Last week I was in Boston with my parents. At the end of the trip, we were pulling into the rental car place before heading to the airport. As we drove through the parking lot, a guy who was walking toward the main building meandered in front of our car. It seemed like he hadn’t noticed us, and was taking his sweet time. My mom made a snide comment about how slow he was walking. This was noteworthy to me only because, not ten minutes earlier, I had watched my mom do the exact same thing to another driver when we were parked at a gas station.
My mom is a friendly, warm, and highly intelligent person (I love you mom!). I bring this story up only as an example, because I think we’re all guilty of doing the same thing. We all think everyone else is the asshole. No one thinks they’re the asshole.
Of course there’s the obvious type of asshole – the guy (or gal) who, usually due to narcissism and entitlement, goes around treating people like dirt on a regular basis. Then there’s the unintentional asshole – the person who’s generally nice and means well, but makes the mistake of not paying attention and therefore does things (unintentionally) that end up being frustrating and rude to other people.
Makes sense, right? You’re probably chuckling to yourself right now thinking about some guy you know who’s totally an asshole and doesn’t know it. But I’m not talking about some guy. I’m talking about YOU.
If you’re the intentional kind of asshole, there’s not too much I can do for you. You need to see a shrink much smarter and more patient than me to work on your raging narcissistic personality disorder. But if you’re like me or most people out there, you’re a regular person who’s not immune from acting like a jerk from time to time. So what’s the average asshole to do?
Ignore the Rules, and Follow the Concept
I’m guessing you could rattle off a whole list of pet peeves you have about other people. Lord knows I could.
Maybe you think people should drive faster, drive slower, walk on the right, not take up all that space on the airplane, say “excuse me” when they bump into you, use their turn signals, and not cut you off, damnit.
On and on and on.
The problem is that everyone’s rules are different. One person’s “cutting me off,” is another person’s “changing lanes.” Expecting everyone else to conform to your rules is a losing battle. We go around getting frustrated and frustrating other people. Sounds like a lot of unnecessary frustration to me.
You could spend 100 pages writing down all the rules people should follow and it would still be missing the point, because it’s the concept that’s important, not all these individual rules. The concept is actually straight-forward:
- Be aware of yourself and your behavior, and avoid asshole-like actions.
- Be forgiving when someone else is an asshole, because they probably didn’t mean it the way you think they did.
This means spending less time paying attention to all the annoying things everyone else does and more time paying attention to all the annoying things YOU do.
Start Paying Attention, Right Now
So much of the problem could be solved by the simple act of paying attention. Sometimes I think people go through their lives like marbles bouncing off other marbles. They react. They don’t think.
But we’re not marbles. Or even just animals, for that matter. We’re human beings, and we have a whole host of higher cortical functions available for our use, should we so choose to take advantage of them.
So pay attention to yourself, the position of your body in space, your words, your affect and your intention. Don’t live in a constant state of fear about how others perceive you, but don’t be oblivious, either. When you’re speaking, pay attention. When you’re walking, pay attention. When you’re driving, for the love of god please pay attention.
On the other hand, don’t sit there smugly, thinking that whenever someone makes the mistake of not paying attention, or of not following some imaginary rule you’ve created about how people should act, you have the right to unleash your wrath.
Be Forgiving, Not Assuming
When you’re impatient and immediately assume the worst of people, you’re also being an asshole. There are a lot of reasons why people do small annoying things. They’re tired. They’re in a hurry. They didn’t realize they were doing it. You probably do annoying things for the same reasons.
If you have a gut reaction to be rude or respond to someone with anger, take a second to think about why. Who is this person? What’s their motivation? Did that guy on the freeway really mean to cut you off? Is that women from the customer service call center single-handedly responsible for the lack of in-flight meal options the last time your flew United?
So when someone’s an asshole, don’t automatically yell, condescend, lay on your horn, or express your anger in some other asshole-like way. Interrupt your visceral reaction of annoyance and respond thoughtfully. Remember that sophisticated brain you have – use it. I can almost guarantee you’ve acted in a similar way at some point in your life, and you probably weren’t as hard on yourself as you’re being on the other person.
It’s okay to have standards for others, but have higher standards for yourself. Pay less attention to others, and more attention to yourself.
So to sum it up:
Pay attention. Slow down, because you’re much more likely to be an asshole if you’re in a hurry. Practice using your brain instead of your gut. Follow your own rules, but don’t expect other people to follow your rules. If a person does something to annoy you, think first if you’ve ever done something similar. If you have, let it go. If you haven’t, let it go too – they probably didn’t mean it. Oh, and use your turn signal