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Don't Be A Low-Level Jerk

One way to do better in social situations is to not be a jerk. That may seem way too obvious to write a whole article about. You may be thinking, "Of course I'm not blatantly rude and unpleasant to everyone." Odds are you aren't a full-on douchebag. They exist - we've all met them - but they're relatively rare. Most of us know better than to be like that.

What's more common are people who can act like jerks in a more subtle, mild way. Often they aren't fully aware of how they're treating people. That's what the article focus will be on.

What's a low-intensity jerk like? They're friendly enough, but they pepper their interactions with a few more cutting jokes, critical comments, or needling behaviors than average. They don't do anything so rude that you'd want to stop and call them out, but you can come away from hanging out with them with a sour taste in your mouth. You may not feel anything is wrong on the first meeting, but after getting to know them their behavior starts to wear on you.

Maybe you're thinking, "This site is about working past social awkwardness. I thought the stereotype was that socially awkward people were meek, sensitive victims; that everyone was mean to them, not the other way around." Some people do fall into that category, but not everyone with social problems is an angel. There's even another archetype to account it: the snide, abrasive guy who scoffs at your taste in video games.

It's worth considering whether you have some jerkish tendencies that you show without realizing. If you can identify and cut down on them you'll do that much better in social situations. It's not realistic to expect perfection. We're all human and are jerks sometimes. However, if you work at it you can change from someone who's habitually unpleasant, to someone who only slips up occasionally.

It's not that if you're nicer to people everyone will flock to be friends with you. That's not what happens when you only have an absence of a negative trait. If someone wants to hang out with you it will be for other reasons, like whether you share a similar sense of humor and interests. That you're nice is just a bonus.

However, being a slight jerk can cost you. If you unthinkingly make a passive-aggressive comment to someone you just met, they may excuse themselves and write you off as a potential friend. Someone you've been getting along with for a few weeks may start to distance themselves once they notice how faintly hostile you are to everyone. Even jerks can hold on to longer-term friends, but those relationships won't be as good as they could have been. Your friends may begrudgingly tolerate your behavior, but keep you at arm's length. One day they may decide they've had enough and stop inviting you out. Or put it another way, even if you get away with being a douche to everyone, with no personal consequences to speak of, you're still causing other people unnecessary pain. Is that the kind of person you really want to be?

With the main "Don't be a subtle jerk" point made, the next sections of the article will cover common jerkish behaviors, some reasons people act like that in the first place, and how to change your ways if you realize everything I've been talking about describes you.

Common jerkish behaviors

There are dozens of ways to be insulting, undermining, and purposely irritating to people. I can't list them all, but here are some examples:

Telling whether you've gone over the line

Some of those behaviors are clearly rude and disrespectful, if only a little. Others fall into that blurry territory where it's hard to tell if someone did them with mean-spirited intentions or not. Like many friends playfully tease and bug each other, and don't mean anything bad by it, even if they occasionally go too far.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help figure out if a grey area behavior may be hurtful:

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Some motivations behind people's jerkish behavior

Again, there are tons of reasons someone may choose to be subtly insulting, disrespectful, or grating. I'll only list some of them, with a focus on reasons socially awkward people may act this way.

Here are some reasons someone may have good intentions, but accidentally act like a jerk:

And here are some less-healthy motivations. These can be conscious or unconscious:

What to do if you realize you can be a low-level jerk?

So you've read up to this point and have a sinking feeling you may sometimes be more of a jerk than you realize. The good news is you can act differently. Here are some suggestions:

Commit to behaving differently - A lot of your jerkish behavior may be an unconscious habit. You may be able to change your ways just by being aware of the problem and trying to treat people better.

Monitor your behavior - To be able to stop your jerk tendencies, you first have to know what they are and how they work. For the next few weeks pay closer attention to how you are around people. Note the times you act like a low-key jerk, as well as when you want to, but stop yourself. Once you tune into it you might be shocked at how often you pick at a certain friend, or feel compelled to be critical whenever a particular topic comes up.

Think on whether a certain type of person triggers your jerkish behavior - Is it people you feel threatened by? People you see as easy targets? People whose opinions annoy you? People you're close to, who you assume have to put up with you? People you don't know, who you don't think matter?

Think on whether certain mental states trigger your jerkish behavior - Do you tend to be more obnoxious when you're... Grouchy? Insecure? Cocky? Trying to impress someone? Drunk? Envious? Convinced you're right?

Try to figure out your reasons for being a mild jerk and work on them - For example, do you resent people who you see as having it easier than you, and take it out on them in the form of catty comments? Do you need to work on your overall self-esteem? Is your sense of empathy underdeveloped, which causes you to misjudge how your jokes will land? Do you have a misguided sense that insulting people who have the wrong political beliefs will make the world a better place?

Before you do anything, ask how you'd feel if someone did the same to you - This test doesn't doesn't always work - maybe you'd have no problem being on the receiving end of a cutting joke - but it can stop a lot of jerkish behavior at the gate.

If you want to point out someone's flaw or mistake, ask yourself if it's really necessary - There are times where it's appropriate to bring up people's shortcomings or mistakes, like if you want to help them or they've acted badly and you're standing up for yourself. But most of the time there's no point to it. Like if a friend's wearing a new outfit that's slightly unfashionable in your eyes, do you really need to comment on it? If you do, is it out of a desire to help them look better, or because you'd love a chance to make them feel bad? Even if you do want to help, is making fun of them in front of everyone the best way to give constructive feedback?

Be more thoughtful about how you playfully tease people - I'd never say you should stop poking fun at people entirely. Done right, it's a way to be entertaining and affectionate. There are some tweaks you can make to ensure you don't accidentally hurt anyone's feelings. Try to tease people about their harmless quirks and foibles. Be much more cautious about ribbing them about things they can't change or may be sensitive about. You may even want to consider never teasing people about their appearance, ever, as that's too much of a minefield. Don't tease people constantly. Even if your jokes are funny and good-natured, it can be grating if you overdo it. Don't tease people about the same thing over and over. You may give them a complex. Finally, spread your teasing around. It's more jerkish to zero in on one person.