“Who me? I’m a good guy. I don’t need to read this article.” “Yeah. Right.”
Most of us believe we behave well around other people—our partners, our friends, our colleagues, and new acquaintances or strangers we meet. We don’t say mean or offensive things. We try to keep our opinions to ourselves. We don’t debate politics or religion, instead keeping to the common ground of weather and sports, work and kids, or movies, shows, and books recently watched or read. But unbeknownst to us, there are subtle ways in which we act like jerks (also known as “being an a**hole),” and equally applicable to both men and women) towards other people. Here are three embedded behavior modes in which we regularly, though unintentionally, disrespect, demean, and in doing so damage other people, causing them to dislike us and treat us poorly in return.
1. I’m better than you. The moment we meet someone and begin to learn about them, we start comparing. I’m taller, shorter, in better or worse shape, richer, poorer, happier, and eventually, in some way … better. To boost our own egos and assuage our insecurities, we focus on the way or ways in which we believe ourselves to be superior to the other person, unless it’s someone we truly look up to and want to emulate. But even then, jealousy can supplant admiration, inducing us to find fault with something, to home in on an area where either our capabilities or our moral judgments place us above the other person. Especially in an intimate relationship, the competitive dynamic can be highly destructive. Grand accomplishments don’t make another person better than we are, just as being out of shape or out of a job doesn’t make someone worse. Comparing only makes us gravitate towards knocking the other person down a notch, or engaging in negative self-talk about our own fears of inadequacy. To stop comparing, set aside differences and focus instead on commonality and sameness. Ask yourself, how am I like this person? What interests, abilities, tastes, and experiences do we share? Comparison leads to disconnection, while seeking common ground opens connection points and builds the foundation for a relationship of equals.
2. I’m not judging you … but I actually am. Isn’t this the same as saying, “I’m better than you?” No. Why? Because comparing and judging are not the same thing. When you’re comparing, you’re evaluating the other person against yourself. When you’re judging, your holding another person to a standard imposed by society, and one you may not necessarily choose to hold to yourself. For example, you might judge another person’s appearance, clothing choices, car, or use of language, while reserving the right to make similar choices yourself. Judging enables you to feel both superiority and contempt—with a healthy dose of hypocrisy. Judgment is felt more than it is heard, perceived in your use of tone, your facial expressions, the sigh or sniff you let out involuntarily, the snicker you barely suppress when you’re going into judgment mode. The antidote is to turn the mirror back on yourself, to remember what it feels like to know you’re being judged, to re-experience that pain, and to lean into the concept of “there but for the grace of God go I.” Because there, indeed, is where you are.
3. I’m not interested in you. This is the biggest dis of all, and it’s the primary complaint in most unsatisfactory intimate relationships. It also prevents countless potential friendships from flourishing. Lack of interest manifests as, “You don’t care about me,” “You’re not present,” You don’t listen,”You’re too self-interested and self-absorbed,” or variations on these lonely, all-too-common themes. It all boils down to this. You’re not interested, and not coming across as interested, because you believe that whatever it is you’re saying, doing, thinking, or planning is more important than whatever the other person is sharing with you in that moment. Which means you’re missing it—an it that is important enough for another person, even the person you’ve chosen to spend your life with, to be bidding for your attention and asking you to engage. We routinely dismiss people to whom we believe we’re superior in some way—particularly those in service jobs and the invisible homeless—but we also dismiss those we’re close to and profess to respect, because we don’t treat their thoughts, ideas, or needs as being equal in merit or importance to ours. One way to stop doing this is to think about all the times another person showed genuine interest in you and what you were saying or doing and remember how good that felt. That’s the feeling you want to create for others when they share their concerns with you, when they talk about what moves them, or when they just want you to acknowledge them and show that you care.
There are many ways we treat others badly that we’re not aware of, but comparing, judging, and not showing interest are probably the most common, the ones we engage in frequently without thinking, and the ones that can have the most devastating effect. Not being an a**hole means learning how to recognize, manage, and ultimately stop these behaviors. Doing so will not only make you a more supportive partner, friend, or colleague but also encourage others to treat you with respect, kindness, and compassion.