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.
5It's Not What You Said, It's What You Didn't Say
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 ...
4You Accidentally Asserted Power Over Them
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.