Being a Jerk

Business Casual
Susan Percy

On an evening flight out of Atlanta a few years ago, takeoff was delayed when a passenger became ill. The flight attendant announced the delay and was on her way back to the rear of the plane to assist with the emergency, when a man stopped her and asked for something to eat, saying that he had a medical condition that required him to eat regularly. He couldn’t wait for the plane to take off and the meal to be served, he said; he needed a snack pretty soon. The attendant said she would see what she could do. It seemed a reasonable request, and a reasonable response.

Meanwhile, things were apparently pretty serious in the back of the plane: word spread that a young woman was having a miscarriage. The flight crew was dashing up and down the aisle, and soon paramedics boarded the plane and took the woman off on a stretcher. It was a generally unsettling few moments. The close quarters eliminated any possibility of privacy for the young woman, who had to endure the stares of 100-plus strangers while she was being wheeled off. Most of the passengers were feeling like reluctant intruders.

I have to admit I’d forgotten about the snack request, as had the attendant. But the guy who had asked for something to eat 30 minutes beforehand had not.

Once the stretcher had left the plane, he sought out the flight attendant and let her have it, bleating at the top of his voice about his medical condition, his need for something to eat and the attendant’s inefficiency that was threatening his health. Whatever his condition, it certainly hadn’t sapped him of his ability to make himself obnoxious. The attendant seemed incredulous that he could still be hungry after the medical drama that had unfolded.

Me, I was on the attendant’s side. If I had had a bag of pretzels, I would have swallowed it whole rather than offer it to the loudmouth complainer. And I was clearly not alone in feeling that way.

It seems to me this was a classic example of the “even-when-you’re-right-you-can-be-wrong” principle. His request was reasonable, but his behavior wasn’t. He did get his snack and, eventually, walked off the plane under his own power, showing no obvious signs of ill effects from the delay.

He was a jerk, but he probably still had the right to expect compliance with a fairly simple request. Or did his jerkiness invalidate his request? That’s a tough call.

In a supermarket checkout line one afternoon, a cashier, presumably new, was having a great deal of trouble getting the customer ahead of me checked out. I was actually feeling a bit of sympathy for the customer until she started yelling, “You’re the stupidest man I’ve ever seen” at the hapless cashier. At that point my sympathies did a complete about-face and I was hoping for the woman to be stricken with laryngitis – or worse – on the spot. She wasn’t, but a supervisor intervened and the customer soon left. Most of us onlookers were more embarrassed than indignant. Certainly the woman had the right to expect that the employee who was checking her out would be marginally competent, but I think she forfeited that right with her bad behavior. Another “maybe-you’re-right-but-you’re-wrong” incident. Another jerk.

Of course, jerkiness is in the eye – or sometimes, ear – of the beholder. One person’s appalling display of bad manners and bad judgment is another’s exercise in assertiveness. A lot of different things play into the little explosions that threaten civility in day-to-day interactions and transactions. People feel powerless, devalued, disrespected, ignored, unappreciated, underestimated. They feel overworked or underprepared or just plain tired. They personalize impersonal situations or feel themselves deliberately slighted. They over-react.

In a department store one busy lunch hour, the lone salesperson available happened to be the reigning National Attitude Queen. I was the customer trying to make what should have been a simple return. The salesperson was rude, abrupt and cranky. After the transaction was complete, I said, in a normal tone of voice – but one that was loud enough to be heard by the people in line behind me, “Are you this rude to everyone, or is there just something about me that ticks you off?”

I was a jerk, and it felt great.

Categories: Business Casual