"Hell is other people"
-Sartre, No Exit
I don’t think much new ever happens. Most of us spend our days the same way people spent their days in the year 1000: walking around, smiling, trying to earn enough to eat, while neurotically doing these little self-proofs in our head about how much better we are than these other slobs. While simultaneously, in another part of our brain, secretly feeling woefully inadequate to these smarter, more beautiful people.” (Hat tip to Nick Offerman, who cites this quote in his tremendous book, Gumption)
- George Saunders, CNN interview at the turn of the millennium
Since I was 17 and first read No Exit, the line “Hell is other people” both resonated with me and troubled me, so I read more dark existentialist literature...and maybe understood some of it.
Both No Exit and the Nausea explore the notion of how we can fully intend to act in very specific ways, but a small transgression, or even just a misinterpretation by another person, can shatter that identity we've worked for. For example, Imagine a young couple striving to be good parents, good professionals, good family members, good spouses, etc. They design their lives around these shared and well-intentioned goals. They buy the best things for their kids; they say the right things at parties where they have dressed the right way; they perform well at work, etc. But someone decides they are fakes—probably cheating on each other and their taxes. “No one is that good…that guy is on Tinder as we speak setting up his next triste,” they might say. You've seen this, probably, in your own circle of friends and acquaintances. Alternatively, one day one of these goody-two-shoes might lose their patience and scream expletives at a driver who has ignored a nearby stop sign in earshot of their neighbors. Again, the identity the've worked so hard to build is now in question: they are no longer the ideal spouse/professional/parent/family-member; they are the crazy person that yells at cars.
These two works really helped me to understand the dynamics of identity and judgment and why people worry so much about what other people think: they care because they think about other people so much and build identities in their mind for those other people.
Which is where the Saunders quote becomes helpful.
People love to be angry. They collect injustices; they seek sorrow; they seek opportunities to be indignant. In fact, there is almost an excitement in their eyes and mannerisms when the moment of transgression becomes clear:
- they’ve been cut off in traffic
- the waiter screwed up their order
- someone was rude to them on the phone
…and so on
It's a puzzle I tried to solve for a long time...why are people, who ostensibly seek to be happy, so excited when they get angry? Who hasn’t, when pissed, decided to hang on to it for a while? To share their anger with whomever would listen? To shake their head in incredulity as they look to their interlocutor for validation?
So what’s going on here?
I think the George Saunders quote above is the key to understanding it. People are simultaneously insecure and superior. They are trying to balance these competing “voices” in their head: one telling them others are better; one telling them they are better than everyone else. When this poor, conflicted soul (anyone of us) experiences the hoped-for transgression, the voice of superiority is fed. “Yes, see! That other person is THE WORST! Can you believe they ran that stop sign? I follow traffic rules and keep the world safe for pedestrians and puppies! But that guy! No way—he has to get somewhere, fast. Probably the Asshole store before they run out of 'I’m with stupid T-shirts.'” Then, this voice goes external…because, now, we have proof, PROOF! That other people suck. And if we don’t tell the world, right now, no one else will know that we’re not the worst.
That post-transgression moment is a moment of great relief. That voice telling them how inferior they are to everyone else is finally silenced. Because they are not inferior to THAT guy. That light that you see in people’s eyes when they start to get angry at another person’s actions…that’s the relief of not being the transgressor.
And the people hearing this story, once the “injured party” begins sharing it have one of two reactions: shared incredulity, which is usually accompanied by piling on (What?! WHAT?! He did WHAT??!! I can’t believe some people). Or just simple head-shaking…it’s either a small or extra large version of shared incredulity...which many will joyfully welcome, because it means they are not in the spotlight of judgment, at least for the moment. But rarely do we hear people say, “hey, maybe that dude who ran the stop sign just didn’t see it…or he had a sick kid at home, a big day at work, and a lingering argument with his spouse and he just absent mindedly ran the stop sign.” Have you?
Mini-transgressions are common sources of shared incredulity and nastiness. Perceived incompetence, poor performances, perceived fashion faux pas or poor taste…. Probably, this is because we’re all so damn insecure about these choices/performances ourselves that we'll grab these low-hanging fruit. Anger over these mini-transgressions are so much more damaging to me because so often these things are without any consequence to us. Someone stammers during a presentation; someone wears goofy shoes to work; someone has a few type-os in an email to the team. AND people just jump all over those things. “Did you see that?” “I KNOW, right? What a dumbass”
Here’s the thing. Those words—the sharing of the transgressions you’ve so righteously informed the world about? They’ve plowed a furrow in your mind…the other side of your mind…the one that feels so inadequate. Yeah, it sees just how indignant and angry other people get when they see any type of inadequacy or transgression in the world. And every action you take now becomes an opportunity for that side of the brain to feed the voice of inadequacy. You stammer during a presentation at work? “Oh man, you suck…they are all going to be talking about how bad of a presenter you are when they go to lunch—without you. You know they love to rip people up who give bad presentations. How do you even still work here? You’re the worst performer on the team.
In reality—maybe no one even noticed, or cared about your stammering during a presentation. Pro tip: no one really listens that closely when other people speak—especially in formal presentations. They make grocery lists and think about how superior/inadequate they are to everyone else in the room. But, that little voice of inadequacy—which you fed and bred by tearing other people down—is now ruining your presentation and your day.
So what’s the solution? It sounds silly, but it’s this: be kind to other people…simple as that. Acts of unkindness stick with you and, unless you’re a psychopath, make you feel like a shit. And you deserve that…for being unkind. But acts of kindness…people love that shit. And then they love you…and, unless they are psychopaths, they do nice shit for you when you feel like...poop.
Fun Fact: Only about 1 out 100 people are psychopaths
Try it. The next time you make cookies or a nice meal, make twice as much…it’s no harder and the kitchen is already a mess. Think of someone who has had a rough go for a while or is too busy (or thinks he or she is too busy) to do something good for themselves. Then, if it’s a meal, give them some notice that you’ve simply made/bought too much and you need to share it. Don’t try to stick around for dinner or impose in anyway…act as though they are doing you a favor by taking it off your hands. If it’s cookies or something that doesn’t need to be eaten or refrigerated right away, just show up with them…leave them in the mailbox with a note.
Somebody seem like they need a friend? Listen to them for a while...ask questions, try to really understand what they are saying
The next time someone screws up and you can pick them up instead of letting them rot and feel terrible, go tell them about a time when you screwed up and then buy them a coffee or something.
The next time you have the opportunity to be an asshole…don’t. That’s all. When you see a transgression—like someone running a stop sign, give them the benefit of the doubt (maybe they’re having a bad day); be grateful no one got hurt; say a little prayer for them to be safe. The next time you see someone demonstrating benign incompetence, assume they are a beginner at the task, or having a bad day. Give them a smile; tell them a joke…help them get out of their own head…they are obviously listening to that bastard voice of inadequacy. Maybe your actions will spread and become infectious in the same way that nastiness spreads.