Here’s How to Keep Your Cool Around Jerks (According to a Professor Who Studies Them)
It could be a colleague, boss, friend, or family member—and yes, it could even be you.
Borysevych.com/ShutterstockLet’s say a co-worker has been rubbing a big promotion in your face for weeks. Or your boss rolls his eyes every time you speak up in a meeting. You never did anything to deserve this! What gives?
Introducing: Your local jerk. He or she probably has some telltale signs of jerky-ness, and odds are, it’s taking everything in your power not to blow up at them. Trust us, you’re not alone on this one; we’ve all come across a jerk or two—either in the office, at family reunions, or anywhere in between.
Robert Sutton, a psychology professor at Stanford University and author of the book The Asshole Survival Guide, defines jerks as “someone who leaves us feeling demeaned, de-energized, disrespected, and/or oppressed. In other words, someone who makes you feel like dirt.”
Of course, “all of us under the wrong conditions can be temporary assholes,” Sutton told Vox. The trick is to distinguish the temporary jerks from “certified” jerks, or those who consistently make people feel hurt and upset. (Here’s how to be nice when you feel like being a jerk.)
Now that you’ve zeroed in on the bonafide jerks in your life, you’ll need to figure out how to deal with them. Sutton has a few recommendations—and it all depends on how much power and time you have.
If you’re dealing with a mean boss, consider quitting or transferring to another department. Removing yourself is the simplest way to end a tense situation, according to Sutton. But if you must endure it, try to have as little contact as you can and brush off any tough interactions (because they will inevitably happen). While a big, emotional blow up might make you feel better in the short run, it’s unprofessional and will likely backfire in the workplace.
As for rude colleagues or peers, “just freeze them out,” Sutton said. If you have no choice but to retaliate—and sometimes, that’s the only thing that works against jerks—you have full permission “to fire back with everything you’ve got,” according to Sutton. These are the times it’s totally OK to act like a jerk.
And yes, you could be the one who is the jerk, too. The key to knowing if it’s you? Keep an eye out for the little ways you’re acting like a jerk and don’t even know it.
“Ultimately, you have to know yourself, be honest about yourself, and rely on people around you to tell you when you’re being an asshole,” Sutton said. “And when they are kind enough to tell you, listen.”