Should you be a jerk? My answer will surprise you
A reader of mine sent me an interesting article the other week from The Atlantic called: Why It Pays to Be A Jerk
It’s fascinating how the world of social skills, confidence, and charisma has so many competing schools of thought. One is to always be sugar-sweet. Another, be a ‘jerk’. Another, be ‘cool’. Another, be nice ‘sometimes’. Be quiet and mysterious. Be loud and outgoing and speak first. You find yourself going back and forth between thinking: “Who should I be?” without digging underneath the surface to find the right way to be for you.
Today, I’m going to talk about this article and answer the ultimate question that’s all on our minds: Should we be jerks? Read on to find out.
After I graduated college, I moved out to L.A. I was making $1800/month and my boyfriend I lived with was still in school. I also had rent to pay on my own for the first time, student loan debt of $14,000 to pay back, and I still wanted to have fun with what I had– which meant that I watched what I did spend money on pretty closely.
Then a few months later…I was unemployed. On top of that, I got a cute little letter in the mail that informed me of a doctor’s visit I made at UCLA was going to cost me a couple of hundred dollars. I couldn’t understand it. Wasn’t it just a routine check-up?
As I tried to fight the bill, I went over in my mind my doctor’s visit. I remembered them telling me that I was ‘covered’, and that insurance would ‘take care of it’–and yet I didn’t remember me asking any questions. In fact, I took it all at face value.
And because of that, I paid for it. There were parts of my visit that were not covered by insurance. I figured: “It’ll take care of itself.” And I learned the painful lesson to never take what you get at face value.
You might think “Who cares about your doctor’s visit, Fel?” but here is the first ‘Jerk’ lesson
We are taught to take what we can get.
Especially when a person in an authority position says to us “This is the way it is” it is rare that we pause and think to ask questions. So of course, my mind was hacked by the straight jackets and the institution: if they say this is how it is, then this is how it is!
Because we THINK ‘jerk’ behavior is challenging authority, saying what no one else will, or that asking questions somehow means we’re undermining someone’s power.
But when you think about it…how can that be ‘jerk’ behavior? To me, that’s being smart. What’s silly is hiding from doing the right thing for fear of breaking an unspoken social rule or ruffling someone’s feathers who, frankly, deserve to be ruffled.
Which Reminds Me Of ‘Jerk’ Lesson #2
When I first started college, all I was thinking about was getting an internship in the entertainment industry in LA that summer.
I was quick to send off an email to good old Roberta, my counselor and a grumpy red-head who looked tired of life, and asked her what I needed to do in order to put myself in the best position to get an internship.
That it wasn’t going to be until my junior year that I could do that. Maybe if I was lucky, when I was a sophomore.
But when I saw that, I didn’t think: Well, I guess that’s that. I thought: I doubt that’s true. There must be other people who’ve gotten internships after their freshman year. So I went to a different counselor who worked right alongside Roberta and she told me it was possible. I may have to do extra work, but it was possible. And so I mentally flipped the bird to Roberta, got my internships 2 years in a row, and graduated a year early.
Now–was I being a jerk, or was I being smart?
Did I break a few ‘rules’, or did I actually win?
Let’s take stock of all the ‘rules’ I broke.
First, I undermined Roberta’s authority simply by not believing her.
Then, I went behind her back to her colleague.
Then, I broke the ‘rule’ that I had to wait until my junior year to get an internship.
But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that I was never an uncivilized barbarian to Roberta. I never yelled at her, or told her she was wrong. I gracefully accepted her response and simply thought: there must be a better way. And so I found one.
Because another myth of ‘jerk’ behavior is that ‘jerks’ break the rules. We challenge the norms, step on people’s toes, come in the room beating our chests like gorillas. Where the reality is, that rules are meant to be challenged and it is foolish to accept rules as ‘Truth’. Even if the ‘rule’ is right, question it! It may not apply to all situations. Just like Roberta’s ‘rule’ did not apply to me.
And Now On to My Favorite: ‘Jerk’ Lesson #3
In The Atlantic article, “Why It Pays to Be A Jerk”, there is a lot of contention around behavior certain people exhibit like stealing coffee for their team, being disagreeable, and acting ‘not nice’ that makes others perceive them as being confident leaders. On the surface, this makes sense because people want to be led. And someone who has the chutzpah to steal coffee, for example, makes people think that they can trust that person to take care of the group’s well-being, especially when times get tough.
So of course, we begin to believe that being a ‘jerk’ is the only way to get ahead. Nice people don’t win. Let’s throw caution to the wind and be narcissists together!
But I don’t believe this is the right way to look at it. And here’s why:
Many moons ago I had a friend who I’d been close with forever. We had agreed that we would go to Harvard together, have babies at the same time, and grow to be 100 year old grandmas sitting on rocking chairs on our porches together.
But our friendship changed. And I slowly began to realize that she wasn’t a good friend, and I didn’t want to be around her.
But before I could make any concrete decision to ‘let her go’, she sent me a message saying that she thought I had changed, that she was ‘worried’, and that I wasn’t the same as I used to be. And I responded by saying that she was right. And I didn’t feel close to her, and I didn’t want to be friends anymore. I wished her happiness. And that was that.
Now was I being a ‘jerk’ — or was I being compassionate?
Most people might think that the ‘friendship’ could be saved. Just like they think a marriage or relationship can be saved, or you can ‘stick it out’ in a job a little longer, or you can ‘suck up’ a bad situation.
I say that you need to know when to stick certain things out, and when it’s time to put your foot down. And in this case, it had been ‘over’ for a while. And so I did the uncomfortable, the unconventional, the thing that probably hurt her feelings–but it was the right thing.
And that is what people don’t understand about being a ‘jerk’. A lot of the time, ‘jerks’ do the right thing by teaching other people how to treat them. If they need to be forceful and disagreeable, that’s what they have to do. If they’re bothered, they speak up. Whereas if you fall into the ‘always be nice’ trap, it’s too easy to turn into a resentful little muffin, never getting what you want, and thinking that you have to be a real life jerk who’s mean to people to get ahead, because ‘nice’ isn’t working.
Which Brings Me to The Final Lesson: Don’t Fall For a Seductive Word Like ‘Jerk’
It’s rare to find quality advice about social skills and confidence online, and I love the irony of this as I write you an email about the very topic. But the reason is not because there couldn’t be great advice online, but because a title like “Why It Pays to Be A Jerk” is interesting and gets people to read it.
But it’s seductive to think: “Okay. Either I be a jerk, or I be nice.” That will cause you a ridiculous amount of conflict, if it hasn’t already.
The better question: What’s the best way for me to be in this moment? In this situation? In this context?
So Instead of ‘Be a Jerk’, Be Adaptable
That way, you don’t need to overcome your personality or who you are. You get to analyze what’s the best thing to do moment by moment. As an example, I can be charming if I want to be, and yet I also have an inner Godzilla that I would not wish upon anyone to experience. But certain situations call for it, and that is the way it is.
And now, I’d love to hear from you because this topic is so rich and thought-provoking:
What’s the hardest part about knowing how to act in certain situations, like when you think you have to be ‘nice’ but you know it’s not the right way to handle it?