There's a jerk inside all of us: we roll our eyes when someone in line has a complicated order, curse at little old ladies who don't drive fast enough, and sneer at people who are just too happy. Over time, that snark kills our productivity and poisons our relationships. Here's how to keep your inner jerk in check.
Title quote courtesy of Anna Holmes.
There's a difference between being occasionally sarcastic and a little derisive in your head, but when negativity becomes your default reaction, you have a problem. You may have had a wake-up moment, much like Anna Holmes, founding editor of Jezebel, had when she realised she was sneering at someone for no reason other than that the person was happy. Here's what she said:
Just rolled my eyes at a woman skipping happily across 42nd Street. Then I realised I'M the asshole.
— Anna Holmes (@AnnaHolmes) May 31, 2012
How about a quick check. Do you:
- Roll your eyes at every "hipster" who, by most accounts, is just a person trying (successfully or not) to dress fashionably?
- Primarily complain about how horrible people/things are on Facebook/Twitter?
- Get angrier every passing moment that you stand in line at the supermarket or have to wait for your check to arrive at a restaurant?
- Find you're constantly frustrated with coworkers who don't "get it"?
- Comment angrily on blogs, videos and other websites (usually beginning with "ummm" and ending with "just saying"?
- Feel like it's OK to be a complete jerk, as long as you're "witty" about it?
Sounding familiar? You may have a problem. We sat down with Roger S. Gil, marriage and family therapist, and clinical psychologist Dr Jeffrey DeGroat, to determine when enough is too much, and what to do if you have a snark problem.
How Your Cynicism Is Hurting You
It may seem harmless if it's all bottled up in your head and not hurting anyone else, but that snark is actually doing damage to you in insidious ways. For example, cynicism and snark:
- Kills your productivity
- Drains your passion for your work
- Makes you hate what you do
- Makes you prejudicial and prone to leaping to conclusions without cause (PDF)
- Is linked to cardiovascular illness and heart disease [PDF]
- Closes your mind to new ideas and experiences (scroll down to Nature as the Cure for Cynicism)
- Poisons your relationships
- Erodes the foundations of democratic society (we're not joking!)
- Is unethical
Why Is This a Problem?
To be fair, it's natural to be a bit of a jerk in your own head. Unfortunately, every day we see examples of snark and rudeness as the natural response to even the most innocuous irritants. Over time, however, that snark erodes our relationships and makes it difficult for us to interact with others, but it also closes our minds to people who are different than we are, shuts us off from new ideas, and redirects energy better used improving our lives and doing our jobs towards being mean to others. Roger Gil says:
Snark/sarcasm/contempt is always an indicator that something else is going on in a given situation. When it's appropriate, it tells people that you're not going to let others push you around. When it's inappropriate it shows that you feel the need to make yourself "bigger" than others. That need to put one's self above others can be a symptom of depression or some personality disorders (of course, there would have to be other symptoms present to justify a diagnosis). That being said, perpetually putting others down can be indicative of insecurity, narcissism, negative thought patterns, or jealousy. If those things are present, then you definitely want to address it because it's likely to affect your relationships negatively.
Dr DeGroat agrees and notes that almost always snarky, contemptuous behaviour is the result of some other issue in our lives. Whether we're projecting our own unhappiness or other undesirable feelings onto someone else, or we're redirecting someone else's contempt that's directed at us off to someone else, the process quickly devolves into insensitivity, anger and resentment. We start being rude for no reason, we begin to feel we're the only competent ones around us, distrust others, reject their ideas or any ideas contrary to our own, and we stress ourselves out over silly things. Sound familiar?
We all know what stress can do to you, but if the fact that snark is self-destructive isn't reason enough to tame your inner arsehole, letting it take over your mind can destroy your relationships too. And, Gil reiterates, when your snark starts to hurt other people or you catch yourself being surprised by how snarky you've become, it's time to do something about it. Photo by Alan Levine.
How Can I Tell If I've Gone Overboard?
Figuring out whether you're just too snarky for your own good is actually pretty easy. Ask your friends — if they haven't already alienated you, good friends will be willing to call you on your crap. Sit down and really think about your natural reactions to others, then step back and think: If you saw this in someone else, would you think they were a nice person? Of course, it's different for you, right? That lady totally should have put on a different dress, right? Everyone thinks they have a reason to be judgemental, but the truth is we're all the hero of our own stories — just because you think you have a reason doesn't mean that reason is justified. Photo by zombieite.
"Inappropriate sarcasm is unprovoked and inconsistent with the mood/spirit of an interaction," Gil says. "It can also be a form of bullying because it's a way of going on the offensive and putting people beneath you. If you find that your go-to response to an otherwise normal situation is eye rolling or smirking on one side of your mouth (both physical cues of contempt) or a thought that basically says 'that person is an idiot', then you probably do have a problem." He also notes that looking back over your posts to Twitter and Facebook are a good way to tell what's really renting space in your brain. Since we use those services to vent — and they're a forum where others have to listen to us, they can often reveal a great deal about how we really think and feel. Look over your updates, comments, and replies as though you're reading someone else's stream. Would you think you're a nice person?
OK, I'm a Bit of a Jerk. What Do I Do About It?
Once the realisation has dawned on you that you could probably be a little nicer, it's time to get your inner arsehole in check. First of all, don't guilt yourself — you need to vent, and plenty of things in our everyday lives irritate us. The key is finding ways to deal with them or let them roll off of us without getting bent out of shape about them, or resorting to being snarky and mean just to make ourselves feel better. Here are a few suggestions:
- Enlist the help of your friends. Assuming you still have them, ask them to call you out when you're being mean or unnecessarily snarky. That's the easy part: the hard part is making sure you don't get defensive when they do. Gil says, "Make a note of your thoughts and emotions when you're being told you're "too sarcastic". Are you getting defensive? Are you dismissing the person's complaints? Before you act, note your response to your friends." Photo by Wetsun.
- Reward yourself for being nice. When you beat back the impulse to be rude or mean, even if it's in your own head, treat yourself. Gil suggests you carry an index card or use an app on your smartphone to make a note of when you felt the urge be mean and how you responded. Set a goal for yourself, even — after a given number of calm, normal responses, treat yourself to something nice or something you enjoy doing.
- Call a mental time out. If you're only an occasional arsehole, or your inner jerk only rears its head when you're stressed out, Dr DeGroat says a little time for reflection may do the trick for you. What else has happened to you recently? How have you been feeling? Maybe this snark is being triggered by something else in your life that needs to be addressed directly.
- Give yourself an "opposing script" to follow when you're feeling snarky. The best way to break yourself of a bad habit, says Gil, is to correct it as soon as it happens. Use a prepared script if you have to. He says,
Are you rolling your eyes at the young couple holding hands? Ask yourself why and tell yourself that being in the infatuation stage of romance is great regardless of the fact that you may have had bad experiences in the past. Do you feel disdain for people that laugh at those lame Madea movies despite their cookie-cutter nature? Remind yourself that not everyone has the same sense of humour as you and that your disdain is unwarranted.
- Talk to a professional. Roger Gil and Dr DeGroat both made no bones of the fact that if your snark and sarcasm are starting to alienate you from your friends and coworkers, you should talk to someone about it who can call you out on your behaviour in a non-judgmental, healthy way. Your raging snark may be symptomatic of some other issue you're struggling with, and as much as we try, it's exceptionally difficult for a person to change unconscious feelings without help.
Just Be Nice, OK?
If you take one thing away from this, it's that snark is the mindkiller. Sarcasm is fun and great in small, appropriate doses, but unchecked it not only alienates the people close to you — whether you care about them or not — and destroys your relationships. In the end, you wind up becoming the bad guy — that guy that thinks everyone else is so terrible and awful, all the while completely missing the fact that the problem isn't with them, it's with you.
Thankfully, it's an easy thing to correct. In most cases, all you have to do to keep your occasional inner arsehole in check is to be nice to people and treat them the way you want to be treated. Remember Wheaton's Law. Tamp down the urge to be mean just because someone's different than you are, has a different opinion, dresses differently, or just seems to love life or their work in a way you don't. Then, take all of that energy you would have spent being snarky, and put it to good use: like living your own live and doing the things that make you happy.
Roger S. Gil, MAMFT is a marriage and family therapist who helps individuals, couples, and families with their relationships, parenting skills and other mental health issues. You can follow him on Twitter at @rogergil79, check out his blog and podcast at luvbuzd.tv.
Dr Jeffrey DeGroat, PhD, LP, is a Clinical Psychologist specialising in family therapy.
Both gentlemen graciously offered their expertise for this post, and we thank them.