Recent research on the topic of social jerks by Janina Steinmetz suggests that many of us perform several actions that make us look like a jerk deliberately due to a mistaken belief that it makes us look better. This implies that our “best behavior” might be exactly what’s making other people feel like we’re jerks. We’ll go over the four behaviors the study pinpoints as behavior of jerks and how to avoid each of them. Backhanded compliments. Humblebrag. Hypocrisy. Hubris.
Finally, we come to the valuable habit of shutting your mouth more than you think you should—as if we didn’t learn this in the chapter on listening and validation.
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Shut Your Mouth
We often think of people who are talkative and outgoing as some of the most skilled socializers there are, as they can prevent awkward silences and make others more comfortable by shouldering the brunt of the social burden in a given situation.
However, in your eagerness to charm, don’t skew too far to one side and miss the value of understanding when it’s time to simply shut up. This isn’t necessarily another section on listening; rather, it’s a section on just embracing silence from your side. The truth is that some people are just in love with the sound of their voices. Are you one of these people? Again, as with membership in the Belief Police, if you don’t know anyone like that, it’s possible that you are that person in your group of friends.
However, let’s just suppose that we are describing someone else. They don’t listen; they simply wait until the other person stops talking so they can start speaking again. They view the time during which another person is talking as a resting period for their vocal cords. Their entire conception of a conversation is unusual—it’s for them to talk about themselves and unleash the wealth of ideas from their brain into the world. This is goodwill because that stuff is gold.
They don’t acknowledge what others say. They don’t even ask how the other person is doing. You’ll find that they can go through an entire “conversation” practically without acknowledging the other person’s presence. When people talk this way, it’s because they find themselves more fascinating than the other people around them. It shows a profound kind of self-centeredness or at least a lack of self-awareness.
If you have an inkling this is you, shake this habit. How might you know that it’s you? Well, do you tend to actually ask questions and listen to people’s answers? Do you ask more than one question before launching into your own stories? Do you typically fill silences yourself without letting others interject? Do you sometimes talk over people and interrupt them? Do you find others boring? Do you find yourself holding in a response and not even listening to people’s words?
And finally, here’s a big one: your friends, coworkers, and acquaintances all seem to know the minute details of your life, but you don’t know very much about them. There’s a very real imbalance that is created by the toxic habit of conversational narcissism.
Don’t be the person who takes others hostage by talking their ears off.
Again, eventually people will start avoiding you so their ears don’t fall off. Don’t be a conversational narcissist.
Thankfully, there is a quick fix to this toxic habit: impose a limit on yourself. For example, for every story you share, you must ask the other person two questions about the story or about things that are important to them. Try to fix the imbalance of information that was caused by keeping yourself in the spotlight.
Challenge yourself to make your conversation a game to find out as much about other people as you can while saying as little as possible about yourself or the things you find interesting. Realize that people only feel good about and enjoy a conversation when they are sharing—you feel the same way, of course, and that’s why you share so much. Allow others to feel good by giving them time and space to talk about what’s important to them. Otherwise, people will start avoiding you because they will think of you as someone who doesn’t care. They might already have started to. Try to ask someone five questions in a row. If it’s a hard task, then you’ll know how much of a conversational narcissist you’ve been.
Aside from simply talking too much overall and not letting others say their piece, there are some statements you should make specific effort to avoid. Recent research on the topic of social jerks by Janina Steinmetz suggests that many of us perform several actions that make us look like a jerk deliberately due to a mistaken belief that it makes us look better. This implies that our “best behavior” might be exactly what’s making other people feel like we’re jerks. But don’t worry; we’ll go over the four behaviors the study pinpoints as behavior of jerks and how to avoid each of them.
Backhanded compliments give the appearance of praising someone else but are actually insults in disguise. A classic backhanded compliment is “I admire your confidence; I could never go out looking like that.”
This implies that a person’s choice of clothing or grooming is awful, rendering the compliment of “confidence” moot, as it only proves a willingness to look foolish. This insult, like many backhanded compliments, is also an attempt to elevate the speaker: they’d never wear that because their style and grooming are much better than yours are now. It’s likely that people think giving people backhanded compliments is a way to improve their social status because of the superiority implied by making such statements, but few hear such compliments and admire the speaker.
Most people hear backhanded compliments for what they are: insults. And most people aren’t keen on those who insult others for their own gain. Pro tip: always think about whether what you say can be interpreted as an insult. If something slips out before you notice it has backhanded implications, apologize admittedly and rephrase it better. Admitting you made a mistake is often enough to erase this sort of gaffe and stop you from looking like a jerk.
A humblebrag draws attention to an accomplishment or stroke of luck with a complaint or a self-deprecating comment. Humblebragging is generally an attempt to avoid boasting yet still draw attention to yourself. That sounds good, as boasting can make you look full of yourself. But a humblebrag doesn’t cease to be boasting because it’s clothed in negativity; it just gains an extra layer of insincerity, which makes people dislike the humblebragger even more.
It turns out that the better thing to do if you want to talk about a success is to do it honestly, if modestly. Don’t say, “I keep confusing my Spanish and my French in my head. Why am I such a dummy?” Instead, acknowledge what you’re good at languages and skip the false humility. Say, “I’m picking up my third language. It’s hard work, but I think it’ll pay off.” There’s nothing wrong with being proud sometimes. As long as you don’t boast too often, you’ll find plenty of people who are happy to rejoice with you. When people sense that you are trying to deceive them, or even manipulate them with a humblebrag, problems will arise.
Criticizing people who do things you wouldn’t with like-minded individuals is an easy way to score social points. It demonstrates your values and judgment by drawing a contrast between you and someone else. However, a problem arises when you criticize others for something you imply you don’t do while you actually engage in those same activities. This habit is hypocrisy, and it aims to gain social status by denigrating others without admitting you act the same way. It can work if you’re not caught but becomes a major problem if the lie is found out.
For example, it’s probably best not to preach about how important it is to have a healthy diet while you’re chowing down on an ice cream sundae. Instead, skip the sundae and give the speech while eating an apple for a snack. That way, you’re more likely to inspire someone and less likely to be despised as a hypocrite. You’re not only a jerk, but a dishonest jerk that lacks self-awareness.
It’s tempting to point out that you’re better than other people, but in most cases, superiority that actually exists will be noticed even if the talented individual never says a word about it. This is when we directly state what we try to do indirectly through humblebragging, but in a way that is not very palatable for most.
Saying “I have a bigger vocabulary than most people” makes your listeners feel belittled for lacking that same knowledge, and it makes you appear prideful.
The short version of these jerky faux pas is that people can see through you more easily than you think. If you try to indirectly make people a certain way, they’ll rightfully see your attempt at manipulation and misdirection.