sometimes.


This excerpt is taken from an article available in full at
Aeon Magazine (aeonmagazine.com, Twitter: @aeonmag).

 

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