I’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.
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.