(I am going to post this on www.amybethhale.com, but I wanted to take it for a 'test drive' here first!)

“Why are people so mean, for God’s sake? I sometimes try so hard to understand why so many human beings do find it easier to be critical and mean and hostile, instead of being nice, but I never seem to get to any valid explanation. Maybe because they express their inside furies and frustrations by trying to make others feel lousy too, or maybe because they just don’t care about the way their reactions affect the others or maybe ‘just like that’.” - Adina Gheorghe, Entertainment Editor

(Everyone, I know my topics lately seem to have ventured away from ‘research’ a little bit, but I think human relations and workplace environment have a lot to do with our line of work. I promise I will stay on topic more in the near future!)

I have been thinking about this for a few days now though….it just seems like some people out there are just total jerks. I read this interesting article posted on the NY Times back in February that talks about the way our society justifies meanness almost entirely with some sort of treatable mental disorder. The article goes on to say that “…if some people turn out happy and good despite a lifetime of withering hardships, why can’t some people be mean or bad for no discernible reason?.... must we turn everything we don’t like about our fellow humans into a form of psychopathology?”

There are people out there that just thrive on being rude, obnoxious, condescending, patronizing and just all-around jerky to those around them. (I’m trying REAL hard not to use explicits to describe these individuals….we all know some in our lives!) No matter what you do, professionally, personally, or whatever, they always have some snide remark to make about it. Hey trust me, I am no stranger to this. I was a chubby nerd in middle school and most of high school. I was on the Academic Team and I played the oboe in the band. Even the fact that I was on the swim team (and I was very good, too!) did not counter this teasing though. Kids are so mean at that age, and I acquired a few nicknames that still cut like a knife when I think about them. I know there are several of you out there who can relate – we were poked fun of in gym class, our clothes were the subject of “cool kid” gossip, and no matter what we did we could not shake the ‘nerd’ status. Sure, Bill Gates says “Be kind to nerds, chances are you'll end up working for one”, but as adults we still encounter these nasty people whose sole purpose in life, it seems, is to build themselves up by tearing others down.

Why are mean people mean? Why do they feel it’s okay to belittle others’ ideas, ambitions and goals, ways of doing things, etc.? My mother always told me that it’s because they have a low self-image and it’s their way of feeling better about themselves. I think there’s a lot of truth to this! In a circle of close friends, if one person decides to try something new, there are usually one or two others who feel threatened by the new path that individual is exploring, and in an attempt to “look out for your best interest”, those friends will discourage you from trying something different. Perhaps they are afraid to lose you to a new activity, or perhaps they themselves are simply afraid of trying something new and don’t want a spotlight shone upon them for this.

One of the best metaphors I’ve heard for this is crabs in a bucket. “Supposedly, if you put one crab in a bucket, it'll eventually find a way to leverage itself out of the bucket. But if you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, none will ever get out because as soon as one crab gets up near the top, the others reach up, grab onto it and pull it back. I don't think the crabs are really thinking critically about this, but it's a very human metaphor because people often, when they see someone getting ahead or see somebody who's taking a different path, the tendency is to reach out and try to pull that person back. And if they resist, then to punish them in a whole variety of ways.”

Your well-meaning friends may not see discouragement as being mean, they see it as being ‘protective’ or ‘cautious’. But when push comes to shove, I believe a true friend will encourage his/her friends in any new endeavor, so long as it does not endanger anyone, even if they themselves are not interested.

Let’s face it though – there are some people out there who are just plain MEAN. Doesn’t matter what the situation is – they will always find something wrong with what you do. We all have people like this in our lives – co-workers, professional colleagues, relatives, neighbors. Typically, these spineless people will be mean and nasty behind your back, gossiping and pointing fingers while never having the stones to say things to your face. I personally believe gossip in the workplace is the quickest way to destroy a business. When you have non-confrontational people whispering about each other behind one another’s backs, their personal interaction on projects becomes strained, honesty is obviously thrown out the window, relationships fall apart, and the business suffers.

So, what can you do to deal with this? Martha Beck wrote in O Magazine back in 2003 that “… my favorite ways of reacting to mean people are (1) getting mean right back or (2) lying down quietly to display the word welcome! written where my spine used to be.” (of course, she was being sarcastic) Well, in my personal observation there are several ways of dealing with mean, nasty people:

  • Confront them yourself. In some situations this might be appropriate. In others, however, it will just cause more meanness, and sometimes outright retaliation. You decide.
  • Keep doing what you’re doing and ignore the mean people. I don’t know who said this, but I love this quote: “If you're not on somebody's shit list, you're not doing anything worthwhile.” If everyone likes you, then you are living a bland, average existence. Dare to be different!
  • Be who you are! Don’t quit being yourself because some nasty individual has something to say about it. A billboard here in Cincinnati has a great quote from Chad Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals, “I would rather be hated for who I am than loved for who I am not.”
  • Success is the greatest revenge. Do something great with your life. The mean people may not shut up, but the people who appreciate your accomplishments will drown out their criticism. Remember, “No statue has ever been put up to a critic.” Jean Sibelius said that. He was a musician. I’ll bet he was a nerd, too.

Also – work hard to make sure that YOU’RE not a meanie! Look for the good in people as opposed to the bad. I believe that there is something that I can learn from every person I encounter in my life. But it’s up to me to find out what. Resist the urge to talk about people. I struggle with this too! Be an up-lifter, not a tear-downer. Make people feel better about themselves when they leave than they felt when they first came around.

There will always be mean, nasty people that come and go in your life. My advice – quickly show them the door to go! I personally practice the 4th way of dealing with mean people. I’ll succeed in spite of their laughter, their criticism, and their gossip. I own and proudly wear a t-shirt that says “I’m a n3rd.” I don’t do stuff simply because it’s the “accepted” way of doing things, and I don’t NOT do stuff because other people make fun!

As Martha Beck says, “Why are people mean? Here's the short answer: They're hurt. Here's the long answer: They're really hurt. At some point, somebody—their parents, their lovers, Lady Luck—did them dirty. They were crushed. And they're still afraid the pain will never stop, or that it will happen again. I've just described every single person living on planet Earth. The fact is that we've all been hurt, and we're all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero's saga rather than a victim's whine, depending on how they ‘write’ it. The moment we begin tolerating meanness, in ourselves or others, we are using our authorial power in the service of wrongdoing. We have both the capacity and the obligation to do better.”

It’s your choice!

Views: 878

Comment by Jim Stroud on May 6, 2007 at 1:05am
Nice article!
Comment by Moises Lopez on May 6, 2007 at 5:08pm
Great post!
Comment by Rich on May 6, 2007 at 5:10pm
I agree. Well said!

Anger, anxiety, meanness etc., if it not chemically induced, often comes from the fear of (fill in the blank) because it links to some other past event, triggering fight or flee instinct. Or something like that. :)
Comment by Suzy Tonini on May 8, 2007 at 8:48pm
Mean people are unhappy & jealous people, and when they see confident, happy people, they feel obligated to prove their *superiority* by being mean.Just tell those people about planks and kites and leave them to wallow in their mire.
Comment by Des Walsh on May 13, 2007 at 11:37pm
There's a story I heard about the Buddha. As he was preaching, there was this character in the crowd being sarcastic, insulting him. After a spell of this, his disciples asked him why he put up with it, why didn't he respond? He said: "To whom does the gift which is not accepted belong?"

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