Why are people so mean?

My dear Chief Girlfriend (her unofficial title), Shasta Nelson, posted a wonderfully thoughtful blog yesterday about a horrible conversation she overheard on a plane; the main point of the bitchfest: Who does that Oprah think she is? Two women continued to pass judgment on Oprah and say she was full of herself.  I would think Oprah’s millions of devote followers (including myself) think differently.  As I read my Chief Girlfriend’s perspective, I could not help but think: Why do so many people feel the need to criticize each other? Why are so many people so mean?

What mean behavior have you seen that has shocked you?   Have you ever wanted to say something to someone who was being irrationally mean to another person? What do you do to stop cruel behavior?

Criticism does not stop at belittling celebrities. Last year a person on a chairlift told my husband and I we were too fat to sit on one side of the chair.  Two weeks ago, a man on my flight from Calgary to Denver yelled at a flight attendant for 20 minutes because, and I quote, “He did not deserve to sit in Coach.” I am gathering the flight attendant did not purchase his airline ticket, so being his mental punching bag was completely out of line. All I can say is, really? Everyone has bad days, but there is a fine line between waking up on the wrong side of the bed (as we all have done) and just being a chronic jerk.

At the very fundamental level, mean behavior comes from people not having their needs satisfied.  Remember Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs from Psych101?  Once our most basic bodily needs are met (food, water, shelter, and safety), we move on to the need for love, affection, and belongingness.  Some mean behavior may come from not having these needs of compassion met. I would hazard to guess someone who calls a perfect stranger fat is not welcomed in their church group with open arms.  Perhaps the friendships based on criticizing others are based on trying to fulfill personal insecurities, rather than give absolute love to another person.  But I believe more often, mean behavior comes from our own insecurities about an even more basic need: our personal safety and the security of our families.  We live in an ever changing world, and it is a scary place.  No one knows which company is going to go bankrupt next or where the next natural disaster might occur, but we cannot live in fear. Things don’t always go our way, but making things worse by blaming others for our own insecurity is no way to live.

Here are three ideas of how to let insecurity not overwhelm your behavior:

  1. If something great happens to a friend and you find you feel jealous, ask yourself, how would I want my friend to react? Would you want her to raise her glass with a toast to your success or talk behind your back?
  2. If you find yourself getting mad at someone ask yourself: Did this person cause the problem or are they just trying to help?  The flights attendant was actually trying to help find an open row for that grumpy man, but he never listened to her recommendations.
  3. If you think life is in a downward spiral and have not smiled, ask yourself, have you done something that makes you happy lately (Gretchen Rubin has some great ideas on this!) We all have parts of our jobs that are less than glamorous, but usually a call to an old friend or a walk outside makes us realize the bad stuff is really small in comparison to all that is good in the world.

Seeing cruel behavior makes me realize how important it is for me to reach out to my husband, children, family, and girlfriends with compassion and empathy. Seeing horrible behavior also make me realize how important it is to live by this simple motto: Live with your heart and be kind to yourself. We need to respect one another and respect ourselves.  So the next time I find myself wanting to yell at the customer service rep for not knowing how to type or when the person in front of my can’t find their wallet in the check-out line, I am going to smile and remember I can catch more bees with honey than vinegar.

What mean behavior have you seen that has shocked you?   Have you ever wanted to say something to someone who was being irrationally mean to another person? What do you do to stop cruel behavior?

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