Difficult People: Are You One of Them?

Difficult PeopleI’m not the easiest person to get along with. But I don’t consider myself a jerk. I’m not one of the difficult people. I don’t try to be difficult. But like most people, I have bad days; I take things the wrong way; I lash out. The problem I find is that when I’m having an argument with another person, I don’t know whose being the jerk. In most cases, there’s blame on both sides. But that in itself is something I’ve learned about such encounters. It’s a very good sign if you can see that you are at least partly to blame.

What I’ve noticed is true of the most difficult people — the ones who are forever getting into altercations — is that they think the world is against them. According to them, just about everyone in their lives are difficult. For a normal person, this should set off alarm bells. There really are only two possible explanations. The first is that you choose really bad people to hang around. For example, suppose you are a hate radio addict, it would be stupid to live in Berkeley. You would find a lot of people who think very different than you do. If that’s the kind of conflict that you like, have at it. But don’t be surprised that your relationships are difficult.

Difficult People Find Others “Difficult”

The most common issue, however, is that people find others difficult because they demand that everyone act just the way that they want. If that’s the case, you are going to find people “difficult” but the real problem is that you are difficult. They are just the way they are. So regardless whether you have decided to surround yourself with people who are naturally at odds with you and your worldview, or you require that everyone agree with you and do things your way, the problem is you not the world.

Difficult people have found a loophole in civilization. They’ve realized that most people are just too nice to tell them to shut up and mind their own business.

The vast majority of my relationships are extremely positive. But when I get into a fight with someone, I’m very concerned that I’m in the wrong. And even when I don’t think I’m in the wrong, I’m willing to take blame and get back to work. Life’s too short. But if the other person involved is not interested in accepting olive branches — indeed, if they use the olive branches to expand the conflict, then I know the problem is not me. I’m just dealing with a difficult person — a jerk.

I’m not sure what the difficult person gets out of being a jerk. But I can relate what I think is a telling experience. I had just spent half a day working with a difficult person and was told various things about how I should live my life. It wasn’t just advice of course, it was peppered with claims that I was an idiot and didn’t know what I was talking about. Later, I was going to dinner with this difficult person, and we ran into someone they knew. And I stood there for a good 15 minutes as this poor man was told exactly the same things I had been told with only slightly fewer insults. I wanted to say, “I’ve heard this lecture; could you give it on your own time?”

Difficult people have found a loophole in civilization. They’ve realized that most people are just too nice to tell them to shut up and mind their own business. But when someone does get the point of not being able to take it, that’s when the difficult person gets their greatest victory: oh, how wronged they’ve been by all the difficult people in the world!

The only way that you can know if you are a difficult person is to look out at the world and see what it thinks. I don’t think I’m a difficult person because the only person I know who thinks I’m difficult is widely considered one of the most difficult people working in their industry. The people who work with me have all kinds of pejoratives to describe me — but mostly just “weird.” But “jerk” is not one of them. Nor is “cruel.” But the real question is not figuring out if you are a difficult person; the real question is how you can avoid them.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

34 thoughts on “Difficult People: Are You One of Them?

  1. Cellphone conversation:
    “Be careful, honey! The radio says there’s some idiot driving the wrong way on the freeway!”
    “Too late – there are THOUSANDS of them.”

      • It _is_ an old joke… I was thinking, as I was trying to figure out how to phrase it for my comment, of just how temporally-limited a joke it is. The commuter has a cell phone, which means it’s the 80s or later; at the same time, in the joke as I first heard it, it’s a housewife calling her husband, and she got the news from TV – which is a situation that hardly exists anymore, between shifting gender roles and the decline of drive-time TV news.

        Anyway, it still cracks me up; my better half and I use “There are THOUSANDS of them!” as a bit of shorthand.

        • It’s not unusual for jokes to be based on older situations. In fact, there might have been some much older joke that didn’t involve cell phones. In fact: “A man came home from work and his wife said, ‘I’m so glad you’re safe! I heard on the radio that there was a madman going down the freeway the wrong way!’ And the man says, ‘Tell me about it; there were thousands!'”

          It’s also very similar to the old joke, “My brother drives like this.”

  2. A lot of it is insecurity. I know this dynamic well: “when someone does get to the point of not being able to take it, that’s when the difficult person gets their greatest victory: oh, how wronged they’ve been.” Some people are cruelest to those closest to them, as strangers wouldn’t put up with it. It’s deeply sad, but I believe I understand it. I have a lot of insecurity myself.

    I’ve tried to learn from these interactions. I try not to demean others even when I am angry (for I know being demeaned never helps me stop the behavior others are demeaning me for.) I don’t always succeed. I still have some very broken relationships in my life. Fewer than I once had, which is good — but it also leaves me a little socially isolated. I used to have more friends who doled out praise and cruelty, and I put up with the cruelty to get the praise.

    How to avoid difficult people? That’s hard. In a work environment the best I can do is try to praise people who clearly need a huge amount of validation, so they don’t turn on me. In personal interactions, sometimes you won’t see the cruel side of someone until you are close to them. Experience maybe can help you spot the warning signs. If someone never admits to being wrong, and constantly complains about the behavior of others without trying to try and understand where that behavior is coming from — this person will likely not be a friend one should have.

    But I’ve only known people who are cruel out of insecurity. Clearly there are some who regard constant anger/aggravation as a brain-chemical rush. Psycho cops and combative landlords (and hate media addicts.) Most difficult people I’ve known want love and respect, and go about obtaining these in a dysfunctional manner; some want hate and fear. I don’t know what to do about them.

    Maybe in a saner society we could gently suggest some kind of treatment (not a one-size-fits-all treatment like 12-step things, a more respectful and personalized approach. I dunno.) Maybe a saner society would have less of this mania (the road rage joke Marc makes above.) There will always be some.

    • Last night I was thinking something, and it was not the first time. My difficult person may have a kind of crush on me. I’ve gotten this before where the reactions are out of all proposition and very, very personal. As I’ve noted before, she is the best raconteur I’ve ever known. And if she were just more easy going, she would likely be beloved. You know who she reminds me of: Lucy in Peanuts all grown up.

        • Lucy only crushes on boys who play piano.

          It sound like a logical interpretation of the signals, though. Poor person. People like that are only happy in relationships with others they can walk all over. They can have fantastic flaming wreckages of relationships with other DPs, though . . .

          • It could be that she is attracted to him and annoyed about it since he is a ultra hippie lefty. Some people do let politics colour their relationships and find it disturbing to be interested in someone they are in disagreement with.

            Of course this is pure speculative gossip and we should probably stop. ;-D

            • I love gossip! But only if it hurts nobody. Spreading gossip to win a workplace power struggle is infinitely wrong.

              So you’d date someone with vastly different political views? I wouldn’t. That’s my deal-breaker, right there. I can bend on candidates and specific policy; not on cruelty-vs.-compassion. My SO was a conservative when we began our time together, and we’ve reached a level of compromise because we both hate cruelty and bullying over all.

              • Oooh, I don’t date anymore. I used to but generally I have something wrong with me that very few men are willing to tell me so I can decide if I want to fix it or not. Of course I also have the attention span of a gnat and a fear of love so I rarely like anyone longer than say two months.

                • I vastly dislike the established mantra that if someone prefers to avoid romantic entanglements, there must be something “wrong” with them.

                  To put on my amateur therapist hat, you have no attention span of a gnat. That’s ridiculous. I don’t know you from Eve, and it’s quite obvious to me you have an ability to focus sharply on matters which you care about.

                  Maybe human vocal chords — the ability to tell useful lies like “I love you” — are an evolutionary anomaly allowing us to be both social animals and self-obsessed animals at the same time. (Saying those words is massively selfish; it’s not a declaration of allegiance, it’s a needy call for validation, for the other to say it back.)

                  This kind of research is way out of my league. Some gorillas can make thousands of sign-language words to communicate with zookeepers, and others mostly enjoy flinging poo. There are equivalents of Trump supporters in the animal kingdom. AKA, dingbats.

                  • I say it because it is true. I constantly switch between stuff I am doing. I am better then I was though.

                    • We do learn stuff as we age. I gan it slowly. I’d put “wiser” before “better.”

                      You really should run for offiice again

    • Nope. Real feminists don’t qualify as DPs. Only the faux-feminists like Palin or Coulter. If you have real priorities you care about, will discus them with anyone willing to listen, yet don’t feed the trolls of permanent hate over everything, you’re an activist, not a DP.

      Although passionate activists can sometimes be so devoted it makes them difficult. When scientists are arguing over ideas which benefit the world, they can be very difficult to one another. But you know Frank’s thing about cussing. The proper phrase wouldn’t have been “difficult people” but the shorter/simple “assholes.”

      You may have caused difficulty to others whose agenda you wanted to derail — you are not an asshole. At least we can still cuss in comments!

        • Which is why I support cussing as a tool in any writer’s bag of tricks. “Asshole” is more descriptive than “difficult” in this case. All good reformers are difficult. But I’m fine with a blogger banning cusswords on a serious site. It’s their choice. Clinton has unsavory attributes and commendable ones; she is not remotely an asshole.

        • The word does have some sexist garbage associated with it. But most difficult people I’ve had in my life have been men.

    • You have no idea… I like people with strong opinions. I even like her.

      But here’s the thing: we must accept each other’s foibles — especially when we have lots of our own. (And I am very accepting of her foibles!) My approach to managing writers is to tell them to stop doing something. If they continue, I tell them again more directly. It moves up from there. Writers don’t respond to being yelled at and there are big name writers who simply won’t work with her because of her attitude. It’s a small publishing house: 9 titles last year — half reprints. I now see how I should have handled the whole thing. But you can’t go through your life walking on egg shells and you can’t expect to be perfect. And she should know after working with me over the course of 15 years that yelling at me is not the way to get me to respond properly.

      She has often compared me to Timothy Leary (who was a friend of hers): radicals who somehow slipped through the PhD process, which is designed primarily to stop exactly that. So she likes that I go my own way, but freaks out when the smallest amount of that touches on her. On the plus side, her last email indicated that we are getting on with our work. And that’s all I want.

      • Oh I was half joking about my statement.

        Hmm, either she hasn’t learned anything in fifteen years or something else is going on and she is taking it out on you. It still sucks to go through it.

        But I don’t get why you wouldn’t have made it through a PhD, you like to do performance art and how is that much different?

        • A PhD program is very much like kindergarten. They want to make sure you are properly socialized. You aren’t supposed to do anything that would embarrass the profession. Although this kind of thing is totally okay:

          • Is that what kindergarten is for? I thought it was to run off all our energy so our parents were totally annoyed with our existence when they got home from work.

            • Consider the word, kindergarten. It’s from German. It means a garden for kids, growing them the appropriate way. Happily, our kindergartens are more of a cheerful day care than an indoctrination program. The indoctrination starts much later.

            • In kindergarten, there was one kid who bullied all of us – pushing, shoving, insults, the occasional actual punch. He was a bit bigger than the rest of the class, and had (in retrospect) really bad impulse control. Our teacher watched him and stopped the worst of his shenanigans, but couldn’t be everywhere… but at the end of the year, we all graduated to first grade, and he didn’t.

              I’ve thought about that many times over the years; partly as a result, I tend to think of bullies and criminals with a good deal less respect than it seems my fellow-citizens do (basically, The Donald strikes me as a guy who should have flunked kindergarten.) On the other hand, I sometimes wonder whether the end result was just to make the next year’s kindergarteners even more miserable than we had been…?

              • That sounds awful. Sorry you went through it.

                I don’t have many happy memories of being in kindergarten. It was the start of a pretty awful school experience so I am going to now ignore it and go on to something else.

                Cookie baking planning.

                • It wasn’t terrible, in the grand scheme of things. I didn’t _love_ kindergarten, but honestly I remember that kid’s flunking more than I remember any of the specific incidents. (Funny – I even remember his name, 40-odd years later. I don’t remember a single other kid from that class.)

                  My big sister was teaching me to read that year, and by second grade I was so far ahead of my classmates that I transferred to a school that had a GATE program. (Well, it was actually MGM in those days, before Prop 13…) I stayed at that school, with the same group of classmates, until sixth grade, and those were the happiest of my schooldays. Moved away for middle and high school, and that’s when things really _did_ get awful.

                  Cookies sound gooooooooood. This is currently one of my favorite pictures – I have it set as the lock screen on my computer:
                  http://boingboing.net/2015/02/09/mount-fuji-seen-below-a-cookie.html

            • I believe it is largely about getting children used to arbitrary structure. I’ve never been too keen on it myself. But I’ve always been pretty good at faking it.

              • All I know is that little kids can be very cruel. Sorry you are so down. And about the results for your guy.

                • Wait. You think I’m down because Bernie Sanders lost?! I didn’t even notice until this morning. And I’ve never been that big a partisan. Roughly 9 months ago, I said he would get about 25% of the vote. If Sanders did poorly in SC, it is only because expectations have been raised so high. Sanders will be a big presence at the RNC and a great campaigner for Clinton. I don’t feel bad at all.

                  Now if you will excuse me, I need to go back to my manuscript and change all the italics to underlined because either (1) some typesetters are totally incompetent; or (2) some typesetters are just trying to be total fucking assholes. I’ll let you decide which one of those I lean toward.

                  • No, I knew your depression was related to wanting to stab the manuscript. I thought the results made you feel worse so I was trying to be nice despite my cartwheels over her massive victory.

                    And how come they can’t be total incompetent fucking assholes?

                    • As I wrote before Nevada, if Sanders lost there it was definitely over. If he won there, it was probably over. Sanders have been hugely successful and Clinton, the Democratic Party, and America are all better off because of his campaign. There’s nothing to feel bad about.

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