#2. You Wasted Their Time
All you did was email your boss with a simple question or idle thought, and she jumped down your throat! What a bitch!
Then, later that night, you popped into your buddy's house unannounced, and like one minute later he's all acting annoyed, opening the door and saying, "Well, good to see you!" like he's ushering you out! What a dick!
Or maybe you're on the other end of the situation in the first entry -- you messaged an acquaintance with a "happy birthday" and you got cold, dead silence in return. But you know they ain't no goddamned introvert, they talk to a hundred people a day! What a hell-shitting cockhitler!
And I know you didn't commit suicide because you're too busy to do it!
So What's the Problem?
If you've been paying attention up to this point, you're already trying to figure out how this ties in to the power thing. Well, in the first example, the boss was way too busy to put up with your bullshit. In the second, your friend clearly was too busy to watch you smoke a bong and talk about Breaking Bad for three hours. In the third, the dude got too many birthday wishes to reply to them all. But in each case, due to the complicated power dynamics at play, they weren't allowed to openly say so.
After all, that would be effectively saying that they've prioritized some other interaction over yours. That would mean A) they have the power to dictate your interactions and B) other people have power to get in line ahead of you. "I'm important and busy, you are just one of the lesser peasants begging for my attention."
"Oh yeah? Well, what about now?"
Wait, it gets worse. Because at the exact same moment they made you feel powerless, they also feel like the powerless party, because they're so besieged by people making demands on their time. That's why they got pissed at you. Sure, you can say, "Well, being busy is no excuse to be a dick!" just as a billionaire could tell a homeless guy that losing a pair of shoes is nothing to get upset about. An extreme shortage is never something to get emotional about when you're not the one suffering from it.
I'll use myself as an example. The last article I wrote got about 6 million hits, and I swear that every one of those people messaged me four or five times each, many demanding that I personally debate them on the subject point by point. At the exact same time, the movie they made about my ridiculous book became available for download, which as you can imagine generated a whole second stream of messages that spilled across my personal email, my work email, my personal Facebook account, my two work Facebook accounts, Yahoo Instant Messenger, the Cracked forums, the Cracked forums private messaging system, Twitter, and my cellphone. Checking all of those channels is a frantic blur of sorting and prioritizing and deleting, knowing that at any given moment I'm causing disappointment and frustration to dozens of people who are waiting to hear from me, many of whom can't do their jobs until they do.
"Oh my God, you fucking douche, just pick up the phone and greenlight this butt sex joke."
Now, quick show of hands: How many of you actually feel sorry for me? OK, now how many of you were annoyed by the above paragraph and interpreted it as one of those stealth boasts we mentioned before ("Boohoo! I'm too famous! Waaah!")? Yeah, that's what I thought. And that's the point -- there's no good way for a busy person to tell you they don't have time for you. It always comes with the implication that they're a bigger deal than you are. And as we established earlier, the only thing worse is to say nothing.
So Keep in Mind ...
The person who is being terse with you, or who is clearly screening your calls, is often in an impossible situation. They're coming off as flaunting their power to screen you, while from their point of view, they have no power at all -- they spend all of their time seeing to the needs of the crowd. So, the most good-hearted of busy people just try to deal with your thing, quickly answering your question while silently gritting their teeth and thinking, "It would have taken him five seconds to Google this."
"Yes, it is fucking real. Why did you need me to tell you that?"
If that sounds like they're making you pay for someone else's behavior, well, they are. That's the way it works -- prior offenses count, even when it was someone else who committed them. The cashier at Arby's got annoyed when you pointed out that their logo looks like a dick because she hears that joke six times a day. Remember: You are nothing more than one link in somebody else's chain of human interactions. A chain that occasionally rubs them raw.
#1. You Assumed That Because You Were OK With a Situation, Everybody Was
This is the one that is by far the most likely to sneak up on you. Also, it exists at all levels -- between roommates, friends, spouses, ethnic groups, nations.
In the office, this usually turns up as some pointless new rule that seems to come out of the fucking blue -- a memo says from now on nobody can adjust the thermostat without asking a supervisor. Another announces that the Christmas party is now the "winter holiday" party. In a relationship, it's the partner suddenly deciding after several years that they no longer want Friday to be meatloaf night.
You get the idea -- everything was going along absolutely perfectly fine, the system was running as intended, and suddenly they're making these arbitrary demands. You then hear yourself saying things like:
"Why do they have to rock the boat just when things were going good?"
"Why complain now, when we've always done it this way?"
"I don't have a problem, you're the one who's screaming!"
"But you love Bat Out of Hell!"
So What's the Problem?
Let's start small: In a previous article, we talked about the classic male/female conflict over not putting the toilet seat down. The reason it's such a sore subject in some couples is that, as we explained, it demonstrates that the man simply isn't factoring in the woman's needs at all. It's not that he intentionally wants to make her life worse, or that he hates her or feels any negative emotion whatsoever. Why would he? The seat is where he likes it, he has the power, everything is fine. It's not even that he disagrees on the issue; it's that he refuses to acknowledge it as an issue at all.
This will happen to you. You will be on one side of a conflict that does not feel like a conflict to you, because that is the conflict. Trust me, there's a great chance you'll be oblivious to it until it's too late. Entire governments have fallen this way.
Let me use myself as an example again, so it doesn't come off like I'm accusing anyone:
That's me on the left.
After being raised as an evangelical Christian, I for years assumed that Christianity was the default -- there were Christians, and then there were weirdos. I was shocked when in college I found that some people get offended when you tell them, for instance, that their recovery from surgery was a "miracle." "No," they'd say, "it was actually the result of three months of excruciating rehab, incredibly expensive doctors, and a loving and supportive family who worked extra jobs to pay for it all." I sneered and thought of them as overly sensitive PC hippie atheists, because I never considered how I would feel if, say, a Scientologist insisted that the ghost of L. Ron Hubbard wrote my books for me and that I owed all of my success to him. Enjoy your eternal hellfire, Zooey!
Now check the headlines -- any controversy having to do with gay marriage, or school prayer, or any social hot-button issue involves the group who's in control acting just like I did -- baffled that any other groups are dissatisfied with the "normal" way of doing things ("Oh, so now we can't keep the TEN COMMANDMENTS monument in the COURTHOUSE? But it's ALWAYS BEEN THERE!"). And in many cases, the baffled people don't feel any more malice than the guy did when he left the toilet seat up. My favorite blog in the world gives some great examples where opponents of desegregation or gay marriage have always insisted that they don't hate the group whose rights they're opposing. In many cases, they mean it honestly -- "I'm not angry at anyone, I just want to leave things the way they are. Which incidentally involves me having all of the power."
"I don't know what they're bitching about. Our taxes and health care are just fine."
So Keep in Mind ...
It's easier than you think to find yourself on the wrong side of this in your everyday life. You like to stay in on weekends, your girlfriend/boyfriend likes to go out. After a year or so, they give up and stop trying to get you off the sofa every Saturday. You interpret this as the relationship settling in just how you like it; meanwhile, they're so miserable that they're rehearsing their breakup speech. "But, but ... everything was going great!"
Sure it was. For you. You didn't perceive yourself as being in a position of power because that is the main advantage of power -- that you don't have to think about it. You don't think about money when you're eating at a restaurant. But you sure as fuck think about it when you're too poor to eat.
That's not a cupcake.
And out of all of the pitfalls on this list, this is by far the worst, because it means that you can absolutely make other people hate you without lifting a finger. Hell, you can do it without even knowing it. Which means that, unfortunately, avoiding it requires constant vigilance.
It's exhausting, I know. But hey, at least you'll have fewer people screaming at you.
David Wong is the Executive Editor of Cracked.com and a NYT bestselling author, his long-awaited new novel is about cybernetic criminals and other futuristic shit like that. Pre-order it at Amazon, B&N, BAM!, Indiebound, iTunes, or Powell's. You can read the first seven chapters for free by clicking below:
For more from David, check out 5 Ways Powerful People Trick You Into Hating Protesters and 5 Helpful Answers To Society's Most Uncomfortable Questions.