Monday, April 15, 2013

Wanted: Examples of Jerkish Behavior

I'm working on theory of jerks and I need data. In the comments section, I'm hoping some of you (ideally, lots of you) will describe examples of what you think of as typical "jerkish" behavior.

Here's why: I'm working on a theory of jerks. This theory is aimed largely at the question of how you can know if you are, in fact, a jerk. (Do you know?) Toward this end, I've worked a bit on the phenomenology of being a jerk and on the "jerk-sucker ratio". Soon, I plan to propose a "jerk-sweetie spectrum". But before I get too deep into this, I'd appreciate some thoughts from people not much influenced by my theorizing. I want to check my theory against proposed cases. Also, I'd like to draw a "portrait of a jerk", and I need things to include in the portrait.

Favorite examples I will pull up into the body of this post as updates. (And I'll keep my ear out for examples via comments on this post as long as I actively maintain this blog, since comments filter into my email.) Also, readers who provide any examples that I incorporate in my portrait of a jerk will receive due name credit in the final published version of my planned paper on this topic.

But please: no names of individuals. And nothing that will clearly single out a particular individual. And if you sign your true name, please be careful to be sufficiently vague that you risk no reprisal from the perpetrator!

The anti-hero of my portrait will probably be an academic jerk, so academic examples are especially welcome. However, this jerk lives outside of academia too, and my theory of jerks is meant to apply broadly, so I need a good range of non-academic examples, too.

I've Googled "What a Jerk" as a source of examples to kick the thing off. Below are a few. No obligation to read them before diving in with your own.

From Alan Lurie at Huffington Post:

I turned to see a tall bald man looking down at me as the train pulled in to the platform. I let two people in before me, and that's when I felt the push. As we turned toward the seats I felt another push on my back, and again looked at the man, who now released an annoyed huff of breath. What a jerk! I thought. Does he think that he's the only one who deserves a seat? Then I felt a poke on my shoulder, and in a loud angry voice the tall bald man said, "What are you looking at? You got a problem, buddy?"
From Sarah Cliff (2001):
My AA, Maureen, flubbed a meeting time - scheduled over something else-and he really lit into her. Not the end of the world - she had made a mistake, and he had to rearrange an appointment - but he could have gotten the point across more tactfully. And she is *my* AA. (And I am *his* boss, and he did it in front of me.)
From Richard Norquist (1961):
I know a college president who can be described only as a jerk. He is not an unintelligent man, nor unlearned, nor even unschooled in the social amenities. Yet he is a jerk cum laude, because of a fatal flaw in his nature--he is totally incapable of looking into the mirror of his soul and shuddering at what he sees there. A jerk, then, is a man (or woman) who is utterly unable to see himself as he appears to others. He has no grace, he is tactless without meaning to be, he is a bore even to his best friends, he is an egotist without charm.
From Florian Meuck:
He is such an unlikeable character. You never invited him; he sat down on your sofa and hasn’t left since. He never stops talking, which is quite annoying. But it’s getting worse: he doesn’t like to talk about energetic, positive, uplifting stuff. No – it’s the opposite! He’s a total bummer! He cheats, he betrays, he deceives, he fakes, he misleads, he tricks, and he swindles. He is negative, sometimes even malicious. He’s a black hole! He promotes fear – not joy. He persuades you to think small – not big. He convinces you to incarcerate your potential – not to unlock it.
Update, 4:43 p.m.:

Good comments so far! I'm finding this helpful. Thanks! I'm going to start pulling up some favorites into the body of the post, but that doesn't mean the others aren't helpful and interesting too.

* At the gym a few weeks ago. A man there (working out) had probably 10 weights of various sizes strewn in a wide radius around him, blocking other people's potential work-out space. I asked him if the weights were his, and he said "no - the person before me left them here, and I DON'T PICK UP OTHER PEOPLE'S WEIGHTS." [from anon 02:55 pm]

* the professor who has hard deadlines for their students, but then doesn't respond or reply promptly themselves, or expects perfection in writing but then has a syllabus and other written materials full of typos. [from Theresa]

* Anyone who blames low-level folk for problems that are obviously originating many levels higher up (or to the side). For example, berating a clerk for the store's return policy, the stewardess for the airline's cell phone rules, the waiter for the steak's doneness, etc. [from Jesse, 01:50 pm]

* If I'm descending the stairs towards the eastbound subway platform and I hear an approaching train, then I'll generally speed up if I see that the train is eastbound and I'll slow down if it's the westbound train. If there's no one in front of me on the stairs but there are several people following me, they'll use my change of pace as a signal re. whether the approaching train is eastbound or westbound. No one agreed on this tendency or explicitly recommended it. It's just a behaviour that arose spontaneously and became standard. So, if, on seeing that the train is indeed eastbound I deviate from the norm and slow my pace, thereby leading others behind me to slow down and miss the train, I'd say I've engaged in jerkish behaviour [from praymont, Apr 17]

43 comments:

Theresa said...

One of my pet peeves has always been the double standard, like the professor who has hard deadlines for their students, but then doesn't respond or reply promptly themselves, or expects perfection in writing but then has a syllabus and other written materials full of typos.

Jesse said...

Lane A is merging into Lane B. There is, say, 2 miles advanced notice, with markers ever 1/10 of a mile in the last mile reminding you to get over. (Say there's construction on the interstate.) This naturally causes a slowdown with traffic backing up a long way in Lane B. A jerk is someone who gets in Lane A and drives all the way up to the very last point before A ends and waits until a softie in B lets him cut in front of people who have been waiting patiently for 20 minutes.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Theresa: Yes, nice!

@ Jesse: One of my personal favorites. I even have a blog post about this very behavior!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Someone just told me about a professor who scheduled his office hours at 7 pm on Fridays so that no one would show up. It was unclear whether he himself actually showed up.

Jesse said...

Ach! So you did. Maybe a jerk is someone who doesn't bother to do pertinent background reading before commenting on a blog post.

Jesse said...

Another: Anyone who blames low-level folk for problems that are obviously originating many levels higher up (or to the side).

For example, berating a clerk for the store's return policy, the stewardess for the airline's cell phone rules, the waiter for the steak's doneness, etc.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Jesse: I don't want people to feel obliged to do that background reading! Otherwise, there's too high a bar before posting; I want the examples to come in. So please don't feel bad!

Yes, those other examples are good too.

Anonymous said...

At the gym a few weeks ago. A man there (working out) had probably 10 weights of various sizes strewn in a wide radius around him, blocking other people's potential work-out space. I asked him if the weights were his, and he said "no - the person before me left them here, and I DON'T PICK UP OTHER PEOPLE'S WEIGHTS."

Not sure what the more abstract account would be here - a jerk is someone who assumes that the fact that someone else has acted jerk-ishly excuses him/her from rectifying the problems brought on by the earlier jerk's jerk-ishness?

Corey Maley said...

Driving a rental truck on the Massachusetts turnpike (a toll road), and forgot to bring cash. At one toll booth, the operator simply wrote me a ticket, and upon discovering that I could not find the truck's registration, told me to just pull out slowly so he could write down the license plate number.

Second toll booth, the operator yells at me, "How could you get on the turnpike without bringing cash?" Upon discovering that I couldn't produce the registration, he asks me what I would do if the state troopers pulled me over. "I'd tell them that I can't find the registration." He yells, "Then you'd go to jail!" After some mumbling about how I'm only making things harder on myself (?), he eventually writes me the same type of ticket that the first operator gave me.

I propose that the second operator was a jerk.

AlAn said...

What's the difference between a jerk and an asshole?

Anonymous said...

http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2013/03/for-the-record-contains-brian-leiter-content

John said...

My mailbox normally stands immediately next to my neighbor's. One day I found my mailbox knocked over. I leaned it against my neighbor's, ensuring not to obstruct his in any way. I asked my landlord to fix it, and she said it would take a few days. The next day, my mailbox was on the ground again. I figured the wind had blown it over, so again I leaned it against the neighbor's. This happened a few days in a row, until one day I happened to witness my neighbor leave his house, walk to the mailboxes, push mine to the ground, and then walk back to his house without even checking his mail. Presumably it was obvious that my mailbox could either lie on the ground or lean against his, and I didn't want to inconvenience the mailman by letting it lie on the ground. I think my neighbor was a jerk in this situation.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Alan: Theory of jerks coming up in a future blog post! Once you see the theory, you'll see the difference between "jerk" in my sense and "asshole" in Aaron James's sense.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing examples, John, Anon, and Corey!

Tamler said...

Does anyone under 40 use the word jerk anymore? I don't even use it anymore and I'm not in that category. In my expert judgment, asshole and douche (or worse) have replaced "jerk."

Eddy Nahmias said...

I'm with Tamler that you may be creating a theory for a word that is outdated (uh oh, are we doing that when we theorize about 'free will'?). But in any case, people seem to have a very good understanding of the explanandum you are after--I suspect we evolved to be d-bag-recognizers.

Anyway, my suggestion is to mine the comics. They offer wonderful examples of jerk-douchery.

Eddy Nahmias said...

To be clear, I meant comedians--recently watched Louie CK and old Dave Chappelle and they both offer prime examples of jerk-holes. (I hope you didn't think I was referring to Lucy in Peanuts or the bad guys of Spiderman!)

Marcus said...

Hi Eric: I don't think it's outdated at all. My wife calls me a jerk all the time, and we're both well under forty (she's in her twenties). Seriously, though, young people use the word all the time.

Also, Eric, I'm curious: is your theory going to distinguish

(1) Jerkish behavior from *being* a jerk?

and

(2) People who superficially appear to be jerks but aren't actually jerks?

Here's why I ask. I have had many people say the following to me: "I used to think you were a jerk. But then I got to know you better, and know you're a good guy."

What's going on here? After a great deal of reflection, I think there are a couple of things.

First, a person can be a jerk on *occasions* without being a jerk simpliciter. I think I'm a pretty good case of this. I make pretty bad mistakes on occasion (where I'm a genuine jerk). But I don't think I'm a jerk simpliciter because I don't think I'm disposed to make those mistakes very often.

Second, behavior that superficially *looks* jerkish may not ultimately *be* jerkish. For instance, students may initially think you're a jerk because you're hard on them, but once they see that you really have their best interests in mind, they might no longer think you're a jerk. ;)

Callan S. said...

Isn't the thing that most of these examples of jerks actually appear the other way around to the person designated a jerk? I mean, why should you pick up someone elses weights? If he should, why shouldn
't the person who calls him a jerk also be obliged to pick up the weights as well? And why should someone just slow things down by not bringing money or registration and expect it's someone elses job to take time and fix that?

Generally I think of this example - is it jerkish to throw a sports ball (air filled) at someone? Yes? So when you hit someone in dodgeball you're being a jerk?

I'd think it comes down as to whether the person has a rule for them and a different rule for everyone else.

Otherwise it seems to often bee like someone coming in with a sense that the game being played is dodgeball, but the other person thinks another game is in session. Games crashing into games.

All that even headed talk aside, that push in the back example reminds me of when I felt a poke in my back on public transport as I was getting off a tram - what annoys me is I charitably assumed it was someone who knew me, giving me a cheeky poke to surprise me. I turn around expecting someone I know to just some nerk and cause I was already getting off (it'd speed up nothing to push), I get off for him without grasping the situation and let him get off with silence. The jerk!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the continuing comments, folks! I'm finding this helpful, especially since there's so little serious literature on this. Keep them coming!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Tamler/Eddy/Marcus: That's an interesting thought about age. I do think that "douchebag" or "douche" might be picking up some of territory from "jerk", but I rather loathe that term, so I'm hoping I can stick with "jerk". I'll keep a thoughtful eye out for age-related trends.

@ Eddy: Thanks for the tip on comics. That does seem like a good source! Maybe Seinfeld episodes too.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Marcus: I agree with all of your points. I'm anticipating posting a first pass at my theory of jerks today, and it's going to end with a big caveat in that direction. I think it's better to paint the vivid picture first before getting into the caveats. The full-length essay I'm writing will discuss at length the issue of occasional or situation-specific jerkitude, contrasted with broad, stable jerkitude.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Callan: The situations are a little underdescribed, so it's possible that the person was not actually being a jerk (see also Marcus's point).

I love your comment that "it comes down as to whether the person has a rule for them and a different rule for everyone else"! That's not actually my theory as I have drafted it so far, but now I feel compelled to think about whether it might be better than my current theory, which involves treating people as moral and epistemic peers. Of course, the two features might be closely related!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Callan, follow-up: One potential problem with your formulation is that sometimes people have different rules for themselves because they have *higher* moral standards for themselves. They couldn't bear to X because X seems to them morally wrong to do, and yet they're not very condemnatory when others do X. Those people are often not jerks but the opposite.

So it's not just the difference in rules. But there is something I like about your thought. I do think it gets near the heart of the matter.

Nick Byrd said...

A theory via negation will probably outperform a positive theory since being a jerk is often the result of not inhibiting certain impulses (e.g., anger, selfishness, impatience, myopia, etc.).. For example, anyone who fails to considers who would benefit from the act they are about to perform and/or fails to prevent acting in ways that benefit no one or only oneself.

A positive version: anyone who regularly acts in ways that either do not benefit anyone or only benefit oneself.

See also Aaron James' theory of Assholes: http://db.tt/36JXYqhZ

Marcus Arvan said...

Eric: another thought. It occurred to me that, in certain examples, being an asshole has a positive moral valence, whereas being a jerk never seems to.

Here's an example: it may actually *good* to be an asshole to a jerk. If someone cuts in front of you in line (like a jerk) -- especially if you know the person and they're a jerk to you a lot -- then perhaps it's right to behave a little like an asshole to them.

In contrast, I don't think it's ever good to be a jerk -- not even to another jerk or even an asshole. Suppose someone cuts in front of me in line or leaves their weights around. Does that mean that *I* should behave the same way towards them? No -- I'd be a jerk. At most, I should be an asshole: ignore them, maybe flip them off, etc.

:)

praymont said...

Like so many of our insults, 'jerk' seems gendered. It's generally men who are jerks, and increasingly (in my experience) it's women who use the term. On a different note, there's ongoing low-intensity warfare on the Toronto subway re. transit etiquette. Jerks include those who stand in the doorways even though they're not getting out at the next station and those who put their bags, etc. on the seat next to them. There's a whole Tumblr devoted to that last practice, although the Tumblr creator refers to these people as assholes, but I think a lot of people who use "jerk" mean it to be synonymous with "asshole" but feel uncomfortable about using obscenity. That Tumblr is at http://ihopeyourbagiscomfortableasshole.tumblr.com/
Commenters there allege that the Tumblr creator is a jerk/asshole because he's too quick to apply that term to others. The main beef seems to be that it's only jerkish to leave bags on a seat if there aren't many empty seats left in the car. I agree with that. Reflection on this suggests to me that often one part of being a jerk involves departing from standard behaviour, where the behaviour arose from being considerate of others. Jerks are inconsiderate. The standard, considerate behaviour doesn't need to have been explicitly thought about or recognized as such prior to the jerkish behaviour. To take another subway ex., if I'm descending the stairs towards the eastbound subway platform and I hear an approaching train, then I'll generally speed up if I see that the train is eastbound and I'll slow down if it's the westbound train. If there's no one in front of me on the stairs but there are several people following me, they'll use my change of pace as a signal re. whether the approaching train is eastbound or westbound. No one agreed on this tendency or explicitly recommended it. It's just a behaviour that arose spontaneously and became standard. So, if, on seeing that the train is indeed eastbound I deviate from the norm and slow my pace, thereby leading others behind me to slow down and miss the train, I'd say I've engaged in jerkish behaviour. I've done so because I didn't take into consideration how my behaviour is likely to make the objectives of those behind me (catching the next eastbound train) less likely to be achieved. And I've been jerkish regardless of whether that was my intent. A lot of jerkishness results from negligence or lack of consideration.

praymont said...

In saying that "jerk" is gendered and applied mainly to men, I should have added that there are of course lots of other gendered insults (much worse than 'jerk') that men use against women.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

@ Nick: The Confucian ideal would be not even to have those impulses. But maybe that's negative twice over. On your positive theory, I'm inclined to think it's possible for a jerk to give to Oxfam. But to some extent we can define our terminology as we like, of course.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting thought, Marcus! I see what you mean.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Praymont: Nice examples! Your subways stairs case is especially nice.

I agree that "jerk" tends toward the male gender, though I think women can also be jerks (so it's not as gendered as, say, "bitch"). My preference is to define it ungendered, but it's no accident I use "he" for the jerk.

Callan S. said...

Eric, yeah, the 'different rule for everyone else' is a lazy reference for me to make - generally the different rule for everyone else is to restrict everyone else from certain actions, whilst not restricting oneself.

When you flip it around and you restrict yourself in regard to certain actions but don't restrict others, well it is one rule for you and another rule for everyone else, but its certainly a different thing that way around. But I would say it's a rarer thing as well!

It's also interesting to think that it's less what the jerkish person did but more what they wouldn't allow you to do (specifically, that they wouldn't allow you to do the same thing to them that they did to you).

Good luck with it all! :)

$9,000,000,000 Write Off said...

You might over-draw the category by including every instance perceived as mean. People who are short and direct are often perceived as jerks, but in a high-paced environment, it's welcome behavior (as long as it's an even tone, not emotional and aggressive).

I like Mencken's take (but I always do) on unlikeable jerks:

"What I admire most in any man is a serene spirit, a steady freedom from moral indignation, an all-embracing tolerance — in brief, what is commonly called good sportsmanship. Such a man is not to be mistaken for one who shirks the hard knocks of life. On the contrary, he is frequently an eager gladiator, vastly enjoying the opposition. But when he fights he fights in the manner of a gentleman fighting a duel, not in that of a longshoreman cleaning out a waterfront saloon. That is to say, he carefully guards his amour propre by assuming that his opponent is as decent a man as he is, and just as honest — and perhaps, after all, right.

Such an attitude is palpably impossible to a democrat. His distinguishing mark is the fact that he always attacks his opponents, not only with all arms, but also with snorts and objurgations — that he is always filled with moral indignation — that he is incapable of imagining honor in an antagonist, and hence incapable of honor himself. Such fellows I do not like. I do not share their emotion. I can't understand their indignation, their choler. In particular, I can't fathom their envy. And so I am against them."

Danielle said...

The jerks I encounter most frequently are the people on city buses who sit in the middle of a 3-seat section when the rest of the bus is relatively full, instead of taking an end seat and allowing someone to sit on the other end with some elbow room in the middle. (Or, for a more extreme case, people who lie across the 3 seats and take a nap.)

Also, aisle/window plane passengers in a 3-seat row who put their elbows and legs into the middle person's space.

Or maybe I'm just picky about my personal space on public transportation...

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

$9 bil: I don't think my picture conflicts with Mencken's, although the jibe against democrats seems unnecessary. My claims concern what is motivating the jerk, not how the jerk is perceived.

Danielle: Right. For some reason, subways, planes, and freeways seem especially to invite the application of the dispositional term! Another commenter pointed me to the tumblr: "I hope your bag is comfortable, asshole", where you might find some people who share your peeve!

Ryder Dain said...

Just saw this today, and thought it might be a decent outer limit:

"They finally caught the jerk," said nurse Cindy Boyle. "It was scary. It was tense."

Boyle's talking, perhaps suprisingly, about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Is "Jerk" a satisfactory description here?

http://www.cbs8.com/story/22030863/final-shootout-then-boston-bombing-suspect-caught

Christopher Hitchcock said...

Jesse gave the following example:

"Lane A is merging into Lane B. There is, say, 2 miles advanced notice, with markers ever 1/10 of a mile in the last mile reminding you to get over. (Say there's construction on the interstate.) This naturally causes a slowdown with traffic backing up a long way in Lane B. A jerk is someone who gets in Lane A and drives all the way up to the very last point before A ends and waits until a softie in B lets him cut in front of people who have been waiting patiently for 20 minutes."

In fact, however, traffic will move faster for *everyone* if drivers maximize their use of the available capacity. This means that 1/2 the drivers should stay in lane A for as long as it is usable. In that sense, the lone driver remaining in lane A isn't doing anything wrong. This just shows that perceptions of jerkishness can depend upon social expectations.

Consider, however, the following variant (encountered frequently at the exit for the 5 north off the 110 north). Lane A is an exit lane from the freeway. Lane B is not. The exit is marked well in advance, and there are many cars lined up to exit. One jerk is *stopped* in lane B, trying to get into lane A right at the exit. I mean s/he is stopped in the middle of the frickin' freeway, forcing an entire lane of traffic to brake and line up behind him/her. Not just jerkish, but downright dangerous. My wife and I refer to this lane as the 'asshole lane'.

Christopher Hitchcock said...

At a concert, they announce 'no photography or recording allowed'. Then, in the middle of the performance, some jerk lets loose with a flash bulb. Very distracting to the performer. And it screams: 'the rules apply to everyone else, but not to me'.

Christopher Hitchcock said...

I'm on a free online site where you can play backgammon, and someone gets upset when I use the doubling cube strategically (they were in a position where they could win if they rolled doubles, but not otherwise). This person thought I was a jerk, and not playing fair. To me, this is part of the game, and no more jerkish than hitting their blot or making a wall (or say, bluffing at poker).

On this site you got points for winning games, and people liked to play against other people with similar ratings. All too frequently, I would encounter this behavior: if someone was losing, they would leave, faking a 'crash'. The site gave them 5 minutes to log back on before forfeiting. They would wait 4 minutes, log back on, make a move, and then leave again. They would do this in the hope you would give up and leave, hence forfeiting the game. What was amazing to me is that people would do this for meaningless 'points'. It also carried the message: 'I care about this way more than you do, and I'm going to exploit that for my advantage.' What also bothered me was people sucking all the fun out of something that should have just been a pleasant diversion.

Callan S. said...

That reminds me of people who complain of being 'ganked' in MMORPG's (in a game where PVP combat is possible and someone usually from a higher level or some sort of great advantage goes and kills another player and makes them respawn - potentially killing them multiple times)

What I love about the gank complainers is how easily they are distracted by the other person. They don't blame the programmers who made it possible for them to be killed that way, they just blame the person who did it. It's like this amazingly easy to pull off buck pass (if you are the programmer)

The Writin' Cowboy said...

Here's one for your files. An academic dean at a major west coast university was a first class jerk - and enjoyed surrounding herself with same. In one case, an associate dean, because of a personnel snafu, received several thousands of dollars more in her paycheck than she deserved. This went on for some time.
When the error was discovered, the associate dean was asked why she didn't report the error since it would have been obvious that her paycheck was severely bloated. "I thought I deserved it," she replied.
When told she had to return the funds, she protested saying she'd already spent the money on a new car and other things. She appealed the decision to her friend the dean who ruled that she could pay off the overpayment in installment payments over several years time - with no penalty or interest charged.
Wouldn't you like to get a free "loan" to buy a car?
The incident was kept quiet and it's uncertain if the payments were ever made.

Anonymous said...

Jerkishness, imo, often comes from an undeserved sense of being special and entitled to preferential treatment. People who deliberately park their cars in such a way that they take up two spaces, presumably to protect their car from dings. Similarly, people who park in handicapped spots, blocking driveways and in other illegal spaces, using the excuse, "I'm only going to be a minute." Which implies everyone else is going to take hours at the post office or dry cleaners?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Right! Aaron James regards this as the defining characteristic of the "asshole" -- a category that I think largely but not entirely overlaps with the category of the "jerk". Check out his fun book on this if you're interested!