The Jerk Circle
I was in Toronto recently, for a book promotion and a public speaking tour and to just generally be amazing in a new place. One day, I was on the Toronto public transit system, which is called the TTC, when I noticed a sign that said, “One TTC employee is assaulted every day. That’s one too many.” I found it a rather odd message, because it seemed to suggest that while the behavior was wrong, it was an expected daily occurrence. One might take from that message that if you feel the impulse to assault a TTC employee, well, you’re not the only one.
After interacting with a few of these employees, I got a sense of why someone might feel that impulse. But, you see, when that jerk wouldn’t give me the time of day or explain how many tokens I needed to buy, I might have taken it as a bad apple in the bunch had I not seen that sign, which suggested uniformity in treatment and behavior. In other words, I felt that there was a cultural expectation that people mistreat TTC employees, and an expectation that TTC employees would act in a way that was antagonistically provoking. That’s a whole cycle of people being locked in judgment of each other, played out in a predictable fashion like an episode of Law and Order.
I started to think about how much we do that in our own lives. You’ve decided that the former partner is a jerk, that the boss is cheap, and that co-worker is unreasonable. Meanwhile, your former partner thinks you are arrogant, your boss thinks his employees are ungrateful, and your co-worker has decided that you have sawdust for brains.
Because these judgments interlock with one another, the existence of both sets of judgments means that each party will continue to act in a way that will “prove” your judgment about them. You feel justified in how you treat that other person because they continue to show you exactly what a rotten person they are. Crazy thing is, that other person is thinking the same thing about you. Now, folks, there are some truly rotten people out there, like health insurance executives, but more often I see rotten behavior stemming from justification based on judgment. People think they are good, yet feel entitled in mistreating people they consider unworthy of friendlier discourse. Sorry, folks, but if you’re a jerk to anyone, you’re still a jerk in that moment. The recipient is irrelevant. You might have to come to terms with the fact that you’ve been a real ass at times. Being nice to your friends is easy, and the laziest form of goodness.
So, how do you break the cycle of judgment? Well, you can’t really change another person’s judgment, but you can act drastically contrary to an expectation. What if that sign had read, “Every day, one TTC employee performs an extraordinary act of kindness?” That might compel me to look for the person who would be performing that act of kindness. I might be intrigued enough to act in a manner which might prompt this extraordinary kindness I’d been hearing so much about. I said I might be.
In order for you to do something like that, you might have to change your judgments and expectations about another person’s behavior. You might actually need to consider the idea that people are capable of behaving better than you expect them to, and that perhaps you’ve never given them a chance to even show you what they’re capable of. Yes, some people may continue to act like jerks, but at least you wouldn’t have to join them anymore at the Jerk Convention.
After all, conventions where everyone stands in a circle and acts like a jerk are not fun. I think that’s where we get the term “circle jerk.”
Just My Thoughts,