Here be jerks

So, yesterday I was standing in line at the drug store.  It was the usual long line, filled with the usual bored and indifferent people, waiting for the usual slightly-overworked cashiers to get through everyone.

Then, this fellow walked right up, past the line, and put a couple of small items on the counter to buy.  When the cashier politely informed him of the queue, he replied, “I’m just buying a few little things and I’m in a hurry.”  The teller, to her credit, was unfazed, and withstood the queue-jumper’s increasing insistence until he eventually announced that if they didn’t want his business he would take his money elsewhere, and left in somewhat of a huff.  The teller (doing that thing only underpaid, overworked cashiers can do, where she managed perfectly to emote sighing and rolling her eyes somehow without any actual noise or movement) called the next person.

It’s easy enough to write off such moments as one of those random encounters with weirdos that we all have every now and then (especially for those of us who frequently take the bus).  This time, though, the fellow in question wasn’t (at least, seemingly) a local oddball.  He was young, clean, wearing clothes that probably marked him as an office worker, perhaps on his lunch break.  He spoke normally, even eloquently, didn’t act drunk or stoned, didn’t have his penis hanging out or a shoe on his head.  He was just a regular guy, to all appearances — a regular guy who, somehow, got it into his head that the world revolved around him, and that he was more important than all the people waiting in line.

I used to be confused by such people.  You have to be quite the jerk, I thought, to wander through the world expecting (and demanding) that events fall into line neatly with your desires, regardless of what anyone around you might want.

Anyone who has ever lived in a student residence has seen this happen.  There are always people who are pleasant, smart, and polite, but who somehow just don’t understand why they get asked to turn down their booming stereo at three in the morning before a final-exam day.  I once saw two of my neighbours almost start a fistfight after the following conversation in the hallway early in the morning:

“Hey, man, what the hell?”
“It’s 6am and I have an exam in four hours.  Could you possibly not…”
“Hey!  Shut up!  I’m sleeping!”
“JUST A CITY BO… what?  Dude, what’s your problem?”
“I have an exam in a few hours and I’d really like to go back to sleep, please.”
“I like to sing in the morning.”
“Just shut up so I can go back to sleep.”
“What the hell is wrong with you?  I’m just singing.  I didn’t do anything to you.”
“You woke me up!!”
“I like to sing in the morning.”

Fortunately, another neighbour (oddly enough, also awake) intervened between the two just before the moment became ugly.

The guy who likes to sing is a nice guy.  But, he just couldn’t grasp that singing in the hall at six in the morning is uncool.  If he wants it, then it must be fine.  That’s how it works, right?

It’s easy to blame self-centered students on them being young, and maybe spoiled.  “That’s just stupid kids being stupid.”  But, it’s a cop-out (and vaguely discriminatory) to blame this on youth; adults do it too, just as often if not more.  Mr. I’m-too-important-for-lines-at-the-shop was certainly old enough to know better.  And, when it comes right down to it, most crime is really just an extension of the idea that what is important to one person is worth more than what is important to another.  For that matter, most of the economic policies that maintain the wealthy at the expense of, well, everyone else, are based on the same principle.

So, in my head I’m mostly trying to decide if the correct analysis for all of this is a rather simple, “Some people are really selfish.”  Part of me likes that idea because it blames our bad behaviour on basic human nature, and also because it makes the guy cutting in line at the store an example of everything wrong with mankind.

But, that raises the question of how we could all be like that.  If people are generally selfish (which, to at least some degree, is probably true), then how do some people learn to be so righteously indignant about it?  You can’t watch everyone else thinking that the world revolves around them, and then conclude that it must therefore revolve around you.  That learning pattern might work if everyone were unabashedly and un-hypocritically selfish, but many people (like store-guy, or hallway-singing chap) are completely unaware of how self-centered their perspective is.  You don’t naïvely assume the spotlight as a result of watching other people do the same, because obviously not everyone can have a spotlight.

But, it also can’t simply be that some people are spoiled and wealthy.  I know plenty of wealthy people, and many are spoiled, but not all of them are over-expectant whiners.  And, I also know plenty of people who act like selfish jerks but aren’t especially wealthy or coddled.  I’ve actually got to wonder where some people get their sense of entitlement, because I’ve seen people who have nothing and achieve little (and will likely never amount to anything) walk around like they own the place.

(And, sometimes it works.  We’ve all seen the short pudgy guy leave the bar with the hot girl just because he acted like an arrogant prick all night.  Protip: women go for arrogant pricks.)

So, there might be a correlation between being spoiled and feeling entitled, but it’s hardly an absolute connection.  And, it’s probably also not as simple as behaviour being validated with rewards — I really doubt that Line-Cut Guy would have found a different response anywhere else.

So, where does this come from?  Is it really as simple as, “Some people are jerks”?

My theory is that it’s universal.  All people suck, but we only notice it when they suck in a way that we personally find particularly annoying.  Everyone does thoughtless things, and by definition we don’t really understand that we’re doing it.  Being thoughtless doesn’t make you a bad person (although, of course, you might independently be a bad person); it just makes you human.  That doesn’t make it a right and proper thing to completely ignore the perspectives of the people around you, but it does mean that you’re somewhat less evil than Hitler.  Good people aren’t the ones who never do anything wrong; they’re just the people who do their best to stifle it.

That sounds pessimistic, but it’s really not.  Yes, it’s basic human nature to be a jerk.  But, the way we regularly go about our lives without being incessantly bothered by thoughtless losers shows pretty clearly that in general people are good at stifling their less considerate impulses.  This distinction is important, because it re-frames what it means to not annoy everyone around you. No one is inherently and magically a wonderful person — people have to put thought and energy into being considerate.  It’s important to remember that getting along takes some effort.  Not that we shouldn’t expect it, but we should also be appreciative when it happens.  And, maybe we could stand to be a little forgiving when someone has a bad day and just doesn’t have the fortitude to worry about the rest of the world.

I bet even Gandhi peed on the toilet seat every now and then.

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