Nobody's a stupid jerk

On people & why you should try to get them less wrong

I got better at dealing with people the day I realized that nobody’s a stupid jerk.

Some days that little fact isn’t obvious, I know. Before I figured out how to think about it, it would have sounded absurd to me. But it’s true. And not just in a glass-half-full kind of way. I mean it as a statement of fact.

Lemme explain.

First, the obvious question: what’s a “stupid jerk”? Let’s think of it as someone who’s ignorant or an asshole (or — joy of joys — both) on purpose, for no reason. Seems reasonable that intent and motive would matter at least somewhat, right? I mean, a child can put on a clinic of ignorance or assholery, and yet — because we understand something about their capacity to form intent — we manage to keep the retributive dropkicks to a minimum.

It might help make the point if we bake those elements into the language we’re using: we’ll call our on-purpose, no-reason, stupid jerk a ‘bad guy’. (Children can be many things, but we wouldn’t usually think of them as bad guys.)

Okay, next: I’ll concede that there are probably not zero bad guys in the world. I’m sure there’s some number of people out there who behave like ignorant assholes knowingly and for the heck of it. But there aren’t many. So few, I’d argue, that the number rounds down to zero. Close enough for me to stand by my premise.

Have you opened your eyes? There are stupid jerks everywhere.

I too live on planet Earth. Lots of people do lots of things that are some combination of dumb and mean… BUT, how many of those are true “bad guys” by our definition? Remember, we’re talking about someone who would explain themselves by describing how great it feels to be wrong, or to be a jerk to people who don’t deserve it.

See where I’m going with this?

No one — or close enough to it — thinks of themselves as wrong on purpose, or as an asshole without cause. In everyone’s mind, they’re either right or justified in what they do. Of course, people sometimes look back and see that they were wrong — that’s the stuff of remorse or rethinking. But right now, when you’re face to face with this jackass, they don’t see themselves the same way you do.

That’s how I’ve come to understand that nobody’s a stupid jerk. If you think in terms of labels that people might apply to themselves, it’s true. And it’s a useful thing to recognize.

My biggest takeaway from a book (that I highly recommend) called Never Split the Difference was this: people just want to be understood. Being hard done by is one thing — but what really makes you crazy is being made to feel wrong about feeling hard done by. The reverse is just as true — anger, outrage or other hurt feelings melt as soon as you feel like someone gets you. 

So, back to the stupid jerk in front of you. Before you go being certain that you’re dealing with a real bad guy, try to understand them. What’s making them behave the way they are? An honest mistake or misunderstanding? Or do they feel threatened? Or justified? Orrr… uh oh...

Are you the stupid jerk?

Here’s the cool part: you don’t have to agree with someone — much less their methods — in order to understand them. Sometimes you’ll find that you do agree with them, in which case the benefit of putting yourself in their shoes is clear. But even if not, you just have to be able to recognize their logic enough for a couple of things to happen:

  • You’re able to convey to them that you understand their feelings or reasoning. By doing so — there’s a technique you can practise (story for another day) — you’ll instantly disarm them and the conversation will go very differently from that point on.

  • Your own experience of the situation changes.

See, by pushing yourself to understand where others are coming from, you get better at not only recognizing when you’re wrong, but also at recognizing that people usually have a reason for thinking or feeling the way they do. And if you can see someone’s reasoning, you’re less likely to write them off as a bad guy even when they’re wrong. 

You know who else you offer the same courtesy? Yourself.

Of course, as with anything, you don’t flip this switch all at once. It’s a skill you need to practise. (My trick: asking myself “what would I do if I were a better person?”) And as you do, you’ll notice that all the interpersonal virtues — patience, compassion and so on — come more easily to you. Good thing, given their short supply in this era of polarizing algorithms.

But virtues always have a practical component too — they’d be good for you even if your interests were purely selfish. For starters, by doing the work of understanding others, nobody’s moment-to-moment experience improves more than yours. (All else aside, being less frustrated less often just feels better.) Plus, you’ll get better at dealing with people and reap the rewards that come from that. The world will seem to work gradually more with you than against you.

Heck, at some point along the way, you might even find that you’ve become less of a stupid jerk yourself.