(And what can I do about it?)
At some time in our lives we all have to deal with arseholes. Arseholes are people who deliberately belittle or mock, who are rude and insensitive, arrogant, selfish, overbearing and bullying, and whose actions are designed to injure, hurt or degrade those around them. Sometimes these encounters are fleeting; the half-wit who’s swerving through traffic like he’s Lewis Hamilton rounding up back–markers at Monaco, the surly waiter or the woman pushing in front of you in the supermarket. They might upset us for a while but then we move on and hopefully never see them again. Sometimes arseholes are closer to home; the workplace colleague who’s always ready with a snide remark or putdown, the bullying boss who’s constantly shouting or laying hands on you, the family member always guaranteed to ruin the party, hey- you might even be married to one! But don’t despair! Because although the bad news is that you’re very unlikely to be able to change an arsehole into an angel, the good news is that there are a few simple strategies that can certainly limit the effect that these people can have on you. I’d just like to define some terms here because I believe there are two distinct kinds of arsehole: Average Arseholes and Real Arseholes. Average Arseholes are by far the most numerous, and unless you have somehow found spiritual and physical perfection, this group includes you and me. Yes, we all act like arseholes occasionally, I’ll bet even Mother Theresa could get a bit snappy with the sisters when her habit was scratching her…well maybe not…but then most of us aren’t Mother Theresa anyway. I can look back on many examples of arsehole-ness in my own life, often with some shame; I’ve hurt people verbally and physically, I’ve been mean spirited, dishonest and hypocritical, I’ve shown off and competed for Alpha status, talked behind people’s backs, I’ve…wait a minute…this is beginning to sound like my last job reference! My point is that Average Arseholes make mistakes. We all do and say things that we regret later, and that’s a key element of this sort of behaviour, we have regrets about it. Those feelings of remorse can then lead us to modify our conduct so as not to repeat our mistakes, and of course this is the way most people grow and live and learn. It can sometimes be easy to forget that the vast majority of human beings would like to be on friendly terms with their fellows, it’s primal, it’s absolutely hard wired into our primitive brain that co-operation gives a competitive advantage, an evolutionary edge if you like, and a very effective way to gain co-operation is through friendliness. Real Arseholes differ from Average Arseholes in two crucial dimensions. Firstly, Real Arseholes have no regrets. They either don’t care about the way you feel, or even worse, they gain pleasure from making you feel bad. Now before you start throwing around words like narcissist or sociopath, or quoting a page or two from the A.P.A Psychiatric Dictionary a note of caution; don’t get hung up on the ‘personality’ of the arsehole. Psychologists recognise hundreds of traits (individual characteristics or distinguishing qualities) that combine to form personality and researchers tend to agree that our temperament is about 30% Nature, (your genetic inheritance), and 70% Nurture (how and where you were raised and schooled, work history, relationships, family life etc.) So personality is BIG…and complex…and relatively fixed. It usually takes a very traumatic or life-changing experience to make a lasting alteration to someone’s personality. Unless you plan on brutally murdering their mother or introducing them into a combat zone, (tempting though that might sound), you’re probably wasting your time in trying to change a Real Arsehole, and you can expend a lot of energy trying to understand why they behave as they do. There will be reasons alright, but do you want to spend the rest of your life searching for them? Better to concentrate on the actual behaviours of the arsehole, and try to mitigate their effect on you and others, and we’ll get to some practical ways to do that in just a minute. The second differentiating feature of the Real Arsehole is the frequency of their behaviour. An Average Arsehole like me might behave badly once a month, (Alright! Once a week then!), but the Real Arsehole is ‘on’ all the time. Their behaviour is constant, they never let up and it isn’t modified much by circumstances…they can be an arsehole at a funeral or a wedding. One of the side effects of the constancy of the Real Arsehole’s conduct is that they provoke similar behaviours in those around them, they carry the ‘Arsehole Virus’ and they’re highly infectious. Yes! If you are surrounded by arseholes you will soon start acting like one yourself! The concept of ‘Emotional Contagion’ is probably one of the most researched areas in psychology and the evidence is overwhelming…emotional states are readily transferrable; if I’m always miserable and you have to work next to me, chances are very high that you will soon be miserable too…and it is genuinely hard to fly like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys. So what can I do about it? Start with yourself first…here are a few ways you can deal with arseholes of all kinds:
- Get some regular exercise. I’m not kidding! Countless studies show a huge range of positive physical and mental benefits from even very mild regular physical activity. Amongst many other things, it promotes the formation and release of chemicals which are mood elevators. These are free drugs citizens! They will make you feel better about everything…and that’s a useful state of mind to have when a Real or Average Arsehole has to be engaged with.
- The next time some arsehole upsets or annoys you try this little trick from the fields of Evolutionary and Positive Psychology. We tend to see events as good, bad or indifferent (neutral), and arseholes are bad. As soon as we interpret someone’s actions or behaviour as bad we start to feel negative emotions, we sense danger in a more primitive sense, and this generates action in those parts of our brain that deal with threats, the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in and it’s very quickly panic stations particularly in parts of the ‘reptile brain’ which includes some of our earliest evolved structures. These are not the structures associated with calm reasoning and logic. Those functions need other structures like the frontal lobes.So instead of jumping straight to ‘bad’, try using a trigger word or phrase like “interesting”, or “that’s funny”, or “strange” instead, as in;“My boss is screaming at me while smashing his fist on the table…that’s interesting”, or “This arsehole has just pushed in front of me to get on the bus…that’s interesting.”(I would like to stress that this is an inner voice, saying “that’s interesting” when someone is threatening to blow your head off might escalate things.)The usefulness of this technique is twofold. It privileges rational responses before emotional ones and this can help us maintain calm, and it also helps us understand that the arsehole’s behaviour stems from reasons I may never know, which they may not even know themselves, but “interesting” can prompt me to uncover the reasons for my own response.Why does it upset me when someone is rude to a cab driver? There will be reasons to be found for that reaction in my own nature and nurture, and the very act of inquiring into them mentally makes me deal with my response more easily.
- Stand up. This one requires either courage or foolhardiness but it can be very effective. Here’s an example: Some time ago, when my son was about five years old, we were living in a quiet, narrow and winding suburban street. There was a bus stop outside our house serviced by a smallish (20 seat) vehicle owned by a local company. This was fine until we got a new driver. The bus was often empty at this part of his run and he used the opportunity to see how fast he put it through our little suburban chicanes. I was concerned about the safety of my child and his numerous friends, who were often playing near the road.After a week or two of this behaviour I flagged him down, explained the situation and asked if he could take it a little easier in the future. His response to this request was to give me the middle finger, close the doors in my face and tear off at maximum acceleration. What an arsehole!Fighting a little mental battle between ‘that’s interesting’ and my strong desire to run after him, tear him from the driver’s seat and run over him with his own bus, I resolved to sleep on the problem and plan my approach.Next day I called the company where I spoke to a supervisor who was very sympathetic and promised to speak to the driver. On the following day I noticed a change in my driver alright; this time he was driving even faster and as he came past my place he sounded the horn and half stood in his seat to give me the finger!Ok. I went to the company. I spoke to the manager. I was still striving for calm but I’ve no doubt that I managed to convey the depths of my feelings on the matter. He assured me that appropriate action would be taken forthwith. Next day: Same speed. Same horn. Same finger.By now I was more than a little peeved as you might imagine, but luckily I then had a few days working away from home and I wasn’t even thinking about my bus driver issues when, about a week later, I was working in the yard, and heard the tell-tale screech of bus tyres approaching. My elderly neighbour was standing at the stop and I thought “He’ll have to stop for her!”, so I quickly ran to some covering bushes nearby and waited. Sure enough, he saw her waiting and screeched to a halt, (somewhat miffed that his lap had been interrupted no doubt), and I raced from cover, pushed in front of the neighbour, (I know, what an arsehole), and got as close to him as I could. I was still holding an axe, (I’d been splitting wood when I heard him coming) and I’m sure that lent a certain gravity to my words when I said to him something like this… “I f…ing asked you! I f…ing asked your supervisor! I f…ing asked your boss! Now I’m f…ing telling you!” …and here I think I brandished the axe meaningfully… “If you ever come through here driving like a f…ing idiot again I’m going to take your f…ing head off!!! …he was at this point actually cowering from me… “Do you understand me you f…ing arsehole!!!???” Feeling I’d covered most of the points I wished to discuss I turned to leave, and was confronted by the aforementioned neighbour, who looked a little shocked. “Oh Mrs Johnson I’m so sorry…” I began, but she cut me off… “That’s alright darling”, she said, “He does drive too fast. I’ve told him myself but he wouldn’t listen to me. Good on you.” Now I don’t need to point out I’m sure, that this action could have very easily gone horribly wrong for me; phrases like ‘Common Law Assault’ or ‘Threats with Menace’, ‘Going in Possession of a Deadly Weapon’ and so forth spring readily to mind. In this instance, happily, I did manage to get a result of sorts. My Real Arsehole bus driver no longer drove at high speed. He no longer blared his horn at me as he came past. He did however persist and indeed seemed to delight in, giving me the finger whenever he saw me. Sometimes the only way to deal with arsehole behaviour is to confront it. You don’t need an axe to do this, you can simply say to your arsehole boss for example, “I don’t get paid to have you yelling at me. I won’t put up with it.” Which leads me to:
- Walk away. Ignore. Minimise contact. These seemingly simple things can be fraught with difficulty I know, but sometimes the costs of being around Real Arseholes can be too high, and it’s not as if they can’t be successful or productive in other ways. I have known many Real Arseholes who ran hugely profitable businesses, who were gifted musicians or performers or athletes or professionals, but their mastery or expertise didn’t seem to translate into the areas of life we hold as most important – family, friends, and meaningful relationships with our fellow humans.Arseholes can be successful, gifted and admired, (try putting the words temper tantrum followed by Steve Jobs, Ty Cobb, or Buddy Rich into a search engine sometime and you’ll see a few examples of what I mean), but in my experience, Real Arseholes are never happy people, and what lies at the heart of most of their unhappiness is a desperate and profound loneliness.
You and I might not be able to do much about that, but we can certainly use strategies to help minimise the harm they cause us, because ultimately it is we who decide how much Average Arsehole behaviours we display personally, and how much exposure we allow ourselves to Real Arseholes. Good luck out there fellow travellers, and as my local priest used to say to us, ”Illegitimi non carborundum boys.” Which roughly translates as “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”. Want to know more about how to Master Difficult Conversations? Contact Brian today, firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07 4772 3800.
UPDATE – 15 August 2015. Dean and Brian – respond to controvery over the use of the A word in this article: