Their name alone makes your stomach drop and your jaw clench tight. The moment you hear it, something in your brain switches. That person — that person — is the absolute worst. From the way they speak to you to their utter lack of respect for humanity, it’s fair to say that they suck.
But what is it that makes a jerk a jerk? In the following guide, we take a look at the latest research on the traits of a**holes and offer some tips on how you can deal with the jerk in your life.
Who is the Biggest Jerk in Your Life?
First up, how do people define jerks? That’s exactly what researchers from the University of Georgia wanted to find out. To do so, the team asked 400 participants to think of a single person who fit the bill as the “biggest a**hole.” Around half of the participants gave their ex-romantic partners, former bosses or estranged family members the title.
“People didn’t really have very much trouble figuring out who the “biggest a**hole” in their life was,” explained the lead author of the study and doctoral student in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, Brinkley Sharpe, in a recent press release. “On average, participants didn’t think that they were very close to these individuals, which makes sense because these people are being described as having pretty aversive behaviors.”
Middle-Aged Men Take the Top Spot
In the game of “who is the biggest jerk,” one demographic came out firmly on top. Participants were most likely to name a middle-aged man when asked this probing question. However, as Molly Owens, Founder and CEO of Truity explains, there may be more to this finding than meets the eye.
“We know that men generally score lower on Agreeableness than women, but it’s important to note that in the data, gender differences are relatively small and likely have more to do with socialization than innate drives,” says Owens. “For instance, women are often more socialized to express their emotions — whereas men are often socialized to repress most of their feelings, apart from anger.”
Equally, we shouldn’t overlook how our experiences shape our world outlook.
“Research also shows us that experiencing difficult times in life can make a person more empathetic and altruistic, so it's possible that someone who has experienced more privilege may be less empathetic towards others who are experiencing tough times,” says Owens.
The Main Traits of a Jerk, Revealed
The spectrum of people we define as jerks may vary but they often have a few things in common. The research team next asked participants to highlight the core traits that their chosen jerk displayed on a regular basis. While the answers included a selection of characteristics — from the humdrum and benign to, frankly, near-criminal acts — the three most common jerk behaviors were as follows:
Call them crafty, shrewd, or calculating — jerks tend to be manipulative. This trait is all about trying to assert a level of control over a situation or, more often than not, another person. Whether it’s pretending to be ill to get extra attention or lying to get their own way, this characteristic allows the person to gain something through nefarious means.
Aggression can range from being verbally forceful to physically violent. So, it’s hardly a shock that the participants highlighted this as one of the main traits of jerks. While there’s an entire range of ways in which aggressive behavior can manifest, it’s never acceptable.
Jerks tend to believe that society, the world, and the universe at large owe them something. Yes, they deserve that promotion simply for showing up at work. They should get their food before the rest of the table because they are the self-proclaimed hungriest. Whatever the prize, they think that they are entitled to it, just for existing. You get the drill.
The study found that most jerks possessed these traits. But perhaps the most annoying revelation was that jerks are not trying to be jerks. Instead, they are often completely disinterested in how their actions affect people. As Sharpe notes, “When we talk about behaviors, the a**hole was not necessarily being antagonistic toward people, but they just didn’t really care about what others were thinking, or how they were perceived by others.”
How to Handle the Jerk in Your Life
Chances are, while reading all of the above, somebody special sprung to mind. We all have that person — the bane of our existence — who takes the crown as the biggest jerk. You’re probably picturing them right now. However, unless you’ve already banished them to no man’s land, you need advice on how you can deal with them. If this jerk is someone you simply cannot get away from, there are some tactics you can try.
1: Distance yourself from them
Space, space, and more space could be the answer. “If someone is miserable to be around, your best bet is to limit your time around them as much as possible,” says Owens. “However, this may not always be possible, and in that case, it's essential to identify what behaviors you will or won't put up with and vocalize that as long as you feel safe doing so.”
2: Set boundaries and stick to them
Okay, you know where the line is, but does the jerk? If you want them to stop crossing it, you may need to show them. “Setting strict boundaries with the person will not only communicate to them where your limits are but also help you to maintain your own sense of self,” explains Owens. “If standing up to the person is not an option, then lay low and try to keep your distance until you're able to get out of the environment.”
3: Avoid blaming yourself for their behavior
Let’s say it together: You cannot control how a jerk acts, and nor should you try. “It's important to remember that another person's behavior is never your fault, and you don't deserve to be treated poorly,” says Owens. “Talking with a trusted friend, family member or therapist about your situation can also help.”
A leopard never changes its spots and it’s unlikely that the jerk in your life will change their behavior. Should they have an Ebenezer Scrooge-style epiphany and decide to make amends, that’s something to be celebrated. However, it’s not your job to show them the light and nor should you hold your breath.
If it’s not an option to go “no contact,” use the tactics we’ve highlighted in this guide to handle them without allowing things to escalate. Finally, rest in the knowledge that no matter how much you wish it weren’t the case, some people in your life do just suck. And that’s on them — not you.
Now, unclench that jaw, take a deep breath, and move on.