Those of you who have been reading my stuff for awhile know that I have a hard time not responding to people. When someone is shitty to me, I always want to say something back to them. It probably comes from a combination of being a natural communicator and my traumatic childhood, being forced to be quiet when someone was abusive to me.
This morning, The New York Times ran an article called “How to Deal With a Jerk Without Being a Jerk“. Written by Adam Grant, this is a story about how to react to people who are abusive and unkind. I’ve noticed that since social media has become the preferred method of communication, people are losing the ability to disagree gracefully and with civility. I am as guilty of that as anyone is, although I probably ruminate more on it than a lot of others do.
Take, for instance, yesterday’s post about that guy who called me out for busting on Donald Trump. I could have just smiled and told him to have a nice day. Instead, I turned his comments into a somewhat indignant post on my blog. I’ve read what I wrote over and over and wonder if that post was worth writing. Do people really want to read my thoughts on these matters? It seems like expressing myself gets me into more trouble than it’s probably worth.
I thought about ignoring the guy when I first saw his comment, but I felt compelled to respond. He took my comment as an “insult” when I wrote that he didn’t have to read my blog if it’s beyond his comprehension. I guess one could take that remark as an insult, but not being able to comprehend something is not necessarily a reflection of a person’s intellect. I’ve got a normal intellect, but I don’t comprehend Swahili or even most German. Doesn’t mean I’m dumb. Likewise, I wasn’t calling that guy “dumb” for not understanding my reasoning or not liking what I had to say. I simply advised him not to read my blog if it’s upsetting to him or “beyond his comprehension”.
I think about listening to my former landlady yell at me in my home as she lobbed accusations and blame at me, and how angry and overwhelmed it made me feel. When I first met her, she seemed nice. But then, when things went wrong, her response was to be verbally aggressive. I don’t respond well to aggression, particularly when it’s in the verbal form. I am saturated by too much verbal abuse from the past, to the point at which I want to respond when people are jerks, even if a response would be wasted time and energy and would only continue the cycle of abuse and negativity.
In his article, Grant writes “sometimes you’re stuck dealing with a certified jerk, someone who consistently demeans and disrespects others.” More than once, I definitely felt disrespected by my ex landlady. She scolded me as if I was a child, and wouldn’t listen to me, which is a surefire way to get on my shit list. It happened enough times that Bill asked her to leave me alone, which clearly upset her.
Mostly because of the disrespectful way the ex landlady communicated with me, I am left feeling angry and wanting to put things right. Somehow, she’s “learned” that yelling at people is the only way to get the results she desires. In this case, she wants us to pay full replacement price for an old awning that she did not have properly repaired. Instead of approaching us respectfully and hearing our side, she’s trying to rip us off by assuming we either don’t know or won’t stick up for our rights. More disrespect. I might have had more empathy for her position if she had been more understanding and less greedy. Now, I just want to verbally rip her head off… and I would love to write her a scathing email of my own. But that wouldn’t fix the problem and it would only beg a continuation of the abuse.
Grant continues, “research on the psychology of certified jerks reveals that they have a habit of rationalizing aggression. They’ve convinced themselves that they have to act that way to get the results they want.” Ex landlady probably feels that the only way to force us to pay for the awning is to shame us and illegally withhold our money. She doesn’t seem to be able to see things from our perspective, which makes me think she’s a jerk. I feel compelled to respond to jerks, but experience has taught me that it’s a losing battle. We did not directly respond to her latest email, although I suppose one could call my posts about this situation a response of sorts. Still, the temptation to respond directly to her lingers. I still compose what I’d like to say to her in my head. I know that saying those things directly would only give her more ammunition, so I keep quiet. Some people might consider that response cowardly. Others can see the wisdom in it.
Everybody has to deal with verbally abusive people at some point in their lives. Bill has had bosses who got off on humiliating him, one of whom was playing mind games with him in a war zone. Bill was married to a woman who walked all over him and treated him with utter disdain while she alienated his children and ran his credit rating into the ground. We lived for four years in a rental house owned by a verbally abusive person, paying her substantial rent every month while enduring her lack of respect for our privacy and inability to speak to us like adults. I grew up being abused and repeatedly humiliated by a man who often didn’t value me, even though he’s responsible for my being here in the first place. All of these interactions take a cumulative toll on a person. You get to a point at which you fell compelled to lash out, even when lashing out isn’t the best course of action.
I like what Grant has to say about dealing with jerks in a peaceful way. If you’re in a situation in which you must gracefully deal with jerks, particularly those who have some kind of power over you, there are two ways to handle it unscathed. “One is to decrease your dependence on [that person]. If you can minimize interaction, they can’t do as much harm. The other is to increase [that person’s] dependence on you. If they need you, they’re less likely to treat you like dirt.” If those measures fail, you can look at the situation philosophically. Grant quotes organizational psychologist, Bob Sutton, who advises, “Pretend you’re a specialist in jerks, and think about how you’re ‘really lucky to see this spectacular, amazing specimen.'” That approach probably wouldn’t do much more for me than help me crack a wry smile.
I am a natural communicator. I love writing down my thoughts. It helps me process things without causing a lot of damage. Some of what I write isn’t pleasant. Some of it is hostile and rude. I still try to be respectful when I respond to other people, at least initially. I find that when I’m not, it turns into an argument that causes me to stew for long periods of time… weeks, even. I know that sometimes my responses aren’t particularly “healthy”. I also know that there is discipline and wisdom in not responding… at least not right away. There’s an art to not being a doormat. Bill is learning how to be assertive without being aggressive. I still have a way to go in that department, although I’m trying. Taking the time to chill out and respond constructively can help one deescalate abusive situations rather than stoke them.
Incidentally, most of the comments on this article are about the controversial image used. For some reason, the powers that be at The New York Times decided to use a picture of a dog with a bandage wrapped around its muzzle. For me, the image works, but only because it’s not a real dog being pictured. Other people think it promotes animal cruelty and seem a bit triggered. Naturally, some of the comments are coming from jerks.