Have you recently had friends, co-workers, or strangers suddenly get pissed off at you for what seemed like no reason at all? Maybe you told yourself that they were overreacting or being too sensitive, or that they had no right to be angry when you clearly didn't mean to do whatever you did (and in fact aren't even sure what it was). If you're a socially inept type like me, I bet you've had this happen within the last month.
Well, I'm here to help. Fortunately, I am the nation's foremost expert on social missteps, with more than 30 years of experience in the field (some of you know me as the best-selling author of I Couldn't Help But Notice Your Father's Corpse Had a Boner: The Psychology of the Socially Awkward Man, MacMillan, 2008), and I have found that the answer to "Why is everyone suddenly mad at me?" is usually one of the following.
Hint: It's almost always about power.
For those of us who aren't great with people, we figure that silence is always the safest bet. If you're an introvert, you spend so much of your time wishing that other people would just shut the hell up that you figure you're doing everyone a favor. So, you run into a co-worker at the mall and think it's better to pass by in silence than do an awkward stop-and-chat that you'd probably screw up anyway.
Then, after you pass by this person, you hear them in the aisle behind you mutter, "Asshole."
"Maybe next time I'll just forget to pick up my roller skates from the stairs."
So What's the Problem?
This is literally the most frequent social mistake I see in my day to day. You didn't respond to the party invitation. You didn't reply to their funny text with a smiley. You didn't wish them a happy birthday. Now they're bitter and you're confused because, well, who would ever assume that silence is an insult?
Lots of people. In fact, to certain personality types, not speaking is the most bitter insult possible. Yes, worse than "shitblimp."
If you're confused, think of it this way: If you apply for a job, which is worse -- a rejection letter, or no reply at all? The former is bad, but the latter is dismissive, and that's a thousand times worse. (Note: By far the angriest reaction I get to hate mail is when I don't reply at all.) That's how some people take your failure to speak to them -- like you didn't even open their resume before tossing it in the trash.
"Oh, you wanted an interview, too? Sure, why don't you tell me all the ways you can go fuck yourself?"
See, there is an old saying: Hate is not the opposite of love. Apathy is. For many people, you'd be better off telling them to fuck off, because at least then you're acknowledging that they matter.
So Keep in Mind ...
This is about power. Everything is.
The offended parties are assuming that you think you're so high and mighty that they don't even rate a response, and that your silence is a kind of power play intended to let them know that. And if you think it's weird that anyone would interpret a casual everyday interaction as a power play, well, hang on to your ass, because you're about to discover something incredibly important about the world.
That children are dicks, and they will attack you without warn- oh, wait, no. The power thing.
For instance, another way you've probably earned instant hatred from someone is ...
Let's take a really common situation: You get so drunk one weekend that, while having back seat sex with a stranger, you start uncontrollably shitting all over your car. You find out later that cleaning the stains from the upholstery will cost $200.
So you're at work the following Monday and you're telling your sex shit story to the guy in the next cubicle, because why not? It's a funny story. But for some reason, the guy starts avoiding you after that. And no, it's not because he was disgusted by the story -- he tells worse stuff every day.
"So I figure, why not fuck him until the cops get there, right? Turns out there's a law against that."
So What's the Problem?
You just asserted your power over him. You didn't do it on purpose. But you did it anyway, and it's the sort of thing we accidentally do all the time.
In this particular example, you told a story that involved A) you having sex, B) doing it in a car, and C) an expensive clean-up bill. Meanwhile, the guy you told the story to is a single dad who A) hasn't had sex in three years, B) can't afford a car, and C) can't waste $200 on drunken mistakes because he has a kid.
So in his eyes, you're like that douchebag at your high school reunion who desperately tries to wedge a dozen stealth boasts into the conversation: "And then while I was in PARIS I found out my MAID accidentally broke a $5,000 VASE and my wife was late for her PHOTO SHOOT because SHE'S A MODEL and I had to hire a TAILOR because every pair of pants I buy is TOO TIGHT IN THE CROTCH." That guy is a douchebag because he's clearly trying to remind you that he is in a higher social and economic position than you -- he has the kind of "problems" you would kill to have. He is, in other words, trying to assert his power over you. That's why we hate people like him.
"Glad you could make it, buddy! Welcome to the high life. Tonight, you get to pretend you're not poor."
So Keep in Mind ...
This unspoken power dynamic is always at play, whether you acknowledge it or not. In any conversation between two people, one person is going to be more successful than the other, or more attractive, or smarter, or physically stronger, etc. -- there are all of these invisible "ranks" where one of you has risen over the other on society's ladder. Both of you will be aware of them, but neither of you is allowed to mention them. A good example is this video where everyone at the table is pretending to be equals, but under every word is the unspoken understanding that it would take the physically superior Dan about 45 seconds to incapacitate the other three, if he chose to:
For many of us who are insecure about our "rank," the subject is basically an open wound. So not only must the subject be avoided, but courtesy demands that the higher person has to pretend to be the lower. So, this leads to the absurd situation where you can be talking to the dude who won the Nobel Prize in astrophysics, but the second he looks at you and says, "I'm smarter than you," you will hate him for life -- even though both of you know it's true. The boss who acts like your buddy and phrases his or her assignments as requests ("Hey, can you get that report over to accounts by the end of the day?") is cool, while the boss who says, "Do what I say because I'm the boss and you're just a minimum wage peon" is an asshole ... even though nothing changed other than the phrasing.
This bizarre charade seems to go double for women -- this is why pretty female comedians like Tina Fey pretend to be ugly and why Jennifer Lawrence has to make constant jokes about how gross and ugly she is, just minutes after posing for yet another magazine cover.
Look at that disgusting piece of shit.
The trouble with us less-than-social types is that we assume we're never the person in power, in any situation. That's why it's so easy for us to fall into this -- if you were never one of the cool kids, you assume that everyone is confident but you, that they don't have these open wounds you can accidentally touch. So, you freely tell a story about what a bitch your mom is being, and all the other guy can think is, "Really? Mine died of cancer a year ago."
But the thing you have to remember -- and this really goes for anything on this list -- is that the fact that it was accidental really means nothing. Any interaction that results in other people feeling worse about themselves will still count against you in your "Why I don't like talking to this person" score. I'm not saying it's right, I'm just explaining why they don't invite you to parties anymore.
Have you ever broken up with somebody and had them bafflingly claim, "I can't believe you would just leave me like that! After everything I've done for you!"
Or did you once refuse to do a favor for somebody for what seemed like a good reason (say, you couldn't help them move because you had work that day), only to see them get really, really pissed off? Almost to the point that they're acting like you were paid for the work in advance and then didn't follow through? Like they thought you owed it to them?
Or maybe the other person has suddenly stopped speaking to you, making it clear that you've wronged them somehow and thus "owe" them an apology or some other form of restitution. This may even cause you to think they should apologize to you for overreacting, creating a stalemate that lasts until the day one of you refuses to attend the other's funeral.
So What's the Problem?
There's a really good chance that the last person who got annoyed with you for seemingly no reason at all did it because you failed to pay a debt you didn't even know you owed. There's this weird thing where in most relationships, and maybe in every relationship at one point or another, both parties think the other side is in debt to them.
Most bad marriages work that way. The wife thinks, "This guy was a lonely mess before I came along, who knows where he'd be if it wasn't for me rescuing him! Probably dead!" Meanwhile, the guy thinks, "I'm the breadwinner, I gave her this nice house, if not for me she could have wound up with some scumbag who beats her! Probably to death!" Both of them think they're the martyr in the relationship, selflessly sacrificing while the other does nothing but take. Each is shocked and pissed off when they find out that the other person is working from a different balance sheet.
"Oh, man, I just realized that I don't have to put up with your stupid shit! This changes everything!"
Your workplace is probably like this as well -- everybody in your department thinks they heroically keep the place afloat with their tireless labor, while the boss thinks you're a bunch of slackers for whom the company generously puts food on the table. You're shocked and insulted when the company heartlessly announces layoffs ("Where's the loyalty?!?"), and the boss is shocked and insulted when any of you quit without notice ("That ungrateful bastard!").
Hey, do you remember that Simpsons "Poochie" episode where Comic Book Guy is outraged about the declining quality of the show, and the following exchange happens?
Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.
Bart: For what? They're giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.
Comic Book Guy: Worst episode ever.
And then Cartman says something about sucking his balls and then Bender farts. I don't know my cartoons.
Guess how many people have written to me saying that I "owe" them because I wrote a free article they didn't like. It's in the thousands.
So Keep in Mind ...
The key is that in every case, the other person desperately wants you to be in debt to them. Because, you guessed it, that would give them power over you (who has the power, the bank or the borrower?).
But, again, they can't be up front about how or why they perceive you to be in their debt -- they just get angry when you fail to "pay." And once again, you're left with someone who's pissed off at you for what to you seems like no reason at all.
"But I did the dishes! You owe me sex!"
"I HAVE NO IDEA WHO YOU ARE."