The Great American Jerk is a chameleon who changes colors according to circumstances, from obsequious to bullying, from pious to lewd. He may, on some occasions, display buck-waving generosity and on others check-splitting stinginess, but underneath there is always the baby boy or girl who wants what he or she wants, whether it is money, service, or just attention.
To deal with them, you have to learn to spot the Jerk in his many forms, and never be fooled by an apparent act of kindness or generosity that is really only a means to gaining power over you. Knowledge, as they say, is power, and the first step in protecting yourself from Jerks is to see through their phony justifications—“I’m a rugged individualist,” or “I am sensitive,” or “I have a meat protein allergy and could die if a single drop of fat even touches my grilled tofu”—and learn to recognize them for what they are.
Hint: If you want to get an infallible Jerk-detector, go out and buy a mirror. “What are you laughing at?” asked an ancient poet, “Change the name and the jokes’ on you.”
Jerks come in all shapes and sizes, colors and ethnicities, sexual orientations and religions, and there are more distinctive subspecies than there sins and vices. One obvious way of looking at the overall phenomenon is to consider it in light of the seven deadly sins: lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, anger, envy, and pride, and, as we go along, we shall apply these traditional categories even though many of the Jerk’s sins are far too petty to be mortal, that is, deserving of eternal death. However, many of the venial sins are the lite beer version of the mortal: a man who flirts with every waitress is not necessarily hell bent on committing adultery and the irritable store clerk does not inevitably have death in his heart against the customers who distract him from taking inventory. But since the focus of this exercise in urban anthropology is the American Jerk, we won’t be wasting time if we take a few minutes to consider some of the more characteristic subspecies to be found in hotel bars, supermarkets, and cocktail parties.
Let’s begin with the basics. Rather than breaking down Jerks into categories of severity—rating them from one to ten—we can agree to divide them broadly into what I am calling Boors and Louts.
The boor is someone who does not know how to behave. He constantly makes a fool of himself by using the wrong fork or insisting upon steak in a seafood restaurant. He will pay embarrassing compliments to women he has just met and make himself the life of every party by telling anecdotes about his not very interesting life—anecdotes in which he inevitably plays the hero. Most of his offenses, however, are the result of ignorance, not malice. He honestly does not realize how tedious people find him. If he has a good heart and is willing to observe or take advice, he may even be cured of his (and our) affliction.
The Lout displays the same range of offensive behavior as the boor, but he is probably incorrigible. The Lout, in other words, is a boor who knows he is just fine the way he is and does not have to listen to anyone about anything. On the same occasion, he can call a Queen by her first name and insult a cop or someone else’s servants by offering them a bribe. Foreigners, he knows, all understand English, especially if it is mixed in with a few pidgin phrases. “No rikee rice?” he inevitably asks an Asian. Every Mexican is named Pedro, and every French girl is ready to go to bed with him. If he is rich, then he knows that everything and everyone can be bought, and if he is not rich, he thinks he has superior knowledge of the world that makes him master of every situation. If the price of oil goes up, the fault lies with the Bushes, the Saudis, or the Jews. And, no, he cannot be only partly right. Whatever little bit of “truth” he has discovered is the whole truth, a one-size fits all explanation of the universe that explains everything.
To put it more simply, the Boor is an unconscious, the Lout a conscious (at least partly conscious) Jerk. The former must be endured and, if he is a friend or relation, patiently schooled without letting him know what a fool he has been. It is not helpful to say things like, “Only a complete idiot would tell a grandmother she looks hot for her age.” Lead by example and occasionally explain how someone might misinterpret his well-meaning remarks. Since Louts are incorrigible, there is little use in correcting them. We don’t want to teach them, as badger would say, “we want to learn ’em—learn ’em, learn ’em!”
Any classification of American Jerks into types will be somewhat artificial. A glutton may be a braggart as well as the dissatisfied diner who dresses down the waiter and the entire chef in public. The same sister-in-law who insists on planning your joint vacation to place she has never been and where you are an old hand may be the woman in your party who screams out inanities in the breakfast room of the quiet English hotel you managed to arrange. Though the Jerk may display several faces to the world, he is not so much a Jekyl and Hyde personality as a Hyde A and Hyde B, but, while there are certainly underlying causes that link sloth, lust, and gluttony, on any one occasion what we see, generally, is one the ugly faces of Mr. Hyde. Let us take a look at a few mug shots.
W.S. Gilbert was a professional comic writer who apparently did not appreciate the antics of “funny fellows, comic men, and clowns of private life,” all of whom he puts on the Lord High Executioner’s little list to be eliminated—”They’d none of them be missed.” In the first five minutes, the life of the party is amusing. That is because he is giving you his best material, the stuff he prepared before leaving home. As a student, I shared a house one of these entertainers, whom Prof. Wilson has had the privilege of getting to know later on. This wit actually kept a card file (by now it has probably been computerized) of jokes and anecdotes, classified by topic and source. Oscar Wilde led the pack, followed by H.L. Mencken and W.C. Fields.
The material was entertaining for a half hour or so, if you had never heard it before, but anyone who needed to have a serious conversation in his presence was out of luck. If you did poorly on a test, he had the right quip for the occasion; your attempt to reconcile with your girlfriend was stymied by his performance of the bar scene in One-Eyed Jacks, and God help you if your mother died.
The clowns of private life are often, so the cliché runs, sad people. That may or may not be true, but the ones I have known are almost to a man indifferent to the feelings of their audience. They are incorrigibly cheerful about other people’s misfortunes. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse may be rampaging through your garden, but they will comfort you with an irrelevant platitude—”It’s always darkest before the dawn”—or an inappropriate quip. Chesterton has a story in which no one can figure out why a jovial man has been murdered. He was always so happy. The wise Fr. Browne finally figures out that this cheerful exuberance masked a blank indifference to suffering, which everyone found insufferable.
St. Paul, not always the most sensitive of men, gave excellent advice “Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.”
Anyone who has had a serious illness in the family, has run into the cheery consolation of the optimists who take any slight sign of recovery as conclusive evidence that all the troubles are over. Even if you have made it plain that a full recovery—if it ever happened—would take years, this persistently chipper attitude, far from cheering you up, will cause a good deal of resentment. Such people do not mean to be a Jerk, but their blithe self-assurance is often typical of people who always know your business better than you do.
The Practical Joker
The ultimate bad taste in the clowns of private life is displayed not by the punster, who derails every conversation with his distorted echoes of what you have said, but by the practical joker. There is hardly anyone who has not given way to the temptation to pull a fast one on a good friend. A few years ago I was on a fishing trip with an aging writer whose attention was beginning to slip a little. He left his wallet on the counter, where we were buying supplies, and I pocketed it. Later, as he was driving down the road, I asked him if he could change a twenty. Not finding his wallet, he panicked momentarily before seeing the wallet I was holding in my outstretched hand.
“You Jerk,” he said, “I read in one of your books that it is always wrong to use people as props for your own diversion. And then you do something like this? What if I’d had a heart attack or swerved off the road?”
It is a good question. I had chosen to alter his reality and would have had to accept responsibility for any unintended consequences. This is a small example. I have known men who spent days plotting elaborate pranks on their “best friend.” Some of them verged on malevolence and sadism. One of my father’s friends got a plumber drunk, and while they were drinking, a third friend took the man’s toolbox and nailed it to the plank floor in front of his apartment door. When they dropped him off, they watched as he yanked and yanked at the handle of his toolbox until he finally pulled the whole plank out of the floor.
I knew a prominent American historian who filled the dean’s car with fireworks that he wired to the ignition. The dean was hospitalized and the historian lost the best job he ever had. If he had ever been willing to talk about it, I feel sure the historian would have justified his prank on the grounds that it was revenge on the dean who had cracked down on his fooling around with coeds.
Here is a pretty basic principle, which may sound familiar. If you wish to be left alone to pursue, harmlessly, your life’s goals and to be the star in your own autobiography, you must grant other people the same privilege. In disrupting the course of someone else’s life, by, for example, playing a trick that a friend look like a fool on some program like Candid Camera or , you are saying two things: first, that you accept full responsibility if anything goes wrong with the experiment, and, second, that you do not object to having your own ambitions frustrated by any fool who wants to waste your time.
One of the Joker’s basic assumptions is that he has the right to play with your life. There is a large class of men and women, many of whom work for the government, who are not joking, when they interfere. They think they know your business better than you do, which is why they are justified in regulating, snooping, gossiping, and, to sum up a complex phenomenon in a single word, busbybodying the rest of mankind.
But the average gossip or busybody is a social worker without the license. He, more often she, with little or no encouragement will plan your vacation, straighten out your love life, or redecorate your living room. We have a friend, a really dear lady, who cannot visit our office without cleaning up any area that does not meet her high standards. Friends of hers back home have told me that she not only straightens pictures, when she visits, but moves furniture and offers advice on coordinating the colors.
Some busybodies are self-proclaimed experts in cooking or gardening or wine-bibbing. They cannot sip the sherry you have given them without making comparisons with the superior Amontillado they got on sale at wine.com–“Probably paid less for it than this generic stuff.” I once made the mistake of inviting to dinner the professional wit who consulted his joke files before parties. He poked at the first course–a perfectly executed recipe from Julia Child–and inquired painfully, “Is it supposed to taste like this?”
There are men who cannot help offering advice. Anytime some poor devil is working on his car or fixing his lawnmower, a gaggle of loafers is sure to appear, each one giving his expert opinion on what is wrong and how to fix it. I do the same thing sometimes in order to seem normal, even though I haven’t the slightest idea of how things work. Hardly a day goes by that some friend or reader or supporter does not give me advice on what to put in my next column or what subject I should pick for my next book—these are people, mind you, who have never published so much as a letter to the editor in their local paper. One of my favorite bits of advice concerns how to raise money. Sometimes the proposal is less than breath-taking: “Have you ever thought of sending out a letter asking readers for contributions?” or “Why not advertise in other magazines or, wait a minute, rent their mailing lists and send out subscription forms?” Others do take my breath away. “Why not ask—you can fill in the blanks with Donald Trump, Clive Cussler, Bob Dylan (“I hear he turned Christian”)—to join your board of directors. Then he would have to give you money.”
These people mean well, but I wonder if they ever stop to ask themselves if it is not a little insulting for someone with absolutely no knowledge or experience to offer such suggestions. Surely, they can see the implication, that we are ignorant lay-abouts who do not know our business. Some of these would-be counselors belong to a group I call the Toppers. There is nothing you can say to one of these that he cannot top. If you have just come back from hiking the Appalachian Trail, he will relate his adventures hiking in the Himalayas or at least tell you about someone he may have met who claimed to have climbed Everest. If you are a jazz enthusiast and a fan of Dizzy Gillespie, he will be sure to extol the superior abilities of Miles Davis. Sometimes, the Topper falls into the groove of monomania, and whatever the topic of conversation—French pop music, Portuguese wine, Southern League baseball in the 1960’s—he will revert to some know-it-all relative: “Funny you should mention Memphis. This same cousin of mine played a season in the Northern League for Fargo-Morehead, and he almost got traded up to Memphis…”
While older men frequently fall into the anecdotal vein, completely oblivious to the yawns and rolling eyes they are inspiring (ask my junior colleagues), young men are so self-conscious about making an impression that they have to top every bon mot or insight. These are the Yes-butters, who listen patiently to your discourse on, say, Jefferson’s local patriotism, and just as your last words are fading away, pop in with a depressingly familiar cliché: “Yes, but, the really important aspect of Jefferson’s thought is his philosophy of natural rights.”
The point is never actually to have a point but only to have the last word—and the first word, if they can manage it. In his youth, Dr. Johnson knew the novelist Samuel Richardson, who must have stepped on one of the young Johnson’s lines once too often, because the Great Cham told his young admirer James Boswell, “That fellow Richardson…could not be contented to sail quietly down the stream of reputation without longing to tase the froth from every stroke of his oar.” The type is far more common today.
This conversation-killing strategy is not confined to the young. I have a friend in his 70’s who cannot hear an innocent fact—the date of the Spanish Armada or arrival of the gypsy moth in the country—without jumping in with, “But the thing about it is…” followed, usually, by a piece of grotesque misinformation he picked up from The Smithsonian magazine—an ever flowing font of false facts and politically correct misinterpretation.
The worst part of this is that some of these jokers may actually know a great deal, even about the subject at hand. The fact that they may be often right, though, does not make them either more generally reliable or less offensive.
I used to have an older friend—let us call him Mr. Smart-Pants—who exemplifies this type. Smart-Pants was an able and competent man in many fields. A successful highschool and college athlete, he could still play scratch golf. He was also a crack shot. A former Navy pilot, he could drive better and more aggressively than most men on the NASCAR circuit. He could fix just about anything; heck, he could build just about anything. He had built several businesses and was a whizz in the stock market. He’d been everywhere, done nearly everything, and could talk affably and without bragging about many things. A man’s man, a boon companion, Smart-Pants, as all his friends complained, could also be an intolerable know-it-all. He told his doctor what course of treatment to prescribe, lectured the golf pro at his club, and knew everybody’s business better than they did. In his teens, he had lost all interest in religion, but ignorance did not prevent him from pontificating—and, believe me, that is the word—on the shortcomings of a Christian theology he had never studied. And, while he had never taken any interest in classical studies, he had no hesitation explaining Roman history to me or holding forth on the Greek roots of scientific vocabulary. He was a good man, even a great man, whom I respected, admired, and for the most part really liked, but he was perfectly winning to bore other people to tears.
The Humble Interviewer
Experts, Toppers, and Yes-butters are all ambitious types who look at conversation as a competition in which they are bound and determined to come out ahead. At the end of the spectrum, so it would seem, are the self-effacing passive-aggressors, who only want to learn from their conversational victims. Doctors and lawyers are subjected to the third degree all the time, but in most cases the motive is a harmless desire for free advice. But when the subject is a German literature teacher from Iowa, the interrogation can seem bizarre. So how did you get interested in German? No German blood, really? Where did you go to school? I don’t know anything about German literature but when I was a kid I liked the cowboy novels of Karl Mai—do you ever teach Karl Mai? Never read him? What about Gunther Grass, isn’t he famous. And if this vein peters out, there is always the fascinating topic of the cultural opportunities to be had in greater Des Moines.
As a graduate student, I used to have tea with a faculty wife who could almost smell the unwholesome dissidence of anyone who might have ever had an opinion different from her own. I once, incautiously, mentioned that I was reading Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, which was being published, in those days, novel by novel. After remarking that only an Anglophile snob could possibly like Powell, she proceeded to grill me on her favorite novelist, who turned out to be C.P. Snow. I had read Snow and thoroughly disliked him as a novelist with ideas–as a novelist he made a great scientist—but I adroitly concealed my opinion on this and every subject until she virtually had me pinned to the wall on feminism or prohibition or something or other on which I knew my opinion would be offensive. “Oh, I don’t think anyone is interested in my uninformed opinions,” I ventured.”
“On the contrary, Mr. Fleming, I am passionately interested in everything you think.” This clearly was not true, because she was only interested in one person’s opinions, namely her own. That was my first clue that the Humble Interviewer was as self-centered as the Topper. I ran across this advice, the other day, in an etiquette book from the early 19th century: “Never ask a question under any circumstances. In the first place it is too proud; in the second place, it may be very inconvenient or very awkward to reply.”[i] A few pages later, the author was more precise: “If you wish to inquire about anything, do not do it by asking a question; but introduce the subject, and give the person an opportunity of saying as much as he finds it agreeable to impart. Do not even say, ‘How is your brother today?’ but ‘I hope your brother is quite well.'”[ii]
[i] The Laws of Etiquette, Or Short Notes and Reflections for Conduct in Society, by a Gentleman; Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1836, P. 52
[ii] Op. cit. 61
Here is a rule of life, which–had I followed it–would have made me rich, influential, and happy. ANSWER NO UNASKED QUESTIONS!
I may not object to hearing you tell me, unasked, how cold it is today or how you are feeling, but I am quite sure I don’t want your opinion on how flat my column fell, how sorry you are that one of my children is a Jerk, or how badly my striped tie goes with my checked jacket. You may have heard that I have been having problems with someone, and you probably think it is kind to offer advice on how to handle the situation. Perhaps it is, but only if I invite the advice.
If I may quote from a great American poet and philosopher, Hiram King Williams: “Why don’t you mind your own business, cause if you mind your own business, you won’t be minding mine.” Or, as he advises in the conclusion, “If you mind your own business, you’ll stay busy all the time.”
Or to quote another literary master:
“If everybody minded their own business,” the duchess said in a hoarse growl, “the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”
More to come as in…
The Drama Queen
The Rugged Individualist
[i] Romans 12:15
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