Avoid the Jerks

The advice is out there, and it’s well worth following: Avoid the jerks in both your work and your life.

There are many reasons this makes sense. Chief among them, in my view and unfortunate experience, is that dealing with a jerk always ends badly. No matter how many times you are able to skirt around their obnoxiousness, malevolence, or disrespect, if you hang around long enough there will come a time when the jerk seriously hurts you.

Since you know it’s coming, why not heed the advice of Mr. Miyagi in the film The Karate Kid, who said something along the lines of: “The best way to avoid a punch is not to be there when it’s thrown.”

While a jerk may not throw a literal punch, s/he is likely to bring your quality of life down at least a notch or two in many different, highly characteristic ways. Here’s how to spot a jerk, so you can avoid them well in advance of them doing you any serious damage:


Jerks begin to reveal themselves by regularly interrupting others. Their habits include contradicting people before they can finish their remarks, finishing other peoples’ sentences with their own thoughts, and simply dominating conversations by the sheer volume of their utterances.

One or two interruptions don’t necessarily indicate that someone is a jerk. It’s the consistent pattern of interruptions that gives you an early warning sign to stay away.

Inappropriate Comments

Whether it’s off-color jokes, out-of-bounds insults, or callous disregard for social norms, the jerk makes it fairly obvious that s/he is operating according to a private set of rules to which the rest of us are unwilling to subscribe. Generally speaking, they show no empathy for others.

The inappropriate nature of their behavior swings both ways. Jerks will not only make inappropriate remarks about others, they will inappropriately take what others say – even good-naturedly or well-intentioned – as insults, unfounded criticisms, or malevolent lies.


Not all liars are jerks, but all jerks are prone to lying. They may lie to portray themselves in a more favorable light, to cover up their errors and omissions, to gain an advantage against other people, or simply out of habit. There are numerous reasons why a reckless disregard for the truth is a hallmark of jerks.

While it’s true that nearly everyone has told at least a few little white lies from time to time, most of us recognize that we’ve lied and – in many cases – feel ashamed about it. Not so the jerk. These are people who are literally shameless liars. They will tell the most outrageous untruths without a second thought. When caught in a lie, they’re unlikely to apologize or regret what they did. In many cases, they will actually lie again about having lied before.

One of the most common ways that jerks deploy their lies is in service of their desire to control others. Because they want people to help them, give way to them, think well of them, and so forth, they willingly distort or omit the factual truth of the situation at hand. In other words, they manipulate people – sometimes cleverly, sometimes stupidly – for their own benefit.

When you recognize anything like this pattern of untruthfulness, run – or at least walk – away.

One Upmanship

A particularly vivid hallmark of jerks is their penchant for topping whatever anyone else may say. If your stock went up five points, theirs went up ten. If you saved 20% on a great sweater, they saved 30% on a new suit. If you made it to the airport in 40 minutes, they got there in 30.

Because they don’t care much for the truth, their tales of derring-do and heroic accomplishments may not have happened. But that doesn’t matter to the jerk. S/he steadfastly tosses them into conversations anyway.

Systematic Entitlement

Whether the jerk takes the last donut on the plate, scoots in front of you on line or into the parking space, or asks for an undeserved discount, much of their behavior reflects a systematic demand for advantages over everyone else.  

You will find jerks sitting in seats they didn’t pay for at sport events, repeatedly demanding upgrades on airliners or at hotel check-ins, seeking to renegotiate finalized agreements, even scattering sand on other beach-goers as they shake out their blankets. If you would be inclined to guess they’re almost entirely self-centered and think they’re better that most other people, you’d be right.

As part and parcel of this entitlement, jerks feel no compulsion to be reliable or to honor the commitments they make. They often seem unwilling to pay their fair share for what they receive, and will often make promises they later don’t keep.

In extreme cases, jerks can be so selfish and callous that their behavioral repertoire includes, when it suits them, figuratively stabbing other people in the back.

Deaf to Complaints

Although you and I recognize how out-of-bounds some jerks behave, the jerks themselves seem to feel they’ve done nothing wrong. When you point out how they’ve offended someone, unfairly advantaged themselves, or shaded the facts in their own favor, you simply can’t get through to them.

Jerks use a variety of tactics to deflect complaints or even flip them back on the complainer, who they often claim is jealous, or wrong, or simply not smart enough to recognize the validity of what the jerk has said or done.

The plain fact is that most jerks don’t know or care that they’re disliked for their behavior. They’re so wrapped up in their own priorities, desires, and agenda that trampling on other people’s feelings is as unconscious to them as breathing.

Fortunately, the world is full of wonderful people, so it’s entirely possible to get along very well, have many great experiences, and become very productive and successful without having to tolerate any jerks.

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