From the US president firing dimwitted tweets at Kim Jong-un, to Hollywood moguls and actors exposed as sexual predators, and the oafish Boris Johnson blundering onwards: 2017 has been the year of the asshole. And the signs are that 2018 could be just as bad
Ladies and gentlemen, we have reached peak asshole. So, at least, claims Robert Sutton, professor of management science and engineering and professor of organisational behaviour at Stanford University in California better known as the Asshole Guy. Ever since he wrote his first book on the theme, The No Asshole Rule, in 2007, and despite that rule being applied by several companies keen to purge their ranks of toxic jerks (or at least keen to appear to do so), he has seen global levels of assholosity if thats the right term rise exponentially.
What this implies is that 2017 is the year of the asshole. And a brief survey of the self-serving, overwhelmingly patriarchal, sometimes sexually exploitative and otherwise loathsome public stances taken by the years most prominent jerks among them Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Kevin Spacey suggests this to be the case.
It has been a year in which two men in search of a single brain have Twitter-jerked each other towards mutually assured destruction with often caps-locked exchanges along the unedifying lines of Youre fat!, Youre old! and Youre fat and small!. In this, Trump and Kim Jong-un have proved themselves virtuosos of assholosity.
And then theres Johnson. Say what you will about his diplomatic skills, he is at least adept at the classic move of making an apology that turns out to be nothing of the kind. Im sorry if any words of mine have been so taken out of context and so misconstrued as to cause any kind of anxiety for the family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, of course I am, he said in November. Im sorry if is a grammatical construction that shows the speaker to be going through the motions of apology without being contrite. Instead, the gaffe-prone berk was blaming someone else for what was his fault, which in a normal year would have won Johnson the coveted asshole of the year award.
But this isnt a normal year. It is a year in which asshole seems a necessary but insufficient term to describe Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul who abused his position to prey sexually on young and vulnerable actors (he denies non-consensual sex). What has changed in the decade since Sutton wrote his breakthrough study? Has the International Academy for Assholes been flooding the world with its graduates?
Well, one thing is that theres now so much research in this field, he says. If you check Google Scholar, youll see there have been 200,000 or so studies in recent years on air rage, road rage, incivility, sexual harassment, sexual assaults, racism and trolling. And this boom in research into the manifold varieties of unacceptableness, along with 8,000 emails from correspondents who dont suffer assholes gladly, has supplied the raw material for his new book, The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt.
Sutton mines a rich seam, citing the Twitter account @passengershame, which collates videos by travellers of others putting their bare feet on ceilings, sleeping bare-chested, popping one anothers zits and pulling out each others nasal hair. One video shows a passenger ignoring, then insulting, a flight attendant who asks her to put out a cigarette.
Then theres the bossholes. Sutton refers to a video of a manager at a Chinese bank who humiliated staff whom he said didnt work hard enough by hitting them on the buttocks with a big stick, in front of hundreds of co-workers.
Incredibly, that manager wasnt the biggest bosshole Sutton came across in his research. Rather, it was the guy who bullied a worker with leukaemia. The worker emailed the following to Sutton: My boss told me I was a wimp and a pussy because I was tired and lacked energy after six months of chemotherapy. He doubled my sales quota over a seven-month period, and called about every day to tell me that I was a fuck up. I finally had to leave. I documented lots of the abuse and presented it my superiors. They were very vague in their responses to me, but ultimately he was moved from manager to sales rep.
Suttons book teems with lesser bossholes. The boss who treats staff as if they are invisible and ignores their requests. The boss who fires employees by phone or email and encourages others to do the same. The boss who tosses a lit cigarette at an underling. The boss who sticks his fingers in a workers bag of crisps, asking: Can I have some?
Sutton says that keeping bossholes on the payroll makes organisations ineffective, arguing that such people leave behind a trail of demeaned and de-energised people and thats bad for morale and ultimately for business.
But surely bossholes can be good for business? Take, for example, Steve Jobs. The widespread belief is that Jobs succeeded and Apple was so innovative in part because he was overbearing, temperamental and insensitive. If he werent such a grade-A bosshole, there may not have been an iPhone. Not so, argues Sutton. After Jobs was kicked out of Apple and then suffered setbacks at NeXT and at Pixar, he became more empathetic, a better listener and a better leader. Sutton cites Pixar founder Ed Catmull, who knew Jobs for 25 years and argues that it was the more thoughtful and caring Jobs who created the incredibly successful Apple.
In any event, its not just in-house assholes who need their comeuppance. Sutton tells me gleefully of a former Air New Zealand CEO, Rob Fyfe, who initiated a policy of firing passengers for treating cabin crews with persistent and extreme disrespect. Now, the airline is regularly voted the worlds favourite and reportedly staff are happy that the bosses keep the assholes away. That said, I do wonder who Air New Zealands fired assholes fly with now.
Sutton has two tests to spot them. One: After talking to the alleged asshole, does the target feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energised or belittled by the person? Does the target feel worse about him or herself? Two: Does they aim his or her venom at people who are less, rather than more, powerful?
Ive sometimes thought that such people are always with us. Sutton thinks I am wrong: the tide is not constant, but has been rising. What has shoved us to a peak in 2017, Sutton claims, are three factors: growing income inequality, which encourages bosses to be more aggressive and think they can get away with it; the heedless rush of modern life, where civility and consideration for co-workers too often go by the board; and social media, where trolls often use anonymity to behave badly. These were not considerations 10 years ago, when he wrote his first book. Were doing something unusual, he says as we Skype, he in a Californian garage, me in a London bedroom. Were making eye-to-eye contact. Without that contact, wed be more likely to behave like assholes.
There is a fourth factor in explaining how we got to peak asshole that Sutton doesnt mention. In 2010, a book called Assholes Finish First was published. My name is Tucker Max, and I am an asshole, it began. I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions, mock idiots and posers, sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable, and just generally act like a raging dickhead.
Maxs apologia to masculinitys regressive, infantile, misogynistic, sociopathic tendencies helped create a climate that made it safe, even cool, to be a raging dickhead: part of what made it possible for Hillary Clinton to lose the presidential election last year.
Indeed, 2017s elephant asshole in the room, surely, is the leader of the free world. Its Trump who demonstrates just how far one can go thanks to the focused power of being a 24/7 gilt-edged, copper-bottomed, orange-topped virtuoso of consummate assholosity, (especially if youre very wealthy). Sutton, though, is loath to brand Trump the worlds worst. If you go to a party in my country today, two groups will form, shouting at each other. One pro-, one anti-Trump. Theres no argument, just screaming. I dont want to add to that. An understandable compunction. That said, Sutton urges me to consider that the White House looks, sounds and perhaps even smells like a big box of assholes. People leave. People dont trust one another. People are depressed, he says. Draw your own conclusions.
Moreover, in his book, Sutton lists 12 factors that indicate such proclivities, many of which pertain to Trump: You are at the top of the pecking order and are a very competitive person who feels threatened by your star underlings You are rich You dont get enough sleep You have too much to do, too much to think about and always seem to be in a hurry You feel a constant urge to look at your smartphone, which you cant resist even when you know you should exercise self-control.
But while politics may well attract these types, its the nursing profession, Sutton reckons, that suffers most clearly from their prevalence. Think about it. Nurses get it from doctors and from patients. And surgeons, my God, think how surgeons are encouraged to behave. In research for his book, Sutton found that nurses often have rooms in hospitals fortresses of solitude if you will to which they retreat to gather themselves for the Sisyphean struggle against manifold jerks.
Sutton suggests many techniques for defeating assholes, the leading one of which is reframing. He cites the West Point cadet Becky Margiotta who, confronted with superiors incessant hazing (for instance, standing two inches from her nose and screaming about all the ways she was a failure as a person and a professional), had an epiphany and came to regard the abuse as entertaining, by focusing on the ingenuity of the taunts, insults and petty punishments. Also, realise youre not alone. Have sympathy for your tormentor (s/he probably had a tough childhood). Time-travel to the future when youre free of the tormentors grip. Increasingly popular is the Michelle Obama-inspired defence: when they go low, you go high, holding the dignified moral high ground so as not to get corrupted by your supposed betters prevailing nonsense.
Such techniques, Sutton counsels, need to be used sparingly: they can facilitate asshole blindness rather than what we should all want, total extinction. Sutton lists seven wrong ways to take on the tormentors. For example: Doing the first thing that comes into your mind, right now, is folly. Follow, instead, Nobel-winning psychologist Daniel Kahnemans advice: step back, think slow, consider your options, ideally by comparing notes with someone you trust, before taking action. And dont call an asshole an asshole, advises Sutton. Doing so is most likely to provoke hostility and, in any case, using the A-word may be an asshole move on your part.
The most challenging of Suttons recommendations is this one: heal thyself. Kahneman says overconfidence is the most destructive of human biases. We think were right, that other people are the ones who are wrong. We see the world through rose-tinted glasses. Better to remove the glasses and consider the possibility that you have become what you despise.
On this point, Sutton applauds film director John Carney, who attacked Keira Knightley for ruining his 2014 film Begin Again and later remorsefully issued a pitch-perfect apology. Carney owned his actions by saying what he said was petty, mean and hurtful rather than indulging in the weasel words of the Johnsonian faux apology. But what Sutton liked most about Carneys apology was that he didnt ask for Knightleys forgiveness even if, as Sutton suspects, he probably hoped for it. He had no right to ask for that and, if he had sought it, to do so would have diluted the force of his apology.
Surprisingly, Sutton, a paragon of geniality during the interview, even admits to being an asshole himself. He once eviscerated a student who wrote a bad paper, going beyond justified complaints into character assassination, accusing him of being lazy and clueless. The student forwarded the email to Suttons department head, who called Sutton in for a dressing down. He told me, rightly, I should never treat a student that way. He was right and I was mortified. but the pain of that mortification was salutary. The incident, too, showed that Sutton worked in a civilised workplace where the no asshole rule, as it were, rules.
But if even the Asshole Guy can be one, what hope is there for us? Sutton is hopeful: It doesnt have to be Lord of the Flies. There is a different world of civility. There are healthy workplaces devoid of assholes we can create. Well, perhaps, but consider United Airlines. In 2007, Sutton told the story of a colleagues nine-year-old daughter who was lost at an airport. She went up to the United desk and asked to call her parents. The person on duty refused a refusal that, for Sutton, indicated a toxic organisation in which staff, probably hobbled by their bosses, dare not do the human thing. Cut to 2017: United calls in the police to drag a random passenger from an overbooked flight. In a changing world, one might think, United remains the same.
In the age of social media, though, even that debacle can prompt change, argues Sutton. My hope is that the positive side to the monitoring of human behaviour, thanks to the web, will be helpful in bringing about a revolution in civility.
But isnt there a massive human impediment to such a revolution? Isnt Trump giving out the wrong signs namely that the meek shall inherit the Earth only after it has been so run into the ground by people like him as to make the inheritance worthless? Doesnt the asshole-in-chief encourage others to emulate his successfully toxic behaviour?
Sutton demurs. Maybe Trump can change. When they get to the top, assholes realise the techniques that got them there may not serve them well. Theres a difference between running for office and governing. You need not be an asshole if you want your organisation to thrive.
Sutton suggests that, in plotting our descent from peak asshole, we should let porcupines be our guide. In a German fable, one freezing night some porcupines pressed close together to get warm, but hurt each other with their quills. After much shuffling, they found a position where they could be warm without injuring each other. This distance, Sutton reflects, they called decency and good manners. Humans have not learned the wisdom of porcupines. Not yet.
One dismal thought as we leave this year is that some of its leading figures are still standing. True, Weinstein and Spacey have fallen, but Trump still tweets nocturnally red-eyed and thin-skinned from the Oval Office. And, despite everything that has been inspiring about #MeToo and other revolutionary assaults on the patriarchy, those struggles are in their infancy. It is a real possibility, then, that 2018 will be just as bad as 2017.
The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt by Robert Sutton is published by Penguin (12.99). To order a copy for 11.04 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99