I've been reading some interesting books about organizational psychology, and the most recent was really rather delightful. It's Robert Sutton's The No Asshole Rule: Building A Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn't (2007).
I'm sure the title pretty much had you at "hello," but I'll tell you a bit about it nevertheless.
Sutton examines a prominent feature of contemporary life: the assholes among us, including--sadly--our very own selves. He acknowledges that, yes, it might be more polite and "appropriate" to call them "jerks," but the fact of the matter is, we all know what they are, and we all know what we call them.
So there it is.
Sutton argues that we all have the capacity to be one, at various times and under various circumstances. In effect, we're all what he calls "occasional" or "temporary" assholes, and he offers advice for getting the asshole within under control.
The larger and more toxic problem, however, are the "certified assholes." These are the people who don't have another operating system: they are (or have become) 24/7 assholes.
And we all suffer as a result, particularly if they happen to be in our immediate daily environment (Sutton focuses on assholes in the workplace, but obviously, his observations can extend outward into the world at large).
Sutton applies a two-pronged test for determining "whether a person is acting like an asshole":
1)"After talking to the alleged asshole, does the 'target' feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular does the target feel worse about him or herself?" (8)
2) "Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?" (8, emphasis in original)Simply put, if they always make you feel like crap and never pick on someone their own size, they're probably a certified asshole.
Sutton then offers a list of "The Dirty Dozen"--everyday behaviors that assholes regularly use as part of their social repertoire. I'm including the list (found on pgs. 9-10 of the Kindle file) in full. (Try not to glance up and stare too noticeably at anyone in your immediate environment as you're reading it. Be subtle.)
1. Personal insults
2. Invading one's "personal territory"
3. Uninvited physical contact
4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
5. "Sarcastic jokes" and "teasing" used as insult delivery systems
6. Withering e-mail flames
7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
8. Public shaming or "status degradation" rituals
9. Rude interruptions
10. Two-faced attacks
11. Dirty looks
12. Treating people as if they're invisible
Some of the items are obviously more egregious examples of assholery than others (uninvited touching and threats, for example), but what I like about this list is, it cover all the little things too--the things that leave you lying awake at night, wondering "whether they did it on purpose" or "meant well, but didn't realize," or if you're "reading too much into it."
For example, when you make a point or offer an observation or suggestion, and the person just stares off into space and then continues on as if you haven't spoken. That's item #12--"Treating people as if they're invisible"--and no, there's absolutely nothing wrong with your point or suggestion, you were totally right to try to offer it and yes, they should have the courtesy to respond politely, if minimally.
They're simply being an asshole. Oh, and the "teasing" one. Yeah, okay. "Insult delivery system." I thought so. Good to know. (Asshole.)
The problem with such behavior, Sutton points out, is that research has shown that one nasty interaction--no matter how minor-- carries approximately 5x the impact of a positive interaction (28).
And if you're baffled by that person who "seemed nice" until s/he got some kind of advancement at work, well, Sutton notes that
A huge body of research--hundreds of studies--shows that when people are put in positions of power, they start talking more, taking what they want for themselves, ignoring what other people say or want, ignoring how less powerful people react to their behavior, acting more rudely, and generally treating any situation or person as a means for satisfying their own needs--and that being put in positions of power blinds them to the fact that they are acting like jerks. (63)So much for "doing good" and becoming a spokesperson for "the little guy" once you're promoted to a position of power and authority.
In short, not being an asshole is both a challenge and a choice. And the odds are not in your favor.
Ironically, Sutton argues that the best prevention against becoming an asshole is realizing how very easy it is to do so. He argues that we need to "view acting like an asshole as a communicable disease" (84), and notes that "A swarm of assholes is like a 'civility vacuum,' sucking the warmth and kindness out of everyone who enters and replacing it with coldness and contempt" (85).
God knows we've all been there, at some point.
So what's an aspiring non-asshole to do? Well, if you don't want to be sucked under and you can't simply quit your job and/or otherwise leave the asshole(s) behind, you need to consciously and deliberately limit your contact with the most egregious cases, to the best of your ability. In particular, Sutton advises,
Go to as few meetings with known assholes as possible, answer inquiries from them as slowly and rarely as you can and when you can't avoid them, keep the meetings short. ...you may need to unlearn what we were all taught in grade school: that the 'good kids' stay in their seats and endure everything from mind-numbing boredom to demeaning teachers. (90)I like Sutton's observation here, because I do think that there's a way in which assholes play on the notions of civility that they in turn suck out of the very air around us--namely, I get to be an asshole, but if you walk away or refuse to subject yourself to it, you're "being rude" and acting like "a jerk."
Methinks not, actually.
Sutton also points out that "reframing" the experience--as with all experiences--is helpful. An Australian friend of mine in grad school once used to say, "Don't let the bastards grind you down." In a similar vein, Sutton advises that, if you're in the proximity of assholes on a regular basis, "use ideas and language that frame life in ways that will make you focus on cooperation" and "adopt a frame that turns your attention to ways in which you are no better or worse than other people" (94).
Telling yourself, "It's not me. They do this," and reminding yourself, "I'll be okay, at the end of the day," are powerful ways of withstanding the slings and arrows of outrageous assholes.
Ultimately, indifference and emotional detachment are your best options. The more you get drawn in by others' assholery, the more likely it is that you will begin acting like an asshole yourself, even if "only" in self-defense (remember, being an asshole is highly contagious).
While cultivating a profound, deep-seated, existential indifference to assholes, you also want to celebrate the little things--what Sutton refers to as "small wins." If you're feeling beaten-down in one set of circumstances, make an effort to spend more time elsewhere, and choose circumstances where you can have a voice and do some good things that make you feel proud and accomplished.
What you don't want to do, however, is enter a stage of denial. Acknowledge the assholes for what they are, and be aware of what they can do--"don't let the bastards grind you down"--but don't entertain any illusions that they'll change their ways.
Because, as Sutton points out, "if you are subjected to mean-spirited people for long stretches, unbridled optimism can be dangerous to your spirit and esteem" (117).
If a certified asshole does something nice, be pleasantly surprised, but don't be deceived. As the old psychological adage has it, "Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior," so generally, once an asshole, always an asshole.
That said, however, Sutton strongly cautions against labeling others as "assholes" too quickly, simply because they have a blunt, gruff, or less-than-appealing interpersonal demeanor.
Some people come across as potential "assholes," but they really aren't, actually, and it takes getting to know them to realize that they just have a social "surface" that's less polished or pleasant than we might prefer or be used to.
Once you get to know them, you realize that they don't meet Sutton's guidelines. They don't constantly make other people feel like crap, actually, and they don't aim their venom at people who are less powerful than they are. In fact, they may not even have any venom to spew. They may be perfectly nice people with a rough exterior or a cold demeanor or an abrupt and brusque way of speaking to others.
In the long run, if you're unable to fully and broadly implement the "No Asshole Rule" in your life, the best advice Sutton can offer is to expect the worst, but hope for the best, do what you can to make good things happen for yourself, find better people to interact with, and, when embroiled in a shitstorm of assholery, remind yourself that "this too shall pass" (as my mom used to say).
And when it does, you'll be just fine, thank you. (Not that you care.)