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Nine Tips For When You're Tempted to Tell Someone Off

The subtle art of letting on that you’re on to them.

“Never fight with a pig. You’ll just get dirty and the pig likes it.”
—George Bernard Shaw

“How dare you suggest that I'm a pig?!”

You’ve had it; not that you can get away anytime soon. You’re stuck with this total jerk and it makes you sick. You can’t get away but you can’t just keep bending over and taking it. So what can you do?

You’re tempted to give them a piece of your mind. There are taboos against it: Be civil. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Have compassion. Even the worst of us are doing the best we can, and besides, everyone’s good at heart. Don’t express your biases against people. Your biases say more about you than about them. Chances are what you don’t like in others is something you don’t like in yourself.

There are taboos against those taboos too: Don’t take it lying down, letting them just walk all over you. It’s your responsibility to put bloodsuckers in their place. If not you, who?

Telling people off is a touchy business, like opening the hood on someone's car without their permission and picking at what you find in there. What makes you the expert on what’s going on under their hood? You’re psychologizing. Are you a psychologist? Even if you are, you could just be biased.

Here are a few tips on telling people off and the other options open to you as you wobble, not knowing whether to shoot or go blind, shoot your mouth off or continue to turn a blind eye:

  1. Passive aggressiveness is only bad when it's unwarranted: Passive aggressiveness is underrated. Its literal meaning is fighting passively, not actively. As such, it’s indistinguishable from passive-resistance, which many of us celebrate as the peaceful way that Gandhi and Martin Luther King fought evil. Passive aggressiveness gets its bad reputation from being indulged in theatrically. It’s one thing for slaves to silently sabotage their master. Slavery is evil; the master deserves resistance and the slaves have no other choice. It’s another thing to go passive when you have better options for voicing your resistance. Passive aggressiveness is the last best option. Use it responsibly — only when you have no other choice.
  2. Humor or confront — either way, you’re showing both respect and disrespect: Don’t insult people, but when you’re at odds with them, you can’t help it. If you humor them, you’re insulting their intelligence by assuming they can’t handle your opinion. If instead, you share your opinion, you honor them by thinking they can handle an opinion that, since it's at odds with them, they can find insulting.
  3. It takes two to untangle: Non-violent communication and other formulas for tactful honesty work well but not when you’re dealing with total jerks. There’s no “right” way to express yourself with total jerks, at least no way that they’ll regard as acceptable. That’s the point of being a total jerk. It’s having a repertoire of ways to blame other people for anything that’s challenging. If you find your healthy compassionate communication formula isn’t working with a total jerk, don’t be surprised. Nothing you say short of total surrender and supplication will be acceptable to a total jerk. Their sole goal is to make you wrong for thinking and feeling anything that challenges their fake might, rightness, and righteousness.
  4. Don’t try to convince them that they’re total jerks: Trying to persuade the resolutely unpersuadable is one of those ironic moves like giving reasons to someone resolutely unreasonable, telling someone who is resolutely not listening that they’re not listening, or trying to convince someone who resolutely doesn’t believe you to believe you because really they should believe you. A total jerk, as distinct from the occasional jerks we all are, is dead-set against receptivity. You can taunt them, you can get them to be a total jerk to someone else, you can expose them to onlookers but you can’t persuade them to be receptive.
  5. Moral shaming is futile: You can’t shame the shameless. You can’t evoke guilt in a total jerk by pointing out that they’re unethical. Don’t even try. Don’t accuse them of being a bully to you. They have a ready answer to that. They’re not bullies; you’re just a wimp. Of course, if you respond by fighting back, they have a ready answer for that too: Shame on you for being so aggressive. Remember, total jerks only have one competence. They rely on it for everything. It’s competence at deflecting all challenges. That’s no virtue but they’ll treat it as one. To regard any competence as a virtue would mean a skilled murderer is virtuous. A total jerk is narrowly skilled and the opposite of virtuous. The highest virtue is the oldest, adapting to reality. Total jerks are anti-adaptive. They demand their freedom from learning. That’s a vice but don’t expect them to ever see it that way.
  6. Loaded questions have their place: “How long ago did you stop beating your wife?” is the classic loaded question since it assumes incorrectly that there was wife-beating to stop. Loaded questions are considered a no-no when they actually have their place. If someone pretends they’re innocent when they’re actually guilty, ask those loaded questions. When someone is pretending he never beat his wife, asking when he stopped is a decent way to try to corner him. Ask a total jerk, “How long ago did you discover that you could pretend that you were never to blame? Did you have role models you learned to imitate? Does it excite you now as it did when you first discovered it or, by now, is it just force of habit you’re too afraid to change?”
  7. Total jerks don’t care at all about what they insist they care about most: You can tell a total jerk by the disconnect between their squawk and their walk. They squawk all principled and outraged about injustices to them, but in practice, ignore their principles. They want you to believe that being outraged about unfairness to them proves that they’re fair-minded. They live by the opposite of the golden rule: Do unto others whatever you’d never tolerate having done to you. When you see a pattern like this, it’s fair to assume you’re dealing with a total jerk.
  8. The devil is not in the details: With total jerks, the problem is their whole MO, their high-horse commitment to fake infallibility, invincibility, and incorruptibility: "My might proves I'm right and righteous, my right and righteousness proves that it's my duty to use any mighty dirty trick to maintain my might." At some point, you've got conclusive evidence from the details to make a solid guess that you're dealing with a devil. From that point on, the details are beside the point. To continue to pour over them is to backtrack as though you're still mounting a case for what you've already concluded. You enable devils by sticking with the details. They want nothing more than to lead you around by the nose into the tall weeds of their obfuscation. Being smart doesn't mean always staying focused on the subtle details, nor up in the high-minded abstractions. It means guessing well the best level of analysis. With total jerks, the best level of analysis is their generality anti-adaptive approach to life, not down in the details.
  9. Assuming makes an ass of you to me: If you assume that in general you’re dealing with a total jerk and demonstrate that assumption, for example by asking leading questions, chances are the total jerk will scold you for making assumptions or generalizing about them. Ignore that scold. It’s hypocritical. They’re saying that, in general, it's best to assume that one shouldn't generalize and assume. Being smart is rung-running, running up and down the ladder of levels of analysis until you find the one that captures the circumstances best. Someone tugging you down the ladder because details are always better is standing on a broken rung. No, feel free to assume. You could be wrong and you know it. All assumptions are like that. Total jerks will doubt you, not because they’re skeptical on principle. They’re just skilled at faking skepticism to deflect all challenges to their know-it-all self-certainty.

Postscript: There are some total jerks in the news these days, interviewed frequently by national broadcasters. They are famously slippery and to some extent, interviewers have to remain civil with them or else they’ll lose access. Still, there are points on this list that would be useful reminders to our news interviewers. They tend to show total jerks more deference than is healthy for a nation, taking squawks too seriously and asking total jerks detailed questions when it’s obvious that the details aren’t the problem. Some total jerks in public life are what you could call professional psychopaths. We make the distinction between psychopaths who are congenitally shameless and sociopaths who are socially encouraged to shamelessness. There are also, perhaps, econopaths, paid professional psychopaths incentivized to be total jerks by the profit they make at it.

If there’s one thing a therapist knows about psychopaths, it’s that psychopaths play like a fiddle anyone who treats them as though they aren’t psychopaths, asking them questions like, “Do you mean that?” or trying to appeal to their moral sensibilities. It's enabling. It helps psychopaths keep up their appearance of being normal. Our public interviewers should stop that.