A Handy Guide to Figuring Out If You’re Actually a Jerk

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Everyone knows at least one jerk in their lives — the co-worker they can’t stand, that friend of a friend who inexplicably keeps getting invited to things — but it’s easier to point to examples of their bad behavior than it is to pin down exactly what makes a jerk a jerk.

A recent column in Nautilus offers a handy working definition: Eric Schwitzgebel, a philosophy professor at the University of California, Riverside, argued that the label applies to “people who culpably fail to appreciate the perspectives of the people around them, treating others as tools to be manipulated or fools to be dealt with.” A jerk, he wrote, is “ignorant of the value of others, ignorant of the merit of their ideas and plans, dismissive of their desires and beliefs” — as opposed to the sweetheart, who is “habitually alert to the needs and interests of others [and] solicitous of others’ thoughts and preferences.”

Most people fall somewhere between the two — but knowing where we fall on the spectrum can be a challenge, in part because we’re most clued in to the traits that are easiest to empirically assess. Athleticism, for example, is something that’s observable; you’re good at sports or you’re not, fast or not, strong or not, and you and everyone else can see the answer unfold in real time. Something like thoughtfulness, on the other hand, is trickier to see — and besides, everyone wants to think it’s a trait they possess, making it that much harder to objectively measure. Being a jerk, Schwitzgebel writes, is kind of like that second one: You don’t want to think you’re a jerk, so you twist the facts to fit your perception of yourself as someone who’s not.

So how to tell if you’re actually a jerk? “Isn’t that one of those questions where if you have to ask, the answer is yes?” one of my colleagues wrote in Slack this morning. But as it turns out, the opposite is true — if you’re concerned about being terrible toward other people, it means you’re probably self-aware enough to avoid any truly egregious missteps.

But introspection, Schwitzgebel wrote, will only get you so far. A jerk, after all, doesn’t exist in a vacuum; jerkiness asserts itself in relation to other people, meaning it may be more informative to your gaze outward:

Are you surrounded by fools and non-entities, by people with bad taste and silly desires, by boring people undeserving of your attention, by people who can be understood quickly by applying a broad and negative brush? …

If this is how the world regularly looks to you, then I have bad news. Likely, you are the jerk. This is not how the world looks to most people, and it is not how the world actually is … You are not seeing the individuality and potential of the people around you.

When everyone looks like a jerk, in other words, chances are it’s because you’re seeing them through jerk-tinted glasses.