13 Tips For Dealing With Awful People
Or at least understanding them.
Millions of youths have just graduated from some kind of school and, as is tradition, will enter the workforce in much the same way that a chicken enters a jet engine. I’m just one below-average man, so I cannot fill in all of the yawning gaps the system left in their education, but I can fill in a few, maybe.
Learning each of these 13 lessons has cost me dearly, but you get them for free! I envy you, I really do. And if all of these were already obvious to you, I envy you even more!
1. It only takes one toxic person to fuck up a whole group, organization or project.
Seriously, you’ll be shocked at how quickly peace can be restored just by kicking out one member, usually the one who’s overly addicted to conflict. Otherwise, they’ll turn every trivial disagreement into a civil war, interpreting every word and action in whatever manner enrages them most. “But,” you might ask, “how can I separate the shit-stirrers from those with a legitimate grievance?” To start with: watch to see if they consistently push to resolve conflict, or prolong it.
For example, if the thing they’re mad about turns out to be a misunderstanding, do they insist on clinging to that misunderstanding even after it’s cleared up? Do they reject all attempts at resolution? If so, it’s almost impossible to get them to change that behavior, because the rush of conflict is probably all they’re getting out of the relationship. They’re only there for the arguments!
2. Sometimes, that toxic person will be you.
Though you often won’t realize it until years later.
3. Almost everyone thinks they’re “normal.”
This is one of those facts everyone “knows” but that no one internalizes: The aggressive jerk doesn’t think they’re an aggressive jerk, they just think everyone else is soft. The humorless scold thinks everyone around them is infuriatingly glib and depraved, the micromanaging perfectionist thinks the whole world has gotten sloppy.
It’s crucial to understand this because it’s the main reason that it’s almost impossible to get people to change: Everyone sets themselves as the reasonable baseline from which the rest of society is deviating to varying degrees, so any change feels a little like selling out your perfect, normal self to the freaks. Also...
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4. Almost everyone thinks they’re a victim.
You already know the famous examples, the billionaires born to wealthy families who whine endlessly about how the system is rigged against them. But lots of human behavior will make more sense when you realize almost everyone believes some version of this. Most unhappy relationships are between two people who each think they’re selfless martyrs sacrificing for the happiness of an ungrateful other.
The key is that they usually do genuinely believe this; it’s not just an act or a strategy. Everyone can summon evidence of their victimhood, can point to someone nearby who’s been dealt a better hand. Everyone, at a certain point, is haunted by a fear that they’re missing out on some better life they could’ve had if not for (insert grievance here).
In my experience, you can’t really talk them out of it. And they’ll never, ever be receptive to snarky comments about how privileged they are. For example: if you’re reading this, that automatically means you’re among the .1% most privileged human beings ever born and, by this logic, have no right to complain about anything. Annoying, right?
OPTIONAL EXERCISE: Watch the video clip below. Discuss how each individual’s expression of their needs could have been better framed to facilitate a mutual understanding.
5. People cling to toxic personality traits because they work.
Already you’re detecting a theme: “It’s super hard to get people to change, so don’t plan your life around it.”
For example, people won’t drop destructive behaviors if those behaviors are still working for them. The compulsive liar lies because they’ve learned it’s an effective way to solve problems and/or escape consequences, the lazy adult has long figured out how to get what they want without a lot of work, and so on.
This causes cynics to say “People don’t change” but that’s taking it too far. We grow out of bad behaviors all the time (statistically, violent crime is overwhelmingly a young man’s game, plenty of unfaithful partners settle into monogamy later in life, etc). It’s just that the decision to change has to be theirs, you can’t force another person to do anything, no matter how you phrase the ultimatum.
Hey, for the very first time I am offering SIGNED COPIES of books, specifically if you pre-order the new novel from this here indie bookstore (no extra cost), you’ll get a copy of If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe, signed by me. Otherwise, you can, as usual, order unsigned hardcover or ebook copies from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Bookshop. Or any local bookstore! The audio version link will be up soon!
6. People prefer simple, clear answers, even when they’re wrong.
Hmm, maybe this should be higher on the list, since it’s currently threatening to cause all of society to collapse.
Humans are social animals who are soothed by signals of confidence, and simple, clear answers sound confident. The nuanced truth is always full of uncertainty but expressing uncertainty is unattractive, it makes you look nervous and weak. The worst people in society have figured out how to exploit this glitch in our reasoning.
“So how do you overcome that,” you might ask, “when so many of our current challenges are highly technical and the efficacy of proposed solutions is uncertain?" That's what we all want to know, and damn it, I wish someone could just give me a simple, clear answer. Somewhat related:
7. “Confidence is everything” is true, but woefully incomplete.
Lonely guys and/or Incels love to complain that “Women prefer jerks” but what’s attractive isn’t their toxic traits, it’s their confidence. “I’ll just be more confident, then!” you say, “then I’ll be able to defeat them!” But that’s like declaring you’ll overcome your poverty by not being poor anymore, it’s not as simple as just deciding to do it. Just like money, the confidence has to come from somewhere, usually a genuine belief that you have at least one remarkable trait—physical strength, a unique talent, tangible accomplishments, a cool motorcycle. So it’s not that confidence is everything, but that having something to be confident about is everything.
“Well, now hold on,” you might be saying, “the world is full of powerful figures who got there by faking confidence and/or competence!” Sure, but they usually take the confidence gained from one real trait (inherited wealth, or height, or physical beauty) and fool themselves into believing they’re geniuses in all areas of endeavor. They aren’t just doing affirmations in the mirror every day. If you truly want what they have but haven’t stumbled into one of those advantages via luck, then you’d better learn a skill, fast. Or get a weird pet, something like that.
OPTIONAL EXERCISE: Watch the video clip below. Discuss what unique talent or skill are the men demonstrating here, and how they organically introduced it into the social gathering.
8. Assuming the worst about people feels like the safe choice, but it’ll kill you in the long run.
There’s a very specific personality type who uses a “one strike and you’re out” system for cutting people out of their lives: everyone gets one mistake, and they’re gone. I know this, because for most of my life, that was me. That tendency was born from social isolation—weirdly, when you don’t have friends, you build this impossible standard that no one can meet. We generally don’t tolerate people who are radically different from our friend group and if you’re your only friend, then you can’t tolerate anyone other than yourself.
Well, the social media age seems to be turning everyone into this person, since the algorithms can ensure you never encounter a mind more than 3% different from yours unless it’s an outgroup member being held up for scorn and ridicule. It gets us to a point where everyone is so sensitive to flaws that we call them “red flags”, a justification for tossing relationships in the trash. We’re becoming a society so terrified of ingesting poison that we’d prefer to just starve.
You have to force yourself to remember that if a friend/co-worker/celebrity with a decade of perfect behavior suddenly gets caught expressing an awful opinion, that’s not a sign that their “mask slipped” to reveal they’ve been a monster all along. It’s a sign that they’re imperfect and/or made a mistake. I don’t even need to argue this, because if someone else used that standard against you (“One strike and we rewrite your whole biography to be nothing but strikes”) you’d think they were fucking deranged.
9. Some of the most malicious acts you’ve endured were simply the result of boredom.
Pop culture pretends that truly destructive acts always fall into the category of Evil or Crazy, either a villain’s deliberate scheme or the product of a diseased mind’s attempt to satisfy some depraved appetite. In the real world, sometimes people just get bored.
There is actual science behind this, though it’s poorly understood. Bored humans turn cruel, and some of the worst acts (particularly involving mass harassment online) are motivated by idle, anxious minds looking for distraction. If someone throws a brick through your window, you can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out who was behind it and what motivated them. But you’ll most likely find out a stranger just wanted to hear what kind of sound it made.
10. Everyone is doing a terrible job of treating (or even understanding) their anxiety
...and that leads to a whole lot of awful behavior. And we’re at a point where if someone tells me they don’t suffer from some level of medical-grade anxiety I just assume they’re lying.
As such, we’ve all heard an apology that goes something like, “Hey, I’m sorry I acted that way, my mother has been sick and the stress is really getting to me,” and you’ve probably forgiven that person. But most of us would be less likely to forgive if they had blamed their stress on the accumulation of a hundred minor frustrations and humiliations: The grocery store was out of their favorite bread, they stepped in dog poop while checking the mail, a driver tailgated them on the highway, there’s a patch on the sole of their foot that is really itchy for no visible reason.
But in my experience, that second thing, the Persistent Swarm of Annoyances, can be even worse for your mind and body than one big crisis (which can actually focus your energy). I believe that in the pandemic era, this is what’s causing people to freak out in grocery stores and drive like maniacs. Not one tragedy, but a hundred prickling little setbacks. They won’t offer that as an excuse because each setback sounds petty (and they know it’ll trigger snide remarks about their privilege), but the next road rage incident you see will likely be due to this, the accumulation of annoyances crawling inside their skull like fire ants.
11. What you say and what the other person hears may be totally different things.
This is often because everything is getting filtered through the lens of the aforementioned anxiety; your seemingly innocuous words may be someone else’s final straw. “All I did was ask if she ate the last banana and she started screaming at me!” If someone’s reaction seems way out of proportion to what you did/said, stop and remember you’re just one piece of a puzzle that, when complete, forms a picture of the universe taking a giant shit on their face.
Other times, people are just making assumptions about what you really meant, based on some preconceived notion of your intentions or personality. Then things get really complicated when you intentionally say something you don’t mean (say, you apologize even though you secretly think you were in the right) and they get annoyed. So now you’re mad that they did interpret your intentions instead of words. “I already apologized, what else does she want?!?”
And because of this...
12. Everyone else sees you as a totally different person.
There are people out there still mad about things you don’t even remember doing. If they’re not in regular communication with you, then the casually cruel thing you did/said out of boredom years ago just replays in their mind over and over, each time registering as a fresh offense. You moved on, but they didn’t.
Remember, nobody can fit your entire complicated personality into their brain, so they’re going to break you down into some fairly simple archetype, often based on what is most convenient to their worldview. If somebody is being unreasonably rude or terse with you, it’s possible that it’s because eight years ago you made a single snide remark about how the fish they microwaved was stinking up the whole office, and now you exist in their mind only as “Sanctimonious Lunch Cop.”
13. Most people are actually trying their best.
Or rather, they think they are. If you don’t believe me, just ask them. No matter how much they may make jokes at their own expense, if you pin them down, they still think they’re making the best of the hand they’re dealt. Everyone really is trying. You can decide for yourself if you find that reassuring or horrifying.
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OPTIONAL EXERCISE: Watch the video clip below. Discuss and try to think of 200 to 300 things the host could have done differently when conveying this information.