A scholarly approach to dealing with assholes as told by the doctors who study them
You’ll see them around the office, schmoozing to the boss while treating other colleagues like shit. You’ll see them on the streets, furiously honking at cyclists from inside their SUV. You’ll see them at a child’s soccer game, cursing out the referee.
They’re assholes, and there’s almost no avoiding them. So you’d better learn how to deal with them.
Thankfully, Dr. Robert Sutton and Dr. Aaron James have broken the craft of dealing with assholes down to a science. Between them, the Ivy League scholars have written several books that serve as survival guides in this asshole-riddled world.
“An asshole is someone who leaves us feeling demeaned, de-energized, disrespected or oppressed,” explains Dr. Robert Sutton, psychology professor at Stanford University and author of “The Asshole Survival Guide.”
“An asshole makes us defend our very sense of self-worth,” says Dr. Aaron James, philosophy professor at University of California, Irvine, and author of “Assholes: A Theory.”
Both professors agree though, everyone has an inner-asshole. All of us are capable of being jerks under the wrong conditions. The difference between a temporary asshole and a certified asshole, however, is that certified assholes are consistent. As Dr. James puts it, “being an asshole is a way of life.”
Interacting with a certified asshole is unhealthy. Studies prove it takes a toll on our physical and mental health; and perhaps even worse, people who interact with toxic personalities soon become toxic themselves.
The most effective strategy to escape an asshole’s path of destruction is to cut and run. “Get out,” Dr. Sutton says, “because the more contact you have with them, the more you’re going to suffer.” If the asshole is your boss, quit. If it’s your roommate, change the locks on the doors. If it’s your president, flee the country.
But odds are, escaping isn’t so simple. If it’s not possible to get out, option number two is reframing your outlook on the situation.
This is cognitive therapy 101. Think about how years from now, that asshole won’t be in your life, but he’ll still be the asshole he always was. Laugh at the asshole, feel sorry for the asshole, or otherwise recognize you are superior to the asshole, in order to emotionally distance yourself from him. “You’re not changing the person who’s tormenting you — you’re changing your definition of the situation so it hurts less,” Dr. Sutton says.
Perhaps the simplest approach of all: “Master the fine art of not giving a shit,” Dr. Sutton says. Either ignore the asshole, or at least stop dignifying him with such a strong response. “When someone really really cares about something and you don’t give a shit, that’s its own form of revenge,” Dr. Sutton says.
However, when a different perspective isn’t enough to conquer an asshole, your final option is to fight back.
First, identify your asshole. Are they a clueless asshole or a strategic asshole? A clueless asshole may not be self-aware enough to realize they’re hurting you, and letting them know they crossed a line could suffice to change behavior.
A strategic asshole, on the other hand, loves to see everyone suffer. “These are narcissistic personalities who model their life under the assumption that assholes finish first,” Dr. Sutton explains.
Unlike clueless assholes, “they’re not going to take your complaints seriously, and they might even be disrespected that you questioned their standing,” Dr. James adds in.
To beat this special breed of asshole, gather a group of people who are your allies, and work together to gather evidence — record times, places and conversations; save pictures, videos and emails. The “asshole diaries” strategy can expose assholes and ultimately hold them accountable for horrible behavior.
If all else fails, a last alternative for fighting back is to out-asshole the asshole. “Some people only understand displays of power,” Dr. Sutton says, “so sometimes, you have to speak to the asshole in the only language they understand, and fire back with everything you’ve got.”
Dealing with an asshole is never easy, but unfortunately, it’s inescapable. “You can’t avoid assholes,” Dr. James says, “not if you’re going to leave the house.”